CAZZIE RUSSELL: FORMER NO. 1 NBA PICK BROUGHT SCAD TO REDLANDS

This is part of a series of mini-Redlands Connections. This is Part 3 of the series, Quick Visits. Magic Johnson and John Wooden showed up at the University of Redlands as part of a Convocation Series. This piece on Tom Flores was another one. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, former NBA player John Block, legendary high school coach Willie West showed up. There are others. Cazzie Russell, for instance, came to Redlands with an NCAA Division III basketball team from Savannah, Ga. Russell, out of Michigan, was the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Today’s feature: None other than Cazzie Russell.

Truth is, there aren’t many NBA No. 1 draft choices that pass through Redlands.

Not just a No. 1 draft pick. We’re talking No. 1 overall.

Truth be told, Shaquille O’Neal showed up at the University of Redlands to film a commercial. Model Cindy Crawford was on that scene, too. It had been written up in the local press — nothing much to it.

Cazzie Russell comes to mind.

The Chicago native was a three-time All-American at Michigan in the mid-1960s.

At 54 years of age, Russell was coaching Savannah (Ga.) College of Arts & Design (SCAD).

In December 1998, SCAD came out west for a three-game trip to play Westmont College (near Santa Barbara), Univ. La Verne and Univ. Redlands.

“This school was founded in 1979 with 71 students, said Russell, “and a credit card.”

By 1998, it had grown to a campus of 4,000 students.

At the time of his hiring, SCAD’s Chairman of the Board was none other than Dr. Bernie Casey, who had been an NFL All-Pro receiver. Onetime major league pitching hero Luis Tiant was the school’s baseball coach.

As for Russell, hoops fans might recall that 6-foot-5 pure shooter who helped lead the Wolverines to the 1964 and 1965 Final Four, losing in the 1966 Regionals to eventual finalist Kentucky. A short time later, the New York Knicks made Russell the No. 1 pick.

Cazzie Russell

Cazzie Russell, a No. 1 overall draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966, coached a small college team from the visitor’s bench in 1998 at the University of Redlands (photo by Savannah College of Art & Design).

Thirty years later, including an NBA title in 1970 — Knicks over the Lakers — Russell was sitting in an Ontario hotel, the midway point between La Verne and Redlands.

“I love coaching here,” he says. “Nobody expects anything from us. We’re a bunch of cartoonists, graphic designers, architects. We come into another school’s gym and they’re thinking they’ve got us.

“When the get us on the court, we fool ‘em.”

Someone else could write the connections between Russell had with a variety of NBA legends, including teammates though plenty of opponents that included Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, Nate Thurmond and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek.

“I just saw Oscar two or three weeks ago,” said Russell. “I remember when he came to my high school and tried to get me to go to Cincinnati, his old school.”

Russell was traded by the Knicks to the San Francisco Warriors for legendary rebounder Jerry Lucas in 1971.

Three decades later at SCAD, Russell laid the groundwork for recruiting, basketball, getting his team a chance for an education at an NCAA Division 3 institution.

No one sees us at practice, he says. “We’re working on defense, shooting, fundamentals … just like everyone else, I suppose.”

At SCAD, Russell’s recruits are playing for a former No. 1 draft pick, a onetime NBA champion who played against the best basketball players in the world.

“A lot of kids are in awe of the fact that I was drafted No. 1,” he said.

Teaching those fundamentals at practice, he said, “is like trying to introduce them to a new cereal.”

That list of overall number one picks — O’Neal, Kareem, Robertson, Baylor, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes or Bill Walton — does NOT include Michael Jordan or Chamberlain, Russell or Karl Malone.

Russell’s in rare company.

Joked Russell: “I don’t want to get into the difference in the amount of money we made then and what they make now.”

During his post-playing career, Russell coached at every level — high school, CBA, assistant in the NBA, collegiately in both NAIA and NCAA — before settling in at SCAD.

In its three-game swing out west in 1998, the Bees swept Westmont, La Verne and Redlands.

It seemed strange to see Russell seated on the bench as SCAD warmup up to play the Bulldogs inside Currier Gymnasium on that December 16, 1998 night.

It was a far cry from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum when, playing for the Warriors, the smooth-shooting Russell was swishing shots in a rare win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Averaging 15 points a game over a 10-year career, Russell not only played in the New York and Golden State, but also the Lakers and Chicago Bulls. When the Lakers signed him away from the Warriors, according to the rules of the day, Russell’s former team received draft compensation.

That pick turned out to be Robert Parrish, the 7-foot center later traded by the Warriors to the Boston Celtics.

As for SCAD basketball, Russell’s coaching career in Savannah lasted 13 seasons. The school cancelled the sport in 2009.

Russell was as well-versed in spiritual necessities as he was setting up a jump shot. He seemed to make as much joy in reporting that God was a huge factor in his life.

“If God is first in your life,” he told me, “then you’re going to be successful. I’m not talking about making money. I’m talking about faith in everything you do.

You can run from God, he said, “but you can’t hide. When I decided I was going to be obedient in 1989, it was the best thing I ever did.”

“I’ve got no plans to leave.”

 

 

ELGIN BAYLOR STATUE AT STAPLES WAS REDLANDS REMINDER

When the Los Angeles Lakers unveiled the statue of NBA legend Elgin Baylor at Staples Center on April 6, there must’ve been nostalgic reminders about the moments when he was twisting his way to the basket against the likes of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

In those Southern California days, Baylor was as highly regarded as Dodger legend Sandy Koufax, the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, UCLA’s John Wooden and his center, Lew Alcindor, not to mention Baylor’s teammate, Jerry West.

Baylor, in fact, came to Redlands.

Elgin Baylor drives vs Celtics Bill Russell cropped
Elgin Baylor, 22, goes up against Boston great Bill Russell in a 1960s duel between the Lakers and Celtics. On April 6, 2018, the Lakers honored Baylor with a statue outside Staples Center (Photo by nba.com).

It was back in the early 1970s when Baylor, along with UC Riverside coach John Masi, Gail Goodrich, his father, Gail, Sr., plus Redlands coaches ran a weeklong clinic at Currier Gymnasium in that early 1970s setting.

“After the last night of camp,” said Sal Valdivia, a lifetime Beaumont resident, “I invited them to my parents’ house for dinner – and they came.”

Baylor, Goodrich, Sr. and Masi, along with Redlands coaches, showed up at the Valdivias’ home, corner of 10th and Palm in nearby Beaumont.

Gail, Jr. had been invited, too, “but he had something else going on,” said Valdivia, who had been a Beaumont player, later its coach before spending 25 seasons as the assistant to Mt. San Jacinto College legend John Chambers.

Goodrich, Sr., in fact, was an All-American at USC in 1939.

Baylor and Goodrich, Jr., of course, were the headliners at the Redlands camp. Both are NBA Hall of Famers. Valdivia said he took part in the camp’s scrimmage.

“It was the highlight of my life,” said Valdivia, who spent 32 years teaching juveniles in Beaumont.

On that night at 10th and Palm, Valdivia’s mother, Palmita, made tacos, enchiladas, rice and beans.

“And beer,” said Sal, laughing.

That 5-day Redlands camp had been incredible, said Valdivia.

On the final day inside historic Currier Gym, the younger Goodrich gathered about 100 campers around the basket. He told them, “Here’s what shooting 500 times a day will do for you.”

Valdivia said the Lakers’ sharpshooter told them he’d take 50 shots from different spots on the court – corners, wings and top of the key – “and he guaranteed he’d make 90 percent.”

His recollection: After nailing a shot from the corner, Goodrich missed from the wing, then proceeded to drain 46 straight.

Goodrich
Laker legend, Gail Goodrich, hit 48 out of 50 long-range shots at a youth basketball clinic at the University of Redlands in the early 1970s (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Said Valdivia: “He made 48 out of 50. The kids were going nuts. They were jazzed. He hit nothing but net.”

Baylor, who retired just prior to the Lakers’ NBA championship season in 1972, served as an executive for the Los Angeles Clippers for 22 years. During his 14-year playing career, having been selected as the NBA’s first overall pick in 1958, he averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds.

During his on-court days, Baylor was associated with a Laker franchise that reached the NBA finals on eight occasions – only to lose against the Boston Celtics seven times. The other time came in 1970s when the New York Knicks beat L.A.

Baylor became the sixth Laker honored with a statue. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Alcindor), West, Shaquille O’Neal and announcer Chick Hearn, all having preceded Baylor.

All of which reminded Valdivia of that 1970s time at Redlands, plus the night at his parents’ home when his presence created a festive occasion.

“I told my mom I was going to invite them,” said Valdivia, “but that I didn’t think they’d come. I was surprised when they did.”