Detroit Mercy HOFer Frank Russell, of famous basketball family, dies at 72

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Frank Russell, a basketball star from a famous local basketball family who played at the University of Detroit and briefly in the NBA and after his playing days became a fixture in Pontiac and Oakland County youth initiatives and media, has died.

Russell died Monday, the university confirmed. He was 72 and recently contracted COVID-19, friends said.

He is the brother of Campy Russell, who played at Michigan, and Walker Russell, who played at Western Michigan. All three of the brothers were drafted into the NBA. Larry Russell also played at Detroit.

Frank Russell played basketball at the University of Detroit in the 1970s, and was inducted in the school's athletics Hall of Fame in 2020.

"They just had genes from that family, they were incredible in terms of basketball," said Earl Cureton, who, like Frank Russell, is a member of the Detroit Mercy athletics Hall of Fame.

"They were a family of great athletes and great people."

Frank Russell was one of 10 kids, raised by their parents in Pontiac, after moving the family from Tennessee.

A shooting guard, Frank Russell played at Pontiac Central High School and was planning to play at University of Pacific in California until making a visit to what then was known as University of Detroit. He saw the legendary Spencer Haywood play in a game and eventually chatted with Tom Villemure, Bob Calihan's assistant at the time, and he changed his mind.

It was off to McNichols and Livernois.

"It was a good fit," Frank Russell once said.

In three seasons with Detroit — playing for Jim Harding, whom Russell once called "arguably the best coach in America," right up there with Bobby Knight — Frank Russell had 1,188 points, seventh at the time he graduated. He averaged 15.5 points his first year, 15.8 his second and 16.2 as a senior.

The Titans finished 18-6 his senior season, with wins over Marquette, Boston College, Xavier and Dayton. The Marquette game was particularly stunning, as the team was 22-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country and Detroit won, 70-49. Frank Russell made all seven shots he took and had 16 points.

Frank Russell was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in the third round, and he played one season and 23 games in the NBA. His best game, he scored 11 against the Detroit Pistons at Cobo. He returned to Detroit to finish his bachelor's degree in sociology and social work.

Hen then became a youth advisor in his hometown, before attending law school at Texas Southern. When he returned to Michigan, he founded The Youth Development Institute in Pontiac, chaired Oakland County's employment diversity council, and worked in human resources for the county for more than 30 years. In 2013, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Pontiac. Russell also founded the Pontiac News in 2007 and The Oakland Weekly News in 2013, all while staying involved in sports, sometimes on a volunteer coaching basis.

"He was not only a great athlete, but a great person," Cureton said. "He went on to mentor youth and do a lot of great things in Pontiac.

"That whole family was a class family."

Campy was a first-round pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers and played 10 years in the league and is in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame and Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame. Walker Russell was a fourth-round pick by the Detroit Pistons and played six years in the league, and has coached and scouted in the league since retirement. Walker's son, of the same name, also went on to play for the Pistons.

Frank Russell shows off his Detroit Mercy Titans Hall of Fame plaque in 2020.

While the family legacy all started with basketball — two older brothers were perhaps most-talented ("one of them literally could make bank shots while playing pool," Frank once said) and ran the Pontiac playgrounds, saying if the younger Russell brothers couldn't play, then nobody would play — there were other sports, too.

Frank Russell and his siblings played football, basketball, horseshoes and even ice-skated. Anything outdoors — where his father actually grew all the food they ate.

"We had parents that worked hard and allowed us the opportunity to play basketball but not just basketball," Frank Russell once said. "We were outside all the time."

Frank Russell was enshrined in the Titans Hall of Fame in 2020, among a class of 15. He's been a regular at Detroit Mercy basketball games over the years.

Funeral arrangements were pending Wednesday night.

We're running a new-subscriber special. Support local journalism, and subscribe here.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984