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January 9, 2012

Cazzie Russell, former Wolverines marvel at upgrades

Former Michigan great and icon Cazzie Russell was one of several to respond to athletic director David Brandon's request to come home for the dedication of the new Player Development Center. It was only fitting given that the building attached to it was once called "the house that Cazzie built."

Russell never did get to play a game at the Crisler Center (formerly Crisler Arena), other than one exhibition as a pro. A construction accident delayed its completion just long enough to ensure he'd only be a spectator when he set foot in the structure. Though it looks the same from the outside, that's about to change, too, next on the list for renovation following millions of dollars spent inside and on the Player Development Center.

"I think it's prevalent … the changing of times," Russell, now an administrator at the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design, said. "From what I understand, Michigan is playing catch-up. You're Division I, you've got to have this. This could be worth five to eight more games in terms of guys going in to shoot.

"I had access to the Intramural building, a little different than the Player Development Center, especially when you hear them say they try to make it equivalent to what it's like in Crisler, the baskets, the lighting. Come on. I don't want to sound too hard on the players nowadays, but you have no excuse. Conditioning, shooting, training … it's good to see this, because you've got to have this to compete."

Michigan trainer James Hunt was ahead of his time, Russell noted - he just didn't have the same equipment with which to work.

"We had something like the [ice pool], but it was like go take a hot shower, then Mr. Hunt would take the fire hose and put the cold water on you," he recalled with a laugh. "It served the same purpose, relaxed the muscles if you'd been on the road. It was great."

Former point guard Daniel Horton had it a bit better, but even he marveled at the changes. Horton and the Wolverines were a breath away from the NCAA Tournament a few times in the early 2000s but fell just short.

"I told them yesterday if we had this stuff, my percentages might have been better," Horton quipped. "I'd have been able to get in the gym and get some more work in. But all this is first class, what they've done to raise money to build this, provide a facility that will be attractive to young players and help the current players - it's big time."

Horton is back in Texas but will trip to Australia Feb. 15 to play in a professional league down under. He's been out of commission for over a year while recovering from a severe foot injury as well as reconstructive shoulder surgery.

As impressed as he was with the upgrades, Horton said he was never deterred by U-M's absence of top-notch facilities.

"Kids are different these days," he said. "They go for more of the flash and what they can see instead of what they feel. I was just the type of person to say and do and act on how I feel.

"When I came in, I felt like this was the place for me. I told my dad when I went on my visit to Florida, they had the keycard access gym and all that type of stuff we're just building 10 years ago. It was always the feel I got in my heart and with my family, what I was feeling."

Former center Chris Hunter, Horton's teammate in the early 2000s, laughed when asked if they'd have made a few NCAA Tournaments with better facilities.

"We like to think so," he said. "It's nice to finally see it come to fruition. You've got to move along with the times, and we're probably ahead of the times right now with the facilities they've built.

"It's great. I was wowed by the new seats, the floor, the scoreboard. The atmosphere is great."

The best is yet to come …

Brandon revealed more plans yesterday for the final phase of the Crisler renovations, set for completion in about a year. The concourse will be a destination area for pregame and halftime, featuring all 29 sports with memorabilia, flat screens with videos, highlights and pictures. There will also be a section devoted to the Hall of Honor, reserved for Michigan's best of the best with most inductees having already been recognized with national awards.

Brandon expects several former players to return once the renovation is complete, and plans to bring in a big name opponent to help re-dedicate it in January or February.

"We have a natural opportunity next season, because we're going to hold a massive celebration when we complete the entire Crisler Project," he said. "… We hope to bring back more players from all over the country to celebrate that. It's going to be a big deal.

"We want there to be a big brand opponent that rounds out the whole thing … a big game, big turnout of former players, men and women, hopefully some coaches, and really celebrate the investment we've made in this program as well as the tradition and history of Michigan basketball."

The development center and Crisler renovations were long overdue, he admitted.

"It's fundamentally important. We were not competitive. We knew it," he said. "Frankly, we were not competitive for too long, and it hurt us. When you're spending hundreds of millions on the football stadium next door and a young student athlete for basketball gets driven past the Big House and sees we only have one gymnasium floor and don't have the infrastructure of support many of the other premium basketball programs have, it's very difficult to recruit.

"The young men and women who have come to play have come for the love of Michigan and the tradition. They haven't come for the facilities. Now we have it all. We have the practice facility, strength and conditioning, training, academic facilities … everything they could possibly want to allow them to come here and have a great athletic experience. It will help us with our recruiting and prepare our teams for a higher level or competition."

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