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Of course, he was right. Bill Russell was the vortex of those whirling championship teams. "He was as fiercely competitive, as proud an athlete as ever appeared in any sport," said Woolpert. "With Bill's great leadership and K.C. Jones's silent determination, those teams were almost superhuman. But Bill was a man of many moods. We had a lot of run-ins." Perhaps with two men of the complexity and intensity of Russell and Woolpert, a clash was inevitable.
In recent years, Russell has made no secret of his negative view of Phil Woolpert. In his book Go Up For Glory, published in 1966, Russell wrote, "I was not fond of Woolpert as a coach, but I liked him as a man—sometimes. I believed then and I believe now that he played favorites. I do not believe Woolpert did this because of prejudice. It was just the way he was. Perhaps it was my own prejudices. But though I gained my first fame with him, I could never be close to him as a man. I was a good basketball player. There were some who said I was great. Woolpert never said anything.... It never hurts to say a good word for your player. It hurt me plenty that Woolpert didn't."
One incident that particularly bothered Russell occurred in 1955 when Kenny Sears of Santa Clara was picked as Player of the Year in their conference. Russell thought he should have gotten the honor and blamed Woolpert's failure to praise him in the press.
"O.K.," said Woolpert, "my judgments are as imperfect as anyone's, but as a coach I have to make them. In those days I wasn't about to help give Bill an inflated sense of his own importance. As a sophomore he was a lazy player; I kicked him out of the gym many, many times for loafing during drills. When he was a junior there were a few problems; when he was a senior, none that I recall. He was furious about the Sears thing, and he told me he wouldn't show up for the presentation banquet. I said, 'Bill, that'll demean you as a man; it's beneath you.' He refused to go until the day of the dinner, then he was called on to make a speech. Honest to God, he was wonderful. He made a great, laudatory talk about Sears. A fine, unpredictable guy."
The USF national championship teams had three Negroes on the starting five—Russell, Jones and Hal Perry—as well as two splendid substitutes, Warren Baxter and Gene Brown. ("Phil was one of the first coaches to really key a major college team to Negro players," said Pete Newell. "Of course, that makes it all the more ironic that he was blasted by Russell.") Obviously, a nationally oriented team so constituted was bound to collide somewhere on its schedule with the bigotry of the day.
In December 1955, the University of San Francisco was booked to play Loyola of New Orleans, and there was a great deal of pregame upheaval, since New Orleans was then one of the really supersegregated cities in the U.S. "Everyone was edgy about it," recalled Woolpert. "And particularly Bill; he had been born in Louisiana." When USF arrived, the tension was extreme, but a local restaurateur—a Negro—threw a banquet for the team and the press. Each USF player was asked to make a speech, and Russell was the last to talk. "I was watching him as the fellows spoke," Woolpert recalled. "He was taking notes like crazy, and I was pretty worried about what he might say. Finally, he stood up and he was impassive as a sphinx. He looked around the table, and then he said: 'Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest place to be from in America is New Orleans....' And he went on from there to do a masterful job. Humorous and easygoing. No one could have defused a situation like that the way Bill did." When San Francisco did appear for the game, the team faced an all-white squad of Loyola players, before a capacity house—integrated. "The crowd cheered our Negroes kind of dutifully at the start," said Woolpert. "But you could almost bathe in the tension. About seven minutes into the game, a ball went up in the air and Russell came down with it. Two kids from Loyola fell, hard. Bill looked at them, then he put the ball down and helped both of them up. The crowd went wild, and the Negro kids on the team got standing ovations when they went out of the game that night."
Two years later there was an unpublicized but equally upsetting situation in Louisville during USF's victorious participation in the Blue Grass Festival. After a victory, the team's traditional celebration was to attend a movie, but Louisville would brook no racial mixing in its theaters, so Woolpert made dinner reservations for the team in a hotel dining room instead. "The kids went downstairs alone, and I was in my room," he said, "when the phone rang and one of the kids said, 'Coach, they won't let us in. No Negroes allowed.' I hit the roof. I called all over town that night and I finally got an assistant of Happy Chandler—he was governor there then. I chewed the guy up and down, and I told him I was going to write a letter to the NCAA telling them that the championships shouldn't be held in Louisville later that year because no one should dignify such bigotry by having a national competition there. We left the next day for Oklahoma City, and when I got there, I'd barely checked into my room when the phone rang. It was the manager of the arena in Louisville. 'Mr. Woolpert,' he said, 'won't you reconsider that letter? We're having a meeting of all restaurant, theater and hotel managers, and I think we can settle this thing.' I withheld the letter, and the town was opened up for the tournament. Of course, they went right back to the old ways as soon as it was over."
No one who saw Phil Woolpert's great USF teams can ever forget their cool mastery of fundamentals, along with an almost mystical ability to apply the kind of pressure that forced opponents to switch from their natural style and fall, fumbling, into the methodical, control game that San Francisco played best. Surprisingly enough in the light of the high-intensity, coast-to-coast recruiting of those days, nearly all of Woolpert's top men were products of the San Francisco area. Beyond that, as Jim Needles recalled, "Phil wouldn't take a kid unless he was positive—absolutely certain—that the boy could make it through college and would be able to make a success of something other than sports as a career."
Despite the cool and mathematical technique of Woolpert's game, his teams' 60-game string had some bizarre and hair-raising emotional moments. Take, for example, the night in Corvallis, Ore. when USF was playing Utah. The team had won 33 in a row but, at the half, Russell suddenly complained of chest pains. Not having his own team doctor along, Woolpert summoned a physician who—coincidentally—was a fan of the Oregon State team, which—also coincidentally—was to play USF the next night, if USF beat Utah. The OSU doctor's diagnosis was uncertain, but he suggested that Russell might have pneumonia and recommended that he play no more that night against Utah.
Faithfully, Woolpert kept Russell on the bench in the second half, although USF was clearly in trouble and Bill was insisting that he felt fine. Soon an ardent USF supporter turned up behind the bench and demanded to know why Woolpert was holding Russell out of the game. "In all honesty, the guy was pretty drunk when he asked me," said Woolpert. "And when I told him what happened, he began to rave that we should have a USF-oriented doctor look at Bill, that we shouldn't trust any Oregon State guy's opinion—even if he had taken the Hippocratic oath. This guy knew of a San Francisco doctor in the crowd and said he should look at Bill. I thought the doctor he was talking about was a Ph. D., not an M.D., because I'd once had one hell of a cocktail party conversation with him about free will or something. Anyway, it turned out that he was an M.D. and he did reexamine Bill, and he said that he was all right, maybe just a case of overexertion in the first half." Woolpert let Russell return to the Utah game, USF won going away that night and, Oregon State medicine notwithstanding, the team beat OSU 57-56 the next night.