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Cazzie Russell may never truly retire from the game he loves.
It’s why, at 77 years old, the former college player of the year at Michigan, No. 1 overall draft pick by the New York Knicks, owner of an NBA championship ring and an NBA All-Star sold his house in Savannah, Ga., and moved to St. Augustine to work with the Flagler College women’s team as a special assistant to coach Maurice Smith in 2019.
“Retire? Why would I do that?” Russell said with a gentle laugh last week after the Saints beat Augusta University 73-60 at the Flagler Gym to improve to 10-8. “This is my passion, enjoying the game and working with these young ladies.”
Russell was hired in 2019 by Flagler athletic director Jud Damon, who had been the AD at the Savannah College of Art and Design, an NAIA school when Russell was the coach there from 1996-2009.
SCAD dropped basketball for financial reasons and Russell went to nearby Armstrong State as an assistant coach. But Armstrong also dropped basketball in 2017 after merging with Georgia Southern and two years later, after Damon hired Smith to coach the Saints, he had an idea.
“Cazzie had made such an impression on me at SCAD and I asked Maurice how he’d feel about having him here on a part-time basis working with the team,” Damon said.
Damon and Smith drove to Savannah to have lunch with Russell and pitch the idea. Russell, who longed to get back in a gym, hear the bounce of a basketball and guide young people again, agreed to give it a try and said he’d come to St. Augustine three times a week to work with the team.
That schedule didn’t last long.
Russell helping improve fundamentals
“He fell in love with the team, the school and the city,” Smith said of Russell. “He started coming every day. Then the school found a place for him to stay on campus. Then he sold his house in Savannah, bought one here, and here he is.”
Here he is … one of the NBA stars of the 1960s and 1970s, spoken in the same breath as Frazier, Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson, West, Hawkins, Thurmond, Barry, Maravich and Baylor, now working with the woman’s team at an NCAA Division II school with an enrollment of 2,400 students in the Oldest City.
And he’s loving every minute of it, even if there are times he’s unsure of himself working with female players for the first time.
“The jury might still be out,” he said. “When I was at Armstrong State, I’d watch their practices and wonder what it would be like to coach girls?”
Let the Flagler players offer the answer.
“He’s done so much for me,” said senior guard Jaizana Mathis. “On fundamentals, footwork … he‘s changed all of our games.”
Senior guard Tori Pearce said Russell’s wealth of experience has helped her from the mental side of the game.
“He’s improved my basketball IQ,” she said. “He’s made me look at the game in a different way. It’s not just shooting, but shooting at what he tells us is the ‘apex,’ how to pivot and shoot, shooting off the dribble. He’s been amazing.”
When Smith told the team Russell would be an assistant, he told them of his lengthy NBA credentials. But it was lost on women in their teens and early 20s whose parents might not have been old enough to see Russell play on TV.
Smith had some advice: go to YouTube and do a search for Cazzie Russell. The videos are there, some in grainy, pre-high def clips, but showing the smooth shooting style, moves without the ball and passing that made him one of the best small forwards in the NBA.
“Once I saw those videos, I saw all of the things he was trying to teach us,” Pearce said. “It was like, ‘OK … I can do this.’”
Players eager to soak in knowledge
Russell found out quickly that he had to talk to female athletes differently than males, but he said that actually was positive. He said the Flagler players he works with park their egos at the door to the gym and are not only receptive to teaching but are appreciative when they take it to game day and see what they've learned play out on the court.
“They’re not too proud to accept criticism and ideas on how to improve and I like that in them,” he said. “They’re eager to get better and they want to be successful. And to see the look on their faces when they take something you’ve been teaching them and see it working for them is a tremendous feeling.”
Smith said it’s not all about basketball. He found that Russell had just as much to dispense about life lessons as dribbling and shooting, and he’s been the beneficiary.
“Cazzie has this wealth of knowledge, a wisdom,” Smith said. “He’s become a spiritual mentor to me and the team. He has this deep faith and a passion to help people and he just pours it into the team and anyone he comes across.”
Russell was a college and pro star
Russell first made his mark in basketball at Michigan, leading the Wolverines to three Big Ten titles in a row from 1964-66. He averaged 30.8 points per game as a senior and was named the national player of the year.
Russell played for four NBA teams, averaging 15.1 points for the Knicks, Golden State, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls in 12 seasons. He earned a championship ring with the Knicks in 1970 when he scored 11.5 per game while playing with a legendary cast that included Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere.
Russell then averaged more than 20 points twice in three seasons for Golden State after the blockbuster trade the Knicks made in swapping him for Jerry Lucas in 1971. He moved to L.A. and averaged 14.6 points per game in three seasons with the Lakers while playing with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gail Goodrich, Connie Hawkins and Pat Riley.
Russell played his final NBA season with the 1977-78 Bulls, where he was teammates with Jacksonville University star and NBA Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore and Norm Van Lier.
But that was only a dozen years of his life. Russell has coached for most of the last 40 years, beginning when he led the Lancaster (Pa.) Lightning to the 1982 CBA championship, with stops along the way in Wyoming, Ohio and Michigan with teams in the CBA and the Global Basketball Association.
His last CBA stop was with a team in Columbus, Ohio, which abruptly moved to Shreveport, La. in the early 1990s. Russell didn't want to make the move and instead became the coach at Centennial High School in Columbus.
Nearly 700 miles to the South, former NFL football player Bernie Casey, who had a successful acting career and also was an artist and published books of poetry, was on the board of trustees at Savannah College of Art and Design, which was looking for a new basketball coach.
Casey, whose hometown was Columbus, learned that Russell was coaching in Columbus, his hometown.
Casey contacted Russell and invited him for an interview. Russell said his wife Myrna asked one question.
"We had been through a very tough winter in 1996 and she wanted to know what the weather was like in Savannah," he said. "Once I told her, she was ready to go."
Russell took a team that had gone 20-30 the previous two seasons and went 18-7 in the first year. He and his wife loved the lifestyle in Savannah and he enjoyed coaching at the small-college level.
Russell was there for 14 years before SCAD dropped basketball for financial reasons. He thought he had a place at Armstrong State but that school also dropped basketball.
Flagler helped fill a void
Russell admits that he was languishing a bit at that time. His wife of nearly 30 years passed away in 2014, and golf wasn’t filling all of the lonely hours.
The call from Damon in 2019 was just what Russell needed.
“I needed to get out of Savannah,” he said. “I jumped at the chance to come to Flagler. The school and St. Augustine hooked me in, line and sinker.”
Russell coaches and teaches in a low-key, understated manner and Smith said he never tries to play the “I was an NBA star” card.
“He’s a humble, modest man,” Smith said. “The main reason we had the girls Google him and go to YouTube was to believe us when we told them how good Cazzie was in the NBA. He wasn’t going to say it himself. The girls really respect him and really try to buy into what he’s teaching them.”
Russell said there’s not much he needs to tell Smith about coaching.
“I love Coach Mo,” he said. “He was very successful at Georgia College and he’s successful here. He’s doing a great job.”
And for what it’s worth since Russell and Smith began working together in 2019-20, the Saints have improved each year in turnovers committed, shooting percentage, free throw percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and net points off turnovers.
“They love getting better,” Russell said of the team. “They really work at it.”
Enjoying First Coast life
Russell said he’s taken the time to enjoy what the First Coast has to offer in terms of weather and other activities. He’s an avid golfer and is a member of an association in Palm Coast called the Eagles, who play at various courses in the area.
He also gets together with his old friend Artis Gilmore, and one Flagler women’s game had NBA royalty in attendance when Gilmore drove former Boston Celtics player Sam Jones, who passed away recently, to St. Augustine to watch the Saints.
Russell said he enjoys watching the NBA on TV and has become a Warriors fan.
“I love watching the way they move the ball, so unselfish,” he said.
But he admits to having a soft spot in his heart for the Knicks, and when the weather is cold he often wears a Knicks jacket commemorating their 1970 title.
Russell also laments the Knicks' lack of a championship since the 1973 team and no NBA Finals appearances since 1999.
“I’ll probably always be a Knick,” he said. “They drafted me No. 1 and they came me my chance. I guess it must be tough to get the right pieces together but a lot of other teams are doing it."
For right now, Russell has his team: the Flagler Saints.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Cazzie Russell has been a very special assistant for Flagler College women's basketball team