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Russell, Dons ruled mid-'50s

March 19, 2006

By Nick Peters
Sacramento Bee

Editor's note: With USF hosting the Oakland Regional this week, The Bee looks at the Dons' NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956. Reporter Nick Peters was a high school student in San Francisco at the time.

The team didn't even have a gymnasium on campus in which to practice, and it featured a center who hardly played in high school, yet 50 years ago the University of San Francisco was king of the college basketball world.

The Dons, who host the NCAA Oakland Regional later this week, worked out at nearby St. Ignatius High School, played most home games at rickety Kezar Pavilion and won NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956.

All-American Bill Russell, a gangly afterthought at Oakland's McClymonds High School, was the catalyst of the Dons' dominance, and his presence was the major reason USF overpowered LaSalle (77-63) and Iowa (83-71) in the title games.

Coach Phil Woolpert's defense also featured All-America guard K.C. Jones, who would team with Russell on the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1960s. The other starters were guard Hal Perry, forward Carl Boldt and Mike Farmer.

"Those were great days for basketball in the city," said former USF guard and coach Jim Brovelli, the athletic director at College of Marin, a scout for the Charlotte Bobcats and a Dons broadcaster. "As a kid, I was really into those teams.

"I didn't miss a game on radio - I couldn't wait for them to come on. I was at St. Ignatius, and USF would practice in our gym. ...

"The Dons definitely were noticed locally, but there wasn't that much national exposure because TV wasn't big then and there weren't highlight shows like ESPN's. There's no question the USF tradition influenced my decision to go there.

"I wanted to be a part of it, and I was a city kid, so it was a no-brainer."

Former NBA player Tom Meschery, a retired teacher and author in Truckee, was the best high school player in San Francisco (Lowell) when the Dons began their 60-game winning streak. He eventually went to Saint Mary's, but USF made an impression.

"As high school players, we made the rounds at city playgrounds, and USF players would be there for pickup games," Meschery said. "Russell was from Oakland, so he'd play mostly over there, but I remember him showing up with Hal Perry, and I got to play against him.

"I wasn't intimidated. I was a typical athlete, very cocky, so I wasn't worried about how good Russell was. We all knew how great USF was defensively. Russell and K.C. couldn't hit the ocean if they were standing on the beach. They were terrible shooters, and they still could beat you."

The Dons were 11-12 in 1952-53 while the 6-foot-9 Russell was powering the USF freshmen to a 19-4 record. When he made his varsity debut at age 19, he revolutionized post play while averaging 19.8 points and 19.2 rebounds for a 14-7 squad.

But the best was yet to come, and it didn't take long. Russell's first game as a junior in 1954-55 produced a career-high 39 points against Chico State. In the third game of the season, UCLA defeated the Dons 47-40. They would never lose again with Russell in uniform.

They won 26 in a row that season, including 56-44 in a rematch with the Bruins.

With Russell leading the way, the Dons went 57-1 in the All-America center's final two seasons, and 71-8 overall with him scoring, rebounding and swatting away shots in the paint.

"I think USF lucked out with Russell because he didn't play much ball in Oakland and all of a sudden developed into perhaps the greatest center in history," Brovelli said. "He made it easier for them to press because the other guys could overcommit knowing he was back there."

Russell, unfortunately, no longer associates himself with USF over an assortment of slights, including the university asking him to pay tuition when he returned to earn his degree, according to former teammates. Russell felt disrespected by the school he helped put on college basketball's map. Neither he nor Jones returned phone calls for this story.

In the 1955 NCAA Tournament, USF reached the Final Four by beating West Texas (89-66), Utah (78-59) and Oregon State (57-56) in the Far West Regional.

The Dons experienced segregation while at the Final Four in Kansas City, Mo. USF had four African Americans on the team, including Russell, Jones and Perry.

"We were in Kansas City, and a bunch of us went to the movies," recalled Steve Balchios, then a Dons reserve and now a teacher in San Bruno. "K.C. and Hal were in the group, and they couldn't sit with us because blacks didn't sit with whites (in Kansas City)."

A year later, while defending their title, four of the Dons' top six players were African American, and they also experienced racism on certain trips.

"We sometimes had four black guys in the starting lineup, and that didn't go over too well, especially because we were ranked No. 1," recalled Gene Brown, a reserve guard at the time who later served as San Francisco's sheriff and is now retired in Pittsburg.

"We'd get hate mail. I was a sophomore, and my eyes really opened when we went to some places to play. We hadn't been exposed to that stuff back home, but we had to ride in the back of the bus and stuff like that."

At Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium, Russell's 24 points powered a 62-50 semifinal victory over Colorado. In the championship game, MVP Russell's 23-point, 24-rebound double double lead the way as USF drubbed defending champion LaSalle.

In 1955-56, USF (29-0) became the first undefeated NCAA champion and joined Oklahoma A&M and Kentucky as the only repeat champions. The Dons outscored opponents by 20 points (72.2-52.2) and finished the season with a 55-game winning streak.

Woolpert was named Coach of the Year, and Russell and Jones were first-team All-Americans. Russell averaged 20.6 points and 21 rebounds, shooting better than 50 percent from the field. Jones averaged 9.8 points and 5.2 rebounds, shooting .365.

"I was a good shooter, but if you didn't play defense, you didn't play for Wool-pert," Brown said. "I was a soph and it was easy to buy into that defensive philosophy because it worked. We used a fullcourt press, and opponents couldn't handle it."

USF won the Far West Regional by thumping UCLA (72-61) and Utah (92-77) to advance to the Final Four at Northwestern.

The opener at Evanston, Ill., featured a surprise punch by the Dons. Farmer, a rangy sophomore from Richmond High, stunned SMU with 26 points in an 86-68 USF victory.

"I was planning on going to USC, and a friend took me to a Santa Clara-USF game," recalled Farmer, a former Cincinnati Royal who lives near Santa Rosa, yet frequently commutes to Roseville, where he's co-owner of Granite Bay Solar Co. "It was exciting, and I was hooked.

"What I remember about the '56 team was how relaxed we were at the championships. Guys were playing (cards), and everyone was loose. We figured there was no way we could lose."

And they didn't. In the championship victory over Iowa, Russell scored 26 points, and his 27 rebounds were a Final Four record that stood until 1991.

While Russell and Jones moved onto legendary NBA careers in Boston, the Dons won their first five games in 1956-57 to run their streak to 60. On a cold night in Illinois, the record run ended with a 62-33 loss against the Illini. Still, USF finished 22-7 and again reached the Final Four.

"Being on that last championship team was a great experience, but I was even prouder the next year," Farmer said. "We lost four starters from 1956 and had the streak snapped, but we made it to the Final Four, losing to Wilt (Chamberlain) and Kansas in the semis and taking third place over Michigan State."

Despite USF's historic success, the university failed to celebrate its team's success for nearly 50 years. At a reunion at Silverado last November, the former Dons received their NCAA championship rings. All the living members - except Russell - attended.