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March 28, 1955
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March 28, 1955

The Big Surprise Of 1955

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When the 1954-55 basketball season began, not even the home-town experts dreamed the University of San Francisco would be playing in the NCAA finals at Kansas City in March. Much less did anybody consider the possibility that the Dons would run over mighty La Salle 77-63, as San Francisco did last Saturday when they wrapped up the NCAA championship, symbol of national leadership.

In mid-December the players at the Jesuit USF were still anonymous; nobody looked toward the Dons for All-America candidates, and the coach's record in four years at USF was a dismal 45 wins against 49 losses. The Dons did not even have a home to play in; they rented the pavilion at nearby Kezar Stadium, borrowed the San Jos´┐Ż auditorium or used the Cow Palace when big-name schools like California and Stanford came to town.

But after losing the third game of the season San Francisco began to win ball games. Dick Pollard of SI's San Francisco bureau wired that the Dons were going to be the team to beat, but not until late December did reports begin to filter into the news about a rising power of the Pacific Coast. After the Dons finally broke into the national ratings around the first of the year, they kept on winning, and their sweeping victory over La Salle on Saturday brought to a climax the surprise of 1955. Bill Russell, their center, became an All-America; Phil Woolpert, the coach, is a good bet for Coach of the Year, and the Dons will probably no longer be orphans begging for a place to play. Appreciative San Franciscans have already raised $350,000 toward a $700,000 gym the Dons can call their own.

Shortly before the finals Coach Ken Loeffler of La Salle reviewed his strategy. "I think we just can't let that big guy get the ball. Once he gets his hands on it he shoots. We can stop him only by keeping the ball away from him."

The "big guy" was the gangling 6-foot 9 5/8-inch Bill Russell ("don't call me 6 foot 10, I'm enough of a goon as it is") who had sparked San Francisco all season. Pushing away the remains of a noonday breakfast before the big game, Russell answered a question on how he felt about playing against La Salle's All-America Tom Gola. "I'm not worrying about Gola, I'm just trying to help my team win." After a moment's reflection, however, he added, "But, man, that Gola would really give the coach an ulcer."

Phil Woolpert pulled his big surprise that night when the teams took the floor. K. C. Jones, 6 feet 1 inch tall, was assigned to guard Gola, who stands six inches higher. Jones got the job after he had startled the crowd and the San Francisco bench the night before against Colorado with his amazing leaps around the basket. Woolpert and his aides reasoned that Jones might be able to handle Gola. With Jones on Gola, Russell could stick around the basket on defense and handle rebounds. The strategy worked perfectly. Gola, having an off night, was held to 16 points. K. C. Jones further amazed everybody with his deadly shooting from outside, hitting for 24 points to lead the game's scoring.

Fine as Jones's performance was, Russell still remained the brightest star in the San Francisco galaxy. He clogged the middle to keep La Salle from driving in, snared 25 rebounds and batted away several shots by the Explorers.

But it was on offense that Russell broke the game open and won the hearts of the spectators. Operating from the post position right by the basket, the long fellow from San Francisco pocketed 18 points during the first half. Loeffler's boys simply could not keep Russell's hands off the ball. Particularly deadly were Russell's tapins. Timing his leaps perfectly, Russell would soar into the air just as a shot by a colleague floated in toward the basket and tip the ball into the basket while La Salle defenders impotently stretched and strained beneath. It was not Gola's night to give an ulcer to Phil Woolpert, but Russell was no help for Ken Loeffler's duodenal condition.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," says Russell, a highly animated and likable man. Russell counts his luck as starting in McClymonds High School in Oakland where he came under the influence of Coach George Powles. "He may not have known too much about basketball," says Bill, "but he taught me a lot of other things, how important your heart and your attitude is."

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