The House That Russell Built: Bill Russell, the University of San Francisco, and the Winning Streak That Changed College Basketball

Article excerpt

From 1954 to 1956, the University of San Francisco Dons captured two NCAA titles and fashioned a fifty-five-game winning streak.

During this period, they transformed from anonymous underachievers in a weak-sister conference into the titans of college basketball, effecting fundamental change and infiltrating the consciousness of the sporting world. A snapshot of big-time college basketball before the streak revealed white players focused upon deliberate, earthbound offensive patterns. After the streak, that picture illustrated a racially integrated unit whose players placed a premium on speed, aggressive defense, and the control of not just horizontal but vertical space.

USF delivered to the sport a truly national profile, a more dynamic style of play, and players who rewrote its cultural meaning. This sea change resulted from a host of historical and social factors: the nation's evolving stance on race relations in the 1950s, the Bay Area's relative racial liberalism, USF's Jesuit mission, a courageous coaching staff, and a band of black and white athletes who embraced their team's goals and its consequences. But if one man was the avatar of this transformation, it was Bill Russell. (1)

Russell's USF experiences shaped the future as well. As a star with the NBA's Boston Celtics, Russell grew into a figure of controversy. His outspokenness against racism and militant public persona challenged the myth that sport fosters racial democracy. At USF he seemed the opposite, projecting an enthusiastic, optimistic liberalism. But the Dons' integrationist pioneering exposed the team to both crude and subtle racism, planting the seeds of Russell's future ideology. (2)

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PIONEERS

William Felton Russell lacked coordination and confidence as a young teenager. His basketball skills developed slowly. At McClymonds High School in Oakland, he progressed from third-string junior varsity center to varsity benchwarmer to starting center. After graduating in January 1952, in the middle of basketball season, he joined a traveling squad of "split-year" graduates. That winter his game flourished. Though friendly and funny, Russell was also an introvert and an intellectual, and only during that tour did he learn how to study other players, how to craft new methods of aggressive and airborne defense, how to find beauty in the sport's little details. By another stroke of luck, USF scout Hal DeJulio had seen one of Russell's high school games, and when he invited him to a campus workout, Coach Phil Woolpert marveled at his timing, leaping ability, and sense of inner confidence. "But he was so ungainly," the coach added. (3)

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In September 1952, the eighteen-year-old freshman trekked across the Bay Bridge on a basketball scholarship to USF. Though only fifteen miles from his West Oakland home, USF was an alien universe. Russell was from a bleak, working-class neighborhood and had attended school with overwhelmingly black majorities. Now he lived on a campus tucked atop a hill north of Fulton Street and just east of Golden Gate Park with a mostly white student population. While some Hispanics and Filipinos dotted the sea of white faces, Russell and fellow basketball recruit Hal Perry represented the entire black population of the freshman class. Like all incoming first-years, Russell wore an initiation sweater, performed tasks for upperclassmen, and donned a "dink" hat until the Freshman Smoker at the end of September. Tall and black, he stuck out; the student newspaper, featuring him in its first issue, labeled him "a potential Globetrotter." (4)

At USF, Russell received an education not only in Jesuit logic and principles, but also in basketball. During his first official practice, he could not perform a warm-up calisthenics of walking while squatting. Some teammates grumbled that Woolpert had wasted a scholarship on an awkward freak. …