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NBA legend Cazzie Russell joins women’s basketball staff

Apr 3, 2020

There have been 73 No. 1 draft picks in the history of the National Basketball Association. Flagler College is lucky to have a member of that elite fraternity pacing the Flagler Gymnasium sidelines.

Cazzie Russell, the first overall pick of the 1966 NBA Draft to the New York Knicks, has joined the Flagler College women's basketball program as Special Assistant to the Head Coach.

After spending the 2019-2020 campaign in a volunteer capacity, the Saints officially welcomed the professional hoops legend to head coach Mo Smith's staff on March 1.

"It is a blessing having Coach Russell on staff," said Smith, who just completed his first season at the helm of the women's basketball program. "It is amazing the wealth of knowledge and experience that he possesses. It has been valuable for me and our student-athletes to learn from his experience playing at the highest level and being a college head coach."

"I am very grateful for this wonderful opportunity to share some of the experiences that I have been blessed with," said Russell. "I was fortunate enough to have a good career, in college, in the pros, and coaching. At some point in your life you pray for an opportunity to share with others and I am grateful to [Director of Athletics] Jud [Damon] and Coach Smith for that opportunity."

Russell enjoyed an incredibly successful professional career. Russell was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team in 1967. He became a world champion in 1970 as New York outlasted the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals – a game often remembered by Willis Reed hobbling onto the court during pregame warmups to inspire his charges.

Russell was an All-Star in 1972 while playing with the Golden State Warriors. That season, Russell averaged a career-best 21.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.

Russell concluded his 12-year NBA career after stints with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls. He scored over 12,000 points, grabbed over 3,000 rebounds and dished out over 1,800 assists in his pro career.

A Chicago native, Russell played his college ball at the University of Michigan, where he led the Wolverines to three straight Big Ten championships and consecutive trips to the Final Four in 1964 and 1965.

Russell was a two-time consensus All-American and averaged 30.8 points per game during his senior season in 1966 when he was named the College Basketball Player of the Year. His No. 33 hangs in the rafters of Crisler Arena.

But despite all of those accomplishments, it is not the accolades of which Russell is most proud. Instead, Russell is most proud of the God-given obedience that opened doors for him along the way.

"When I look back, I was obedient," Russell said. "When the Lord called me to Michigan, I was obedient. I am grateful to have been discovered in a PE class my freshman year [of high school] and taught how to play the game. One day me and two other boys were asked to stay after class by the man who turned out to be my high school basketball coach. All he wanted was for the three of us to take turns laying the ball in. I put every one of my shots in the square. He let the other two guys go and kept me. He told me that I should come out for the basketball team and that I would grow to be 6-foot-5 (Russell stood just over 6-feet tall at the time).

"I began learning the fundamentals, conditioning, becoming stronger, developing skills like the hook shot and short jumper. I worked on my game, ran the park in combat boots, jumped rope, grew. The Lord had me in His hands and three years later, I have a scholarship to go to college and later, an opportunity to play in the pros."

Russell transitioned to coaching upon the end of his playing career, spending nearly a decade as head coach of several Continental Basketball Association (CBA) franchises. In the final game of the 1982 CBA championship series, Russell briefly came out of retirement to suit up for his Lancaster Lightning squad and guided the team to the title. He coached four other franchises in the CBA and Global Basketball Association before spending two seasons as assistant coach with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks from 1988 to 1990.

So how does a former NBA great end up on the sidelines in the Old Coast? The answer to that question lies with a very special relationship between Russell and Flagler College Director of Athletics, Jud Damon.

"Cazzie and I worked together for eight years (2000-2008) at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and it was really a great time in our lives," said Damon. "We hit it off right from the start. We became good friends and have remained so for 20 years now. 

"I admire Cazzie very much," Damon added. "Not only is he one of the greatest basketball players who's ever stepped on a court, but he's also an outstanding teacher and coach, and he's just an amazing individual in many, many ways. Our reunion here at Flagler is a great blessing for me personally and I know his presence will be wonderful for the Athletics staff and the College community as a whole – especially for the student-athletes with whom he'll work."

"Jud and I go way back," Russell said. "At the time that he applied [at SCAD], we had an interim AD. I had been there for a few years and I told the President that we needed a full-time AD. I knew Jud's caliber so I put in a plug for him. He did a great job as the AD at SCAD."

All told, Russell spent 13 seasons as head men's basketball coach at SCAD until the school eliminated men's basketball in 2009. He served as an assistant coach at Armstrong State University until the school was absorbed by Georgia Southern University in 2017.

Russell and Damon maintained their close friendship throughout. When Smith was hired on at Flagler from Peach Belt Conference rival Georgia College in the spring of 2019, it didn't take much convincing from Damon for Smith to jump on an opportunity to hire the NBA legend.

"My first meeting with Coach Russell was arranged through Mr. Damon and took place during lunch at Ruby Tuesday in Savannah," Smith said. "To be honest, I initially thought that he wouldn't have the slightest interest in traveling over two hours to Flagler from Savannah to come help with the team. But as we talked, and both Mr. Damon and I insisted that he would be a great benefit to our program and to the College community, he said that he would come and see if it was something he wanted to do.

"When he came to our first few practices, he sat back and took notes and really didn't say too much," Smith added. "As time went on, he decided that he would love to help and the rest is history. He jumped all the way in without turning back."

"I didn't know if I wanted to coach anymore," Russell said. "I felt like my time had passed and I didn't want to take anything away from anyone. My passion is coaching and making people better, but when Armstrong closed, I got into individual coaching and really began to relax and enjoy my time. I asked the Lord where I was headed.

"When Jud and [Coach Smith] came up in August, they asked about me coming to consult and help Coach Smith out," Russell added. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Mo doesn't need any help! He's been successful for 10 years at Georgia College.' They said to come down and just talk to the girls. I prayed about it. Next thing I knew I was on the bench with Coach Smith. He's been a real blessing to allow me to come and help and the girls have been wonderful listening to the old guy.

"This is a blessing to be at Flagler. If it had been any other situation, and if it wasn't for Jud and Coach Smith, I would have said no."

Russell's larger-than-life presence and wealth of experience figures to be critical as the Saints look toward the 2020-2021 season with aspirations of returning to the upper echelon of the PBC. The program's first NCAA Division II postseason bid is also on the checklist. That will take a truly special season, and as one of the few men in history that can call himself a No. 1 overall pick, Russell knows all about special.

"First off, he's a great person," Smith said of Russell. "He's a devout Christian and lives out those principles and values daily. Coach is a stickler for details and the fundamentals of the game. He's a great teacher and has a unique way of breaking things down in ways players can easily understand and apply. He also has an exceptional defensive mind. I remember the teams that he coached at SCAD and how good they were defensively. It's been great for him to bring that same expertise to our staff."

"The best is yet to come," said Russell. "This is a wonderful opportunity for me to help and encourage. I have been blessed throughout my life and I look forward to sharing my experiences.

"I trust that the girls will come in next year and realize that they have someone [in Coach Smith] who really cares about them, will push them, loves the Lord, and has two girls of his own so he understands. Coach Smith knows I am not a yes man and will get in his ear, but he knows what he is doing and I am grateful that he has allowed me to come aboard."

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