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4.04.2008

When Russell Ruled the College Hardwood

Associated Press

You'd think the details would be fuzzy after half a century, that all those victories would have blurred together. But they haven't for Bill Russell, who played center on the University of San Francisco basketball team that won back-to-back NCAA titles and had a winning streak that stretched to a then record 60 games.

Russell recently bought a tape of Win Number 24 on eBay. It was the Dons' only close call of that streak, a 57-56 victory over Oregon State in the Western Regional final of the 1955 NCAA tournament. Sandwiched between the Beavers' two 7-footers, the 6'10" Russell scored 29 points.

Watching the game film with his wife, Marilyn, he surprised her by calling every play before it happened. Oregon State coach Slats Gill would say that was "the best game any team of mine ever played," yet it was not enough to beat the Dons.

During the 1955-56 season, in the era before the shot clock and the three-pointer, USF averaged 72 points while holding opponents to 52. The margin would have been far wider had a desperate Cal team not held the ball for eight excruciating minutes during USF's record-breaking 40th straight win and had coach Phil Woolpert let Russell, who averaged 20.5 points and 20.1 rebounds, play more than 24 minutes a game.

"Russell could have scored 35 to 40 points anytime he wanted," says Carl Boldt, a 6'5" junior starting forward on that team. "But Phil didn't want to run up the score. He never really let us loose."

The Dons were the forerunners for the modern game--in two short years they shifted college basketball's balance of power from white to black, from offense to defense and, thanks to the backboard-clearing, shot blocking, backward-dunking Russell, from horizontal to vertical. "We changed the game," Russell told SI's Frank Deford in a recent interview. "I think you can even say we developed a whole new philosophy of basketball. We attacked the offense and made it react to the defense."

The Dons were unlikely agents of change. The squad, made up almost entirely of players from the Bay Area, represented a small Jesuit school that had no gym (practices were held at nearby St. Ignatius High). The Dons had won the 1949 NIT title under coach Pete Newell, but with Woolpert--a high school coach who reluctantly took over for Newell (his college roommate) when he left for greener pastures at Michigan State--on the bench they slipped back into obscurity, going 44-48 in his first four seasons. No one expected much more from the 1954-55 team, which was anchored by two juniors, Russell and the 6'2" K.C. Jones, who were both playing for the only school that had offered them scholarships.

After winning three games to start the season, the Dons lost to UCLA 47-40. At practice a few days later starting guard Bill Bush told his teammates they'd be a better team if Hal Perry, a 5'10" junior, took his spot in the lineup. Woolpert made the change, giving the Dons three black starters--unheard of at the time. USF would not lose again for two years.

The Dons' offense was simple: They had one set play, and their main objective was to balance the floor. Their focus was defense, but their unusual full-court press was more the creation of the players and assistant Ross Giudice than of Woolpert. "Coach taught us how to play defense, but we took it a step further with our creativity," says Jones. After the Dons scored, Jones and Perry would herd all ball handlers toward the middle, where the lefthanded Russell loomed "to take care of any mistakes," says Perry. A well-placed swat would ignite a fast break, which agitated Woolpert.

"He believed about the fast break like Woody Hayes thought about the forward pass--that three things could happen, but two of them were bad," says Russell. "We never practiced the fast break. But, of course, we used it from the start of every game."

Though Russell and Woolpert later became friends, the two butted heads at USF. "I didn't get along with Phil as a coach, though I always knew he was a good and decent man," says Russell. "He would watch me jump up and block shots, and then say, 'But that's not the way it's supposed to be done. A defensive man is not supposed to leave his feet.'"

Woolpert was less conventional when it came to the racial makeup of his lineup. In addition to the starting trio, two other black players, Gene Brown and Warren Baxter, were among the first three off the bench. "Not to take anything away from Texas Western," says former Dons forward Mike Farmer, referring to the all-black starting lineup that beat an all-white Kentucky team for the 1966 NCAA title, "but USF made the real breakthrough racially."

Woolpert's players didn't know about the hate mail he received until years later, though they got a taste of how unpopular his strategy was when they played in states where segregation still ruled. At the All-College tournament in Oklahoma City in December of '54, the black players weren't allowed in downtown hotels, so the entire team stayed in dorms. As the Dons practiced before one game, fans chanted, "Globetrotters!" and threw coins onto the court. "I wasn't offended," says Russell, who collected the money and put it in his pocket.

Even Woolpert's critics had to concede that he was on to something when the Dons beat defending champion La Salle in the 1955 NCAA title game. That win set the stage for the victory tour of 1955-56. "We were like rock stars," says Boldt. "Every place we played, we packed [them in]." The Dons beat Iowa 83-71 to repeat and become the first undefeated team in NCAA history. Russell grabbed 50 rebounds in that Final Four, including 27 in the championship game. Both marks are still records. (Russell's influence can still be found in the rule book too. The lane was widened from six feet to 12 feet in 1955, and offensive goaltending was banned the following year.)

The 1956-57 squad won five more games before USF's run ended, unofficially, in Chicago against the U.S. Olympic team, which featured Russell and Jones. On Dec. 17, during that same road trip, Illinois made it official, beating the Dons 62-33 to end the streak two years to the day after it started. USF returned to the Final Four that year, where it lost to Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in the semis.

Woolpert, who would be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1992, resigned from USF in '59 and spent a decade coaching at the University of San Diego before becoming a school bus driver in Sequim, Wash.

Russell and Jones, of course, went on to Hall of Fame careers with the Boston Celtics, who won eight NBA titles in the nine years the two played together. It wasn't such a tough transition, says Jones. "By the time we got up there, we knew a little something about winning."

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