'The right way': Ohio State's Cedric Russell refuses to take the easy path

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Cedric Russell graduated from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on Aug. 6.

Cedric Russell is no stranger to hearing his name called inside the Cajundome. Scoring 688 of his 1,409 career points at Louisiana’s home arena, that was essentially background noise for four years.

The last time was different. On Aug. 6, Russell walked across the stage for summer commencement, officially bringing his time at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to an end. And on this day, he wasn’t just one of 332 Ragin’ Cajuns to earn his degree.

Russell was the first on his late grandmother’s side of the family to get one.

“Rest her soul, but I know that definitely made her happy, her being able to watch over me and watch me walk across that stage,” Russell said. “It brought peace to her. To be able to do that in front of my family, my friends, my son, it was definitely an emotional day, but it felt good.”

And yet, it nearly didn’t come to pass for Russell, whose path to Ohio State has been anything but straightforward.

Taking a shot at the pros

After what had been his most successful collegiate season, Russell sat down with Louisiana coach Bob Marlin to discuss what would come next. With the extra year of eligibility afforded to all players due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Russell was staring down a chance to cement himself as an all-time great for the program. With nine more games and six more three-pointers, he would be the school’s all-time leader in both categories.

But with a growing family, Russell, who's whose oldest son was born while he was a senior in high school, began to explore the idea of turning pro.

“Initially he was looking to try to get a tryout with an NBA team or to go overseas and play,” Marlin said. “From our research, the overseas market wasn’t quite good enough to make that leap.”

Deciding against turning pro would be only a temporary reprieve for Marlin’s program. On May 20, word got out that Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann was hiring assistant coach Tony Skinn from Seton Hall to complete his coaching staff. Formerly of Louisiana Tech, Skinn had recruited Russell out of high school and then coached against him in college.

As a result, a little more than a month later, on June 30, Russell asked if he could meet with Marlin. It was the day before the deadline for players to enter the transfer portal and retain their immediate eligibility for the upcoming season.

“We sat and talked from 8:45 until 11 o’clock, and he had trouble talking to me,” Marlin said. “He was crying, he was emotional, and as usual I tried to play dad, put my arm around him and see what he was thinking.”

Russell wanted a shot at an NCAA Tournament run, something Marlin said is in the cards after adding talent in the transfer portal. He also wanted a chance to show scouts his game, something Marlin said won’t be a problem with NBA scouts visiting frequently to see the likes of Arizona transfer Jordan Brown (a 2017 McDonald’s All-American) and Theo Akwuba (reigning Sun Belt defensive player of the year). Athlon Sports projects Louisiana as the favorite to win the Sun Belt West.

Ultimately, the chance to play for the Buckeyes would win out. Russell assured Marlin that he was making the decision for himself, not for an agent or outside influence, and a little more than a week later, his commitment to Ohio State was official.

“That was the biggest thing, making sure I didn’t burn any bridges here because they really took care of me these last four years,” Russell said. “Finishing up here (at Louisiana) and making sure I exited the right way and come up there ready to work.”

It was tough for Marlin to lose a player he was so close with, but the veteran coach said he appreciated how Russell handled his exit. Mylik Wilson, Russell’s backcourt mate last season, transferred to Texas Tech during the offseason and entered the portal without so much as a goodbye.

Not so for Russell.

“Cedric came in there and said, ‘Coach, I’m not gonna do like Malik. That wasn’t right,’ ” Marlin said. “That’s the kind of kid Cedric is. He cares. He’s a tenderhearted kid.”

Now, he just had to get that degree first.

Ohio State's Cedric Russell has a four-year-old son, C.J., who is in preschool and who "can tell you how many teeth every dinosaur you can think of had."

Up against the deadline

In order to graduate from Louisiana, students are supposed to apply for their diplomas one semester prior to commencement. In April, when Russell opted not to turn pro, he did not apply to graduate during the summer because he wasn’t planning to transfer.

Suddenly, it was July, and Russell was aiming to finish off a diploma in sports management in little more than a month. In addition to an internship that had him working with a local high school coach, Russell had three July classes, all of which required plenty of paperwork.

In roughly 20 days, Russell said, he had 25 one-page papers and an additional 20-page paper for one class. His internship required a six-page paper. Health class required two four-page papers and, finally, a writing course required two three-page papers.

Commencement was on a Friday. He turned in his final assignments Wednesday night.

“It was super, super crazy,” Russell said.

The frenetic final days kept Russell from properly inviting everyone in his family, but his mom, sisters, auntie and cousins were there. So was C.J., his 4-year-old son.

“I still feel like I haven’t accomplished enough yet,” Russell said. “It’s like, ‘OK, what’s next? Let’s knock something else out.’ My words to my son is never get complacent with anything. You can control what’s in your head and your knowledge, and that’s your power.”

That self-belief was something Russell exhibited himself as a senior at Alexandria (Louisiana) Peabody Magnet. That's when he became a father and opted to de-commit from LSU in part so he could be closer to his son.

Russell’s father wasn’t around for much of his life. By getting his college degree while also being a hands-on father, Russell has twice broken the mold. Marlin used the same word numerous times when discussing his now-former player: maturity.

“He has always tried to be the best father that he can be,” the coach said. “It’s important to him. He’s got two children and they have been to our practices. We’ve had guys change their diapers when they were super young. Cedric wanted a better situation for his children than maybe he had or just more father time. He’s done a good job in that area.”

He’ll be away from his family: C.J., who “can tell you how many teeth every dinosaur you can think of had,” is in preschool.

Russell will vie for a role in a wide-open Buckeyes backcourt. At Louisiana, he was guaranteed to be the guy taking most of the shots, the one with the full trust of his longtime coach.

Now he’s starting over and betting on himself like he always has.

“One thing I learned at an early age, and my mom really instilled in me, is pain is temporary,” he said. “It don’t last, and if it don’t kill you, it definitely makes you stronger. That’s my mindset with a lot of things.”

It’s gotten Russell this far.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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