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James T. KeaneJanuary 12, 2024

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

An estimated 100,000 fans mobbed the streets of San Francisco on March 25, 1955, to greet the winners of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball crown. A ticker-tape parade down Market Street and through the financial district, in which each player rode in his own convertible, took “San Francisco’s Finest” to City Hall, where they were feted by the city’s dignitaries.

A year later the team would do it all again, part of an unprecedented 60-game winning streak and back-to-back national championships.

No small accomplishment for a school without a gym.

S.M.U. coach Doc Hayes: “San Francisco can beat any basketball team I know of. San Francisco can beat the Russians.”

The team was not one of the U.C.L.A dynasties that would later dominate college basketball; nor was it a squad from one of California’s established public universities. Rather, they played for the University of San Francisco, an all-male Catholic university located in the city’s Inner Richmond neighborhood. The venerable school had been founded by Italian Jesuits in 1855 and was celebrating its centennial. The entire student body only numbered around 2,000 students.

What it did have, however, was Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. And Karl Boldt, Mike Farmer, Hal Perry and Gene Brown—all stars in their own right. They also had coach Phil Woolpert, only 39 years old at the time. A high school coach just five years before, he was named national collegiate Coach of the Year by United Press International in both 1955 and 1956.

That U.S.F. squad would not just set records and win championships, however. They also proved to be groundbreakers in American race relations for their early stands against segregation and discrimination in basketball and society. Seven decades later, they remain a legendary squad, not only for their basketball accomplishments (in 2018, ESPN ranked the 1955-56 Dons the fourth greatest men’s collegiate basketball team of all time), but because they marked a change in collegiate basketball in their own time.

They are also a signal part of the story of Catholic higher education in the United States, a tale in which men’s basketball—and the attendant issues of race and class—play an important part. With perhaps the exception of the University of Notre Dame’s football team, basketball has always been the most Catholic of men’s collegiate sports. That history “is above all a story that is both American and Catholic, despite its setting within a sport invented as a means of proselytizing by a Presbyterian from Canada,” wrote John Gasaway in his 2021 book Miracles on the Hardwood.

With Russell averaging more than 20 points and 20 rebounds a game, the Dons finished the 1955-56 regular season with 25 wins and 0 losses.

The arrival of Bill Russell

Though U.S.F. had won the National Invitational Tournament in 1949 under coach Pete Newell (and the school recognizes that N.I.T. victory as a national title), the arrival of Bill Russell on campus in the fall of 1952 augured a new era for the team. A 6-foot-10 center who was born in Louisiana and raised in Oakland, Mr. Russell had starred for McClymonds High School (among his teammates was Frank Robinson, now in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame) but was a raw recruit when he arrived at U.S.F., offering more promise than polish. He was also, he later wrote, one of only two Black students in U.S.F.’s freshman class. The other was Hal Perry, who was also on the basketball team.

Russell
A 1955 publicity shot of Bill Russell. (Courtesy of University of San Francisco Athletics)

“You could get a good education at USF. The Jesuits have a flair for it,” Mr. Russell wrote in his memoir, Go Up for Glory. He remembered most of all a class in logic with a Jesuit. “I never forgot the lesson he taught me. Think.” Mr. Russell’s roommate was K.C. Jones, another Black player a year older. As was the case in many colleges at the time, U.S.F.’s dorms were mostly converted army barracks.

“There was a frightening feeling of unreality as I walked around that campus,” Mr. Jones remembered in his memoir, Rebound. “I mean, what was I doing there? I was awful lonesome. I felt the glances and heard the racial wisecracks, and it didn’t exactly boost my confidence level, but it surely fueled my determination to succeed.”

Mr. Jones credited Phil Woolpert with making him feel at home. “The Jesuits were firm and fair. They reached out to me,” he remembered, “but it was Phil who put his arm around me. From the first I knew he was color blind—when you’re black, you can tell.” Mr. Woolpert also helped Mr. Jones’s mother find a job working as a maid at the Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Though Mr. Russell later wrote that Mr. Jones spoke not a word to him for their first month as roommates, the two eventually became close friends.

In his first varsity game, Russell guarded Berkeley’s All-American center, Bob McKeen. He blocked McKeen’s first shot into the third row.

In his first season, 1952-53, Mr. Russell played on U.S.F.’s freshman team in accordance with N.C.A.A. rules at the time. The next season, he looked forward to playing with Mr. Jones and Jerry Mullen on a team with great promise. In his first varsity game, on Dec. 1, 1953, Mr. Russell was matched up against U.C. Berkeley’s All-American center, Bob McKeen. Mr. Russell blocked Mr. McKeen’s first shot attempt into the third row. He scored 23 points and blocked 13 shots as U.S.F. won by 19 points.

Unfortunately, Mr. Jones suffered a burst appendix the next day and missed the rest of the season. The team also struggled with internal dissension. Some of it was caused by white students and alumni (and some team members) who refused to accept Mr. Russell, Mr. Jones and the other Black team members, according to the historian Aram Goudsouzian in his article in California History, “The House That Russell Built: Bill Russell, the University of San Francisco, and the Winning Streak That Changed Basketball.” “They didn’t see the need to have us in the school,” remembered Hal Perry.

Mr. Russell fought an upperclassman during the season; he also feuded with Mr. Woolpert, who called him a lazy player and often kicked him out of practices for loafing. The coach also tried to change his star’s playing style. “I was not fond of Woolpert as a coach, but I liked him as a man…sometimes,” Mr. Russell wrote. “I believed then and I believe now that he played favorites.” He also felt that Mr. Woolpert gave special attention to white players.

The coach was no shrinking violet himself—he had worked as a prison guard before getting into coaching, and as a player at Loyola University in Los Angeles (now Loyola Marymount University), he was thrown out of four games for fighting. He later told Sports Illustrated that “Bill was a man of many moods. We had a lot of run-ins.” The Dons finished that season 14-7.

U.S.F. was the first major program to start three Black players, and the squad felt the ire of opposing fans and players.

A dynasty begins

Before the 1954-55 season began, several small but momentous changes in the Dons’ starting lineup set the stage for their leap to national prominence. The team’s two starting forwards, Stan Buchanan and Jerry Mullen, had both graduated, and Karl Boldt and Mike Farmer, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, moved into their spots. “When I was on the freshman team, I was the starting center,” Mr. Farmer told America in a phone interview. “I told K.C., ‘I think I can beat out Russell at center.’ He told me, ‘Kid, you better find another position if you want to play this season.’”

In the second game of the season, the Dons lost to U.C.L.A. After the game, Mr. Woolpert moved Hal Perry, who had been scheduled to come off the bench, into the starting lineup at guard. It gave U.S.F. an intimidating defensive lineup: two fast guards in Hal Perry and K.C. Jones up front; Karl Boldt and Mike Farmer at the forward positions, and Bill Russell down low, dominating around the basket. As recounted in James W. Johnson’s The Dandy Dons, the move reassured some of the Black players on the team that Mr. Woolpert was not favoring his white players at the expense of the team’s fortunes.

It also gave U.S.F. a starting lineup with three Black players. This broke an unspoken rule in a still deeply segregated college basketball climate: White players should be the majority of starters. U.S.F. was the first major program to start three Black players that year (U.C.L.A. and Duquesne followed suit later that season, but many prominent national programs remained completely white for another decade or more), and the U.S.F. players felt the ire of opposing fans and players when the groundbreaking squad became impossible to beat.

Told by their hotel that Black players would have to stay in an Oklahoma City college dorm, the players voted to stay as a group in the dormitory.

One of the team’s greatest challenges came shortly after the change in lineup, when the Dons traveled to the All-College Tournament in Oklahoma City. Told by their hotel that Black players were not welcome and would have to stay in an Oklahoma City college dorm, the players voted instead to stay as a group in the dormitory. Mr. Woolpert and his top assistant, Ross Giudice, stayed with the players as well. Before the team’s first game, fans began pelting them with coins as they took the floor. Mr. Farmer laughed upon remembering Bill Russell’s reaction: “He told Woolpert, ‘Can you pick up those coins? That’s the only money I’m going to make in college.’”

USF champions arrive.
The 1954-55 University of San Francisco Dons arrive in San Francisco after winning the N.C.A.A. national championship. Holding the ball aloft is star center Bill Russell. (Photo courtesy of University of San Francisco Athletics).

U.S.F. won the tournament, then swept through both their own league and the N.C.A.A. tournament. They played La Salle University of Philadelphia and its star, Tom Gola, in the championship game. La Salle was heavily favored, in part because many East Coast college coaches did not take West Coast basketball seriously. “Bill Russell was not a big name on the East Coast until they beat us in that tournament,” Mr. Gola later remembered. “In fact, I had never seen Bill Russell until we met in the lobby of the hotel.”

That soon changed. Mr. Russell scored 23 points and collected 25 rebounds as U.S.F. won, 77 to 63. He was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Upon their return to San Francisco, the team was greeted by a raucous crowd at the airport as they descended from the plane—with a jubilant Bill Russell holding a basketball several feet over the heads of everyone on the stairs.

After the season. Mr. Russell dealt with another case of racial discrimination. Despite his and the team’s achievements, he was named runner-up to Santa Clara’s Kenneth “Big Cat” Sears, a white player, as 1955 Northern California Player of the Year.

Bill Russell told Coach Woolpert, "Can you pick up those coins? That’s the only money I’m going to make in college."

Back to back?

U.S.F. went into the 1955-56 season with far higher expectations than the year before. K.C. Jones had been granted an extra year of eligibility (with the caveat that he could not play in the postseason N.C.A.A. tourney) because he played only a single game in 1953-54. Gene Brown, a Black sophomore, had come up from the freshman team and was already challenging for a starting spot.

No longer were the Dons considered upstarts. Mr. Russell was a pre-season All-American and had gone to the White House during the off-season, meeting President Dwight Eisenhower. The team’s new warmup jerseys included gold capes. U.S.F. even started raising money for a gym, though in the meantime the team continued to play in the St. Ignatius High School gym or Kezar Pavilion; big games moved to the Cow Palace, a large indoor arena in nearby Daly City, where the team drew crowds of over 10,000.

Over the course of the year, Mr. Russell was profiled by everyone from The New York Times to Life to Time to Sports Illustrated. The legendary U.C.L.A. coach John Wooden called him “the greatest defensive man I’ve ever seen.” The N.C.A.A. even widened the free throw lane to 12 feet in what was seen by many as an attempt to restrain the big center’s dominance.

The legendary U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden called Bill Russell “the greatest defensive man I’ve ever seen.”

A joke on the team at the time went thus: If the team went down in a plane crash, the headlines would read “Bill Russell Killed.” On the back pages, one would find “teammates also dead.”

With Mr. Russell averaging more than 20 points and 20 rebounds a game, the Dons finished the regular season 25 to 0, often winning by two dozen points or more. Both Mr. Russell and Mr. Jones were named first-team All-Americans.

Racial segregation continued to be an issue. When the team traveled to Louisiana to play Loyola University of New Orleans two days before Christmas, they were told the Black players could not stay in the same hotel as the rest of the team. “We met as a team to discuss what we should do,” Mr. Farmer remembered. Should the team boycott the game? “But Russ and K.C. both said, ‘Let’s go down there and make a statement.’” The Black players stayed at Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically Black Catholic university in New Orleans, while the white players stayed in the hotel. U.S.F. won the game by 18 points.

The N.C.A.A.’s ruling that K.C. Jones’s extra season of eligibility did not extend to the postseason tournament that year made no difference: Mr. Woolpert inserted Gene Brown—whom some on the team felt should have been starting all along as a forward—at guard, and the Dons didn’t miss a beat. After they crushed Southern Methodist University in a semifinal game in the N.C.A.A. tournament, S.M.U. coach Doc Hayes offered a tribute that surely resonated with a Cold War audience at the time: “San Francisco can beat any basketball team I know of. San Francisco can beat the Russians.”

The next night, U.S.F. beat Iowa for the championship and their 55th consecutive win, with Mr. Russell scoring 26 points and hauling in 27 rebounds. The Dons were the first team in the N.C.A.A. tournament era to finish its season undefeated. “This must be the finest undergraduate team since Naismith first hung the peach basket,” wrote The San Francisco Chronicle.

“This must be the finest undergraduate team since Naismith first hung the peach basket,” wrote The San Francisco Chronicle.

Further glories

Even without his stars, Mr. Woolpert and U.S.F. had two more extraordinary seasons. In 1957, the team extended its winning streak to 60 games, and U.S.F. finished third in the N.C.A.A. tournament; in 1958, the team had a 25 to 2 record. After that season, Mike Farmer was selected with the third pick in the 1958 draft and played in the N.B.A. for seven seasons.

In four seasons, Phil Woolpert’s teams had lost a total of 10 games while winning over 100.

Both Mr. Russell and Mr. Jones played for the United States in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, with the U.S. team taking home the gold medal and winning every game by at least 30 points. After flirting with the Harlem Globetrotters for a bit, Bill Russell was drafted by the Boston Celtics. K.C. Jones would join the Celtics two years later after serving in the Army. Both men had Hall of Fame careers in the N.B.A., and Mr. Russell went on to collect 11 championships in 13 years with the Boston Celtics. He also became the first Black coach in N.B.A. history.

Mr. Russell’s relationship with U.S.F. soured after he went pro. “I was sixteen credits shy on graduation, but I had already planned on going back after my first professional year and taking the one semester I needed,” he wrote in Go Up for Glory. He said he “planned on waiving the scholarship and paying for the semester as a gesture of good will.”

Bill Russell’s legend in the N.B.A. looms over the game to such an extent that every single team in the N.B.A. has retired his jersey,

However, Mr. Russell found that “the gesture was unnecessary. No one offered me the remainder of the scholarship. Dear old USF charged me full retail for my tuition. The scholarship, it turned out, was only good while I was playing basketball.” A Jesuit teaching at U.S.F. who later became the school’s president, John Lo Schiavo, S.J., blamed the incident on the university treasurer, “a cranky old Jesuit priest.” The university tried over the years to make it up to Mr. Russell but found him uninterested.

“The school did everything it could to get him back involved,” Mr. Farmer told The San Francisco Chronicle after Mr. Russell’s death. “But Russ had made up his mind, and that was it. I think he took it to the extreme, but that was him.”

Bill Russell’s legend in the N.B.A. looms over the game to such an extent that every single team in the N.B.A. has retired his jersey, Jackie Robinson style: Never again will a player wear No. 6 in an N.B.A. game. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Mr. Russell died on July 31, 2022, at the age of 88. “Bill Russell helped put U.S.F. on the map in the 1950s,” said U.S.F. President Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., at the time. “We are grateful not only for his many contributions to our community, the athletic department and Jesuit education, but also for his courage and commitment to advancing justice, on and beyond the basketball court.”

Mr. Russell’s obituary in The New York Times listed his many off-the-court passions:

He took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was seated in the front row of the crowd to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. He went to Mississippi after the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered and worked with Evers’s brother, Charles, to open an integrated basketball camp in Jackson. He was among a group of prominent Black athletes who supported Muhammad Ali when Ali refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War.

Look magazine's All-America team in 1951 didn't have a single Black starter. That same feature in 1958 showcased four Black players.

Impact on the game

How did the Dons change the game? “This team has done more than any other to shine a light on race relations in this country,” argued an editorial in the U.S.F. student newspaper, The San Francisco Foghorn, after their second championship in 1956. But in truth, the racial barriers the U.S.F. team faced—and challenged—did not disappear immediately. After U.S.F.’s back-to-back wins, the next three N.C.A.A. champions were all-white teams. In some corners, the Dons’ success led to a backlash against Black players. According to James W. Johnson in The Dandy Dons, the state of Louisiana banned interracial athletic events in 1956, shortly after U.S.F.’s historic game in New Orleans, joining other Southern states with similar bans.

But small changes soon became large ones. In 1963, during Loyola Chicago’s championship run, an all-white Mississippi State team defied a state government order prohibiting them from playing racially integrated teams to face off against Loyola and its four Black starters in the N.C.A.A. tournament.

And as Mr. Goudsouzian notes in “The House That Russell Built,” when Look magazine published its All-America team in 1951, not a single Black starter could be found. That same feature in 1958 showcased four Black players in the starting five—among them another West Coast star for a small Jesuit school, Seattle University’s Elgin Baylor. Because of the dominance of players like Mr. Russell, Mr. Jones and Mr. Baylor in the N.C.A.A. and N.B.A. in the years that followed, the face of collegiate and pro basketball was increasingly Black.

Energized by the school’s back-to-back titles and new national prominence in the mid-50s, U.S.F. alumni and benefactors provided the funds for an 8,000-seat arena, named the War Memorial Gymnasium, which broke ground in 1956 and opened its doors in 1958. It is still in use today, and in its rafters hang the jerseys of three players from those mid-50s squads: Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Mike Farmer. The 1970s brought the team some glory days once again, but scandals in the 1980s involving U.S.F. players being paid by university boosters caused the school to drop men’s basketball as a sport.

In 1985, the university reinstated the program, and Bill Russell returned to campus for the first time in a quarter-century to welcome the team’s rebirth.

The 2023 preseason coach’s poll for the West Coast Conference had the Dons ranked third, behind only St. Mary’s and the perennial powerhouse Gonzaga. They have been averaging 20 wins a season since 2016. Men’s collegiate basketball is a far bigger business today than it was 70 years ago and no longer rewards small-school Cinderella dreams quite as often. But who knows: Maybe somewhere in Oakland there’s a gangly high school baller with a ferocious will to win, he comes to Inner Richmond, and then...

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that K. C. Jones was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the second round in 1956.

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