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February 18, 2013For the thousands of Michigan basketball fans who have walked through the sparkling new Crisler Center doors this year, their first glimpse at the beautiful new facilities is an unforgettable experience.
The first thing you see - and it's definitely hard to miss - is a cascading, two-story waterfall, trickling down a blue backdrop with a stark maize 'M' emblazoned in the middle.
Gliding up a tall escalator, you then enter the new concourse - and that's when you see it: the giant mural celebrating the life and career of Michigan legend Cazzie Russell.
By now, most Michigan fans have at least seen a photo of the mural. But, somehow, the Michigan athletic department was able to keep the man that is depicted there in the dark about it.
Russell, who resides in Savannah, Ga., returned to Ann Arbor to see the new Crisler Center for the first time last weekend, as part of a days-long rededication ceremony.
"They just told me the arena had been renovated and they were having a dedication ceremony," Russell said. "They didn't give me any details."
Friday afternoon, before a banquet held on the court for season ticket holders, Russell, former guard Glen Rice and athletic director Dave Brandon toured the facilities - and only Brandon knew about the surprise awaiting Russell at the top of the elevator.
"With all the stuff out there on social media, I guess Cazzie doesn't spend a lot of time on social media," Brandon said. "I was worried that the secret would be given away, but he had no idea.
"I said the day we had the meeting and came up with the plan for what was going to be at the top of the escalator, 'I have one thing I insist upon, and that is that I want to be there when Cazzie sees it for the first time.' And I was. I walked him over to it, and it was a moment I won't forget."
As they were approaching the mural, Brandon had a message for Russell.
"He walks in and see the two-story water fall and escalator, and he is just like, 'Woah,'" Brandon said. "Then we got up to the top, and I said, 'We wanted to create two Wows for our fans when they come to watch us play: one is this waterfall entrance, but I want to make sure you know what the other Wow is.' And I walked him over and he saw himself up there, and it was magical. That's what we wanted. We wanted him to feel the sense of loyalty and appreciation we have for him. It was great."
When asked about the moment he saw the mural for the first time, Russell had to take a second to collect himself, because he was emotional.
Rice piped in, "I almost cried for him.
"Once I saw that, my mind just raced back to the time I actually took that picture, standing in the construction zone," Russell said. "An Ann Arbor News photographer wanted to take the picture, because there was a chance I could play there my senior year. So, we go over to Crisler Arena, and we were fumbling around, taking a few shots, and he said, 'Just hold out two basketballs.' I had on what I called my 'Joe College' hat, trying to look collegiate, standing in the middle of Crisler.
"So I walked up the escalator and saw this picture, I mean, it was a thousand flashbacks. To Billy Buntin, who sort of talked me into coming to Michigan. A big kid, 6-8, telling me that Michigan is on the upsurge. To the great teams I played for in '64 and '65. It was a great flash of memories as I saw that picture. It was a very humbling experience. I'm very grateful to know that I got a chance to play at this great institution. And to be remember, that's a great feeling. Thank you, University of Michigan."
The group continued on their tour, checking out the entire new facility, from the trophy display cases in the main foyer to the locker rooms and everywhere in between.
"To walk around the whole arena and see everything, it was amazing," Rice said. "It was actually like Disney Land. So much has changed, but it still feels the same.
"We had a great tour," added Russell. "It was time, when you look at keeping up with modern technology and modern gymnasiums. It looks great. The athletic director gave us a tour. It's unbelievable. A lot of thought went into what they were doing. This is probably something they can use for a number of events. It wasn't just put together as a basketball arena. It was a great tour. And it's a great feeling to have been a part of this."