Head of the Class
Campy Russell played seven seasons for the Cavaliers, averaging 16.1 points and 5.1 boards with one All-Star appearance and three trips to the postseason – including his integral part with the Miracle of Richfield squad.
But if you think that’s what makes him a Hall of Famer, you’d only be getting a small part of the picture.
It was announced last week that later this spring, one of the pillars of the Cavaliers organization, Michael Campanella Russell, will be enshrined in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the 2014 Class.
Don’t adjust your sets. Campy Russell is a Michigan man, through and through.
The Cavaliers selected him No. 8 overall in the 1974 Draft from the university that Woody Hayes could only bring himself to call “the School Up North.” Bill Fitch loved tough, hard-working, Midwestern guys from the Big Ten – having already drafting Jim Brewer, Luke Witte and Jimmy Cleamons.
Campy certainly fit Fitch’s Big Ten mold. He set the freshman scoring mark in his first season. As the squad’s co-captain as a junior, Russell led the Big Ten in scoring at 23.7 ppg, including 11.1 boards per contest. He was named a consensus All-American and led the Wolverines to a share of the Big Ten title and an NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time in eight years.
And Ohio’s putting this guy into their Hall of Fame?
“Coming to Cleveland was something that I never really expected, to be honest with you,” recalled Russell. “My agent at the time, Arthur Morris, had talked about the Lakers, the Knicks, some other teams. Chicago. Cleveland never came up at all. So when they drafted me, I’m like: ‘Cleveland?! Where’d that come from?’ But as I look back over all these years that I’ve been part of the state of Ohio, I think that was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”
One of ten brothers and sisters, Campy was raised in Detroit after his parents moved the family from Tennessee. He was Michigan’s High School Player of the Year twice and named the top prep player in the nation by Basketball News before starring in Ann Arbor.
“The thing about Campy that’s really cool: he wears Maize and Blue on his sleeve and he doesn’t flaunt it,” explained Jeff Phelps, Russell’s co-host on FSO’s pre- and post-game show. “He has nothing but respect for Ohio. The guy came back here to live after moving back to Detroit. He juggles two tough allegiances extremely well. It’s a tough balance and he does it beautifully.”
Campy’s Cavalier teammate for six seasons – and a member of the 2007 Class in the Ohio Basketball H.O.F. – knows how important it is for the state of Ohio to embrace a Michigan man.
“It’s huge,” said A.C. “But a guy like Campy transcends all that. And it points to exactly who he is and what he’s about.”
After a 10-year playing career – including a three-year stint with the Knicks – Campy went to work in the private sector with Bing Steel in Detroit.
But in 2002, Russell returned to the Wine and Gold – initially working with sales, community relations and youth basketball programs. He’s currently the Cavaliers Director of Alumni relations, which helps connect former Cavs’ players with the organization, the community and the fans.
Since its inception in 2004, Campy’s also been an integral part of the Cavaliers perennial Black Heritage Celebration, one of the most comprehensive cultural celebrations in the league.
In any of Russell’s roles – then and now – he’s been the organization’s ultimate ambassador.
“’Ambassador’ is a perfect term for Campy,” said legendary Cavs radio voice, Joe Tait. “It fits and he certainly lives up to it. He represents the organization very, very well. He’s one of those fellas who’s positive – whether he’s playing for you or he’s involved in the organization like he is now. They’ve got a real jewel in Campy.”
Joe Tait called Campy’s entire career in Cleveland – and a strong career it was.
Not including his rookie season and a short three-game stint with the squad in 1984-85, Campy averaged 18.2 ppg with the Cavs. He scored at 21.9 per game clip in his All-Star season (1978-79). In three playoff appearances, the former Wolverine star averaged 13.6 ppg during the Miracle run, 17.7 the next postseason and a gaudy 27.5 ppg in 1978.
He was named to the Cavs’ All-Time Team and remains in the team’s all-time Top Ten in six categories.
So for all the great seasons he had in Cleveland, was his most memorable year the one in which the Cavs – five years from expansion – challenged the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals? Or maybe the season in which he represented the Wine and Gold in front of family and friends as an All-Star at the Pontiac Silverdome?
Not for the man who both Joe Tait called “the consummate team player.”
“It’s really hard for me to gauge what was my best year in Cleveland, and when I look back at it, I think it was a half-season that I played,” remembered Russell. “I got hurt and Mike Mitchell and I were playing the forward position. And I think that half year that Mike and I played together, it helped me help Mike Mitchell become a much better player. And because I believe I helped him become a better player, Mike and I became so much more to each than basketball teammates, we became genuine life-long friends.”
Mitchell, who passed away in 2011, went on to an All-Star appearance of his own with the Cavaliers in 1981 – the same season Russell, after being traded to New York in a three-team deal, lead the league in three-point shooting.
“I know I helped him by giving up some of my game,” continued Campy. “Because I felt like I was going to score. I was going to do whatever I wanted on the court, but if I can bring him along, then we become better as a team. And Mike took full advantage of it and he took off and he became a great player in this league. And that’s the thing that stands out to me from my career here is the fact that I was able to help some guys.”
“Whether (Campy) got a chance to start or come off the bench, he gave it the same effort every time,” praised Joe Tait (Ohio Basketball H.O.F., Class of 2009). “He really was a guy who put the team ahead of what he personally might have had in mind for himself. He might have gone to some other ballclub and posted some bigger numbers, but he contributed to a Cavaliers ballclub and was a key factor in the Cavs success.”
“Campy always had a very high basketball IQ, and he was one of the guys who really helped me get through those years when the injuries started,” added Austin Carr. “But that’s Campy. He’s a shoulders-back, salt-of-the-earth kinda guy. He understands life and how to get himself and other people through it.”
A.C. and Russell are two of 14 inductees from the Cavaliers organization in the Ohio Basketball Hall. But many of the players – like Dick Snyder, Nate Thurmond, Jimmy Jackson, Ron Harper, Jim Cleamons, Barry Clemens and Wally Szczerbiak owe at least part of their induction to brilliant Ohio high school and college careers. Phil Hubbard is the only other Wolverine, but at least he had the advantage of standout career at Canton McKinley.
Among Campy’s classmates to be enshrined in 2014 include Ohio State’s all-time leading scorer, Dennis Hopson, and former Cleveland Rockers star, Helen Darling.
Campy Russell’s playing days were just a small sample of what separates him as an individual. In many ways, he’s the glue that keeps the Cavalier family together. He doesn’t let the organization lose track of the players that laid the foundation – and vice versa.
“To me, relationships are the key to just about everything – everything,” said Campy. “If the relationships are there, there is nothing you cannot ask a guy or a woman to do if it’s a genuine relationship. And that’s going to put you in a position to be successful.”
Campy’s contact with former players spans all eras of Cavaliers basketball, but the former forward admittedly has a soft spot for the Miracle members.
“All of us pretty much stay in touch with each other,” smiled Russell. “I talk to Dick Snyder. I talk to John Lambert. Jim Brewer, Footsie Walker, Chones. Even Rowland Garrett, who’s down in Canton, Mississippi. Even though I’m in this position of Alumni Relations for the Cavaliers, I’ve had those relationships even before I got here. And that goes back to genuine relationship that we have.
“I talk to Nate (Thurmond) once a month. I just did the Ben and Nate Thurmond Golf Outing for the Cleveland Clinic Hospice program. He picked up the phone (and said): ‘Campy, I need your help.’ I said: ‘Hey, Nate, whatever you need me to do, let’s do it.’ That’s what relationships are. They’re not fragile; they’re everlasting. They are things that carry you throughout the rest of your life.”
Part of the reason Campy’s been able to keep such a big basketball family together is because he was taught the strength of family from his parents – whom he credits effusively for making him the man he is today.
Campy comes from a big family that had its beginnings in Jackson, Tennessee.
He had six brothers and three sisters. And for a family that produced THREE NBA players (Frank, who played with the Bulls in the early-70s and Walker, who played for Indy, Atlanta and Detroit in the mid-80s) out of its seven sons, Campy claims his father wasn’t really that moved by his kids’ work on the court.
“Seven boys and three girls, and it was all about education,” said Russell. “It wasn’t so much about the sport that you played, because my dad never paid that much attention to the sport. But he really paid attention to what you were doing in school, what was happening there. And that’s the thing that I think permeates through our entire family. That it was all about education.”
When Russell was drafted by the Cavs with No. 8 overall pick, he was shocked to go to Cleveland. His mom was disappointed he was leaving school at all. Campy was 24 hours short of his bachelor’s degree when he came to the Cavaliers. His mom unfortunately wasn’t around to see it, but her son returned to Michigan and got his Bachelor’s degree in Sports Management and Communications at age 48.
“Just an example: I have a sister who is 85 years old,” explained Campy. “And when I was born in 1952, she was just graduating from college. And again, my dad was a sharecropper, who worked on a farm and had no education. But he understood: My daughter is not going to do what I did. She is the beacon. She is the star. And everybody else is going to fall in line.
“She’s 85. And my younger brother, Walker, is 54. But all in between, all of us have gotten formal education. A couple of my brothers only went through high school, but everybody else got a college degree. It’s what was expected of us. That’s why I give kudos to my mother and father because of the work that they did and what they instilled in us – and that is to be true, to be a beacon to other people, always reach out, always want to help, always be positive. And I think that’s the essence of us.”
Campy himself is the father of five children: four daughters – Allex, Mandisa, Oyin and Saki, and one son – Michael II.
And he’s also the unofficial patriarch of the Cavalier family. When the Wine and Gold host the 28th annual Youth Fund Golf Classic later this month, Michael Campanella will be at the forefront, handing out hugs and handshakes – the team’s ambassador welcoming the squad’s sons back for a day on the greens.
And of course, all season long, you’ll see his sleepy-eyed and razor-incisive analysis on Fox Sports Ohio, alongside Jeff Phelps.
“Jeff Phelps, he’s just such a great guy and he and I have a really good relationship,” smiled Campy. “Even with his family, we have a good relationship. And it’s genuine, and I think people see and hear that when Jeff and I are together. He has this ability to keep it simple and, at the same time, still allow me to express what I need to express. He’s just such a professional. And more importantly, he’s really just a good friend of mine. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for Jeff Phelps and his family.”
The man affectionately called “Phelpsie” gives the love right back.
“Campy and I so quickly became friends, I’ll pick up the phone and call him and we don’t even talk about basketball,” said Phelps. “It’s wonderful for me to see my phone ring and see that it’s Campy. We didn’t talk about basketball, we just talked. He asked about my family. He’s just a regular guy, and that’s the beauty of Campy.”
FSO’s dynamic duo will be back on-air in a few short weeks, and Campy will be welcoming his friends back on the links in a couple weeks.
And this spring, Campy Russell – a Michigan Wolverine in Buckeye country – will be enshrined in the state’s hoops Hall of Fame. His adopted city will be proud. Somewhere, his mother and father will be too.
“The thing I embrace is how the city embraced me,” beamed Russell. “I think that this town really can see ‘real’ and ‘genuine.’ They really can. They have a knack for seeing genuine things. And they also have a knack for seeing things that aren’t genuine. And when you’re not genuine with them, you catch hell. But if you are, they embrace you and you’re in. And to me, that’s what I love about this city.
“Once they see that you’re genuine, they embrace you and they take you on down the road. And they will never, ever forget you. And, in my mind, that’s what Cleveland is about. And that’s how I feel about this city and the state of Ohio.”