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Bill Russell

Defensive wizard revolutionized the college game

Posted: Monday March 14, 2005 4:15PM; Updated: Monday April 4, 2005 5:50PM

By Frank Deford

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Sports Illustrated asked its writers to weigh in with their picks for the greatest college basketball player of all time. Read through their selections and then tell us yours.

Well, all right, Bill Russell wasn't that good a player as a college sophomore, but he was still growing and had barely learned the game. After all, he didn't become a starter until his senior year of high school, and had only attracted one college offer, to the University of San Francisco. USF was such a non-entity when Russell joined the team that it didn't even have its own gymnasium. The Dons had to use a high school for practice.

But Russell was so dominant in his last two college seasons that he can spot everybody else a year and still be, indisputably, the greatest player in the history of the collegiate game. It wasn't just that he led USF to two consecutive titles (in 1955 and '56); Russell changed college basketball more than any other player in the history of the sport. After his junior season the three-second lane was doubled in size -- from six feet to 12 -- in an effort to diminish Russell's ability to completely control the game defensively. He was such an offensive force, often guiding his teammates' errant shots into the basket, that the next year the "Russell Rule" -- which outlawed offensive goaltending -- was instituted.

Perhaps more significantly, Russell was the figure most important in establishing the black man's place in the game. He suffered extraordinary prejudice, withstood it and prevailed. In a very real sense, it can be said that William Felton Russell changed the game defensively, offensively and culturally.

Of the repeat NCAA champions that have been led by especially outstanding players, Russell's only company would be Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) and Lou Groza of Kentucky in the '40s, UCLA's Lew Alcindor in the '60s, and fellow Bruin Bill Walton in the '70s. Groza, Alcindor and Walton were surrounded by other All-Americas. Russell had one outstanding sidekick in K.C. Jones, but Jones was declared ineligible for the '56 NCAAs, and the Russell juggernaut kept rolling just as well without him. Kurland, Groza, Alcindor and Walton all had Hall of Fame coaches -- Henry Iba, Adolph Rupp and John Wooden, respectively -- who were in the prime of their careers. Russell was coached by Phil Woolpert, a young man who would have little success once Russell departed.

Russell mattered more to his great team than did any other single player did to any other great team. As he learned the game, USF simply got better and better. During Russell's sophomore year, the Dons went a respectable 14-7. When he was a junior Russell and his teammates fell to UCLA early in the season and then never lost again, running off 55 wins in a row. During his undefeated senior season, the team never even had a close call, winning every game by no fewer than seven points. As he would more famously with the Boston Celtics, Russell not only dominated the game, but he made all his teammates better. Surely no college player has ever even approached Bill Russell as a force in the game.