Cleveland Cavaliers Flashback: Campy Russell

Feb 17, 2012; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers television analyst Campy Russell during a game against the the Miami Heat at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Campy Russell selected the University of Michigan to play his college ball at, after being highly touted as the best prep player in the nation at Pontiac Central High School. Russell was selected twice as the state of Michigan’s Player of the Year and was named MVP in three prominent post-season high school all-star games. So needless to say, the young phenom had high expectations starting out with the Wolverines in 1972.

In those times, many schools did not believe in starting freshmen on the varsity team. But in 1972, Russell began his collegiate career, living up to the great promise he had shown by shattering all of the school’s frosh team scoring and rebounding records. As a sophomore, Russell joined the varsity squad and was second in scoring, averaging 18.4 points, and first in rebounding at 9.6 RPG. His junior year, Russell was a consensus All-American and was named co-captain in leading Michigan to the Big Ten title. Russell averaged a Big Ten leading 23.7 points and was second in the conference with 11.3 RPG. Unfortunately, the Wolverines fell 72-70 to eventual champion Marquette in the Elite Eight regional final.

Following this hard loss in the NCAA Tournament, Russell was faced with a tough decision: whether to turn pro or to return for his senior year and graduate. Lured by the call of the NBA, Russell filed with the NBA as a hardship case, allowing him to be drafted. He was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the eighth selection of the first round and signed a $1 million contract. Russell later stated that he regretted not staying in school, as Michigan basically had the same team returning and the prospects of a national championship were high. Russell quickly fit in with the Cavs, as he had spent summers playing ball with Austin Carr and Jim Brewer in New York City.

As was the practice in the seventies, the Cavs brought Russell along slowly his first season, averaging only 11 minutes, yet he made the most of them. Extrapolating his stats over 36 minutes of playing time, he would have averaged 20.2 points and 7.3 rebounds. The following 1975-76 season captured the hearts of fans for this young franchise and made them the talk of Ohio and basketball fans across the nation. This season would galvanize the Wine and Gold in the Cavs history books for eternity.

Russelll, along with Austin Carr, Jim Chones, Bobby “Bingo” Smith and Nate Thurmond, secured the Cavs first ever Central Division title, as well as their first trip to the playoffs. After starting the season out with a poor 6-11 record, the Cavs, behind the newly acquired Thurmond, went 43-22 the rest of the way, building an intensely intimate relationship with fans that flocked to the old Richfield Coliseum. With Russell coming off the bench giving them instant offense, the Cavs won numerous contests in the final minutes and often on the final shot of games. Coach Bill Fitch was named the coach of the year for the team’s stunning performance.

The Cavs first opponent in the playoffs was the Washington Bullets, who they had just battled for the Central Division title, winning by just one game. So there was no love lost between these two teams. Russell provided the Cavs with a lift throughout the seven-game series that seesawed back and forth, averaging 14 points and six rebounds. An NBA playoff record 21,564 deafening fans packed the Coliseum on April 29, and the final game of the series turned out to be a classic in a classic series. After 16 lead changes and eight ties, the game came down to the final seconds. With the score tied at 85 in the final seconds, Jim Cleamons passed the ball to Dick Snyder, who drove past the intimidating Wes Unseld and threw a high runner off the glass, giving the Cavs the lead at 87-85. With time running out, Thurmond knocked the ball out of Elvin Hayes’ hands and Phil Chenier’s last-ditch attempt fell short. With Jim Chones breaking his foot, the Cavs hopes were dashed in a tough series against the Celtics, with Russell contributing the same 14/6 averages over the six-game series.

For the next four seasons, Russell would make significant contributions. In September of 1989, the Cavaliers, attempting to re-tool, traded their second leading scorer in Russell to the New York Knicks for forward Bill Robinzine. Robizine played in just eight games with Cleveland and was re-traded a month later along with a 1983 first-round draft pick (Derek Harper) and a 1986 first-rounder (Roy Tarpley) to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Richard Washington and Jerome Whitehead. Washington appeared in only 87 games for the Cavaliers and Whitehead just three.

Russell enjoyed two productive seasons for New York from 1980 to 1982, averaging 15.2 points and 3.7 rebounds, making the playoffs both seasons. In August of 1982, he unfortunately tore knee ligaments and cartilage, forcing him to sit out the next two seasons. Russell returned to the Cavs during the 1984-85 season to play three more games off the bench for the team before announcing his retirement. For his career, Russell averaged 15.8 points and 4.8 rebounds, while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 77.2 percent from the line. Russell was named to the Cavs 30th Anniversary team in 2000. Today, Russell works in the Cavaliers’ front office as Director of Alumni Relations and is part of the Wine and Gold game telecast crew.

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