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USF '56-57 team feted

Feb. 9, 2007

John Crumpacker
San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

It was the "other'' University of San Francisco team and he was the "other'' basketball-playing Russell. It was the 1956-57 season on the Hilltop, a half-century ago but just yesterday for players on that team, now men in their 70s.

Charles Russell was a reserve for the Dons that year, a junior from Oakland, and Bill Russell's older brother. Yes, older. His college career was interrupted by the Korean War.

"It was a great experience,'' Charles Russell said. "We beat a lot of good teams. We had this great defense. All the guys played great defense. I didn't have a good outside shot but I could go to the basket pretty good. I played good defense and I wasn't afraid to mix it up.''

Little brother Bill had moved on to the U.S. Olympic team late in '56 as a patriotic pit stop before joining the Boston Celtics. Charles was not the player his younger brother was -- then again, who is or was? -- but he would forge his own distinctive career as a novelist and playwright.

A half-century ago, the Dons were coming off back-to-back NCAA championships with Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. The '56-57 team was still formidable but could not pull off a three-peat. However, it did reach the Final Four and finished third with a 22-7 record after running into Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in the national semifinals.

"It was a big plum for us because nobody gave us a snowball's chance in hell to get back there without (Bill) Russell and Jones, and we did,'' said Mike Preaseau, a junior forward on that team, now retired and living in Portland.

USF will honor its '56-57 basketball team with a dinner and awards ceremony Friday night on campus along with the induction of four individuals into the school's Athletics Hall of Fame. They are former coach John Drocco, basketball players Willie "Woo Woo'' Wong and Marlene Henderson, and golfer Juli Christopher Hilton; Wong will be inducted posthumously.

With Jones and Bill Russell having moved on, the Dons of 50 years ago nevertheless won a third straight conference title and extended the school's winning streak to 60 games with players such as Preaseau, guards Gene Brown and Al Dunbar, forward Mike Farmer and center Art Day. Brown went on to work in law enforcement and served as Sheriff of San Francisco in 1978-79.

A 6-foot-4 swingman, Charles Russell came off the bench that season and contributed where he could while averaging 1.8 points per game. In later years, he did more with a ballpoint pen than he ever did with a ball. He wrote two novels and the play "Five on the Black Hand Side'' that was turned into a 1973 movie while trading ideas with Maya Angelou and others in the Harlem Writers Guild in the '60s.

Russell lives in Oakland, where he grew up, and is working on a fictionalized account of the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791.

His memory of encountering Chamberlain in the national semifinals remains vivid.

"He was like one of those oak trees out there,'' Russell said. "That guy was big! I remember somebody took a shot early in the game and he knocked it into the stands. He was a nice guy, though. I got to know him back in New York.''

Farmer, the Dons' second-leading scorer that season, said the Dons started out competitive against Chamberlain and Kansas but ran out of gas in the second half of an 80-56 defeat. Kansas then lost to North Carolina by a point in triple overtime, 54-53, in the championship.

"Kansas was good and Chamberlain was a load,'' Farmer said. "He wasn't really a physical player like Shaq (Shaquille O'Neal) is today. He had his fade-away jumper that took him away from the basket. Thank God. If he had gone to the basket like Shaq, he would have averaged 75 a game.''

Farmer, 70, had an NBA career with the St. Louis Hawks before the franchise moved to Atlanta. He returned to USF in 1985 to finish his degree and ended up staying to teach an activity class, as he does to this day. In his free time, he enjoys manning an oar in an eight-man sweep boat with the Marin Rowing Club.

Although he played on an NCAA championship team the year before, the '56-57 Dons remain Farmer's favorite for what the squad accomplished without Jones and Charles Russell's little brother.

"The '56-57 team was really a joy to be on,'' he said. "The guys really put everything into it. To see where we ended up was so gratifying.''

The school will express its own gratitude Friday night, a half-century after the fact but just yesterday to players on that team.