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For a few minutes of the first half the big scoreboard high on the McGaw fieldhouse wall in Evanston, Ill. carried strong suggestions of optical illusion. IOWA 15, it said, SAN FRANCISCO 4. This was a phenomenon which left the 11,000 observers who had elbowed their way into Northwestern University's gymnasium to watch the 1956 NCAA basketball finals feeling strangely like the occupants of a car crossing the desert—the mirage was there and they could see it but they knew that as the journey progressed it would begin to shimmer and dim and finally go away—or at least it should.
They were right. In a few minutes the mirage disappeared, but long after the game was over, after San Francisco had won 83-71, after the Dons had accepted the big silver trophy which meant a second successive NCAA basketball championship, the mirage of mighty San Francisco trailing anyone by 11 points in a basketball game was still clear and sharp—an event over which to marvel. So marveling, a reporter asked Bill Russell what had happened there at the first of the game. Was he nervous?
"Nervous? No, I wasn't nervous," grinned Russell. "I was just flat scared."
AND TWO MAKES 55
Perhaps, but no one really believed it. For one thing, 6-foot 10-inch All-Americas just don't look scared very often. And for another, no one had been able to detect any trace of fear or worry or even a sense of urgency in the way Bill Russell played basketball during the most impressive series of unbroken victories ever recorded by a college team: 53 in a row coming into Evanston. To find out how San Francisco did it, strangers to the process had to look no farther than the two victories last weekend which made it 55.
In the semifinals San Francisco met Southern Methodist. This was a good SMU team, one of the best in Southwest Conference history and it had won 25 games against only two defeats with a mixture of accurate shooting, adequate height and superb balance. But the Dons almost made a farce of the contest. With the radarlike outside shooting of Harold Perry and Gene Brown threatening to rip the nets from the rims, and with a big 6-foot-7 sophomore named Mike Farmer left virtually unguarded while the Mustangs fell back to double-team Russell, San Francisco roared off to a 40-19 lead. This left Bill Russell with little to do except gather in most of the rebounds, bat away some SMU shots, intercept a few passes and, on occasion, soar into the air to guide back on course a stray shot by one of his teammates which threatened to miss the basket.
The final score was 86-68. "We didn't play too good a game," said Russell. "Or at least I didn't—Farmer and Perry and the others did. But we won and that's what we came down for."
How much of an authority the SMU coach is on international sport remains to be seen but he had the U.S. collegiate picture coming in sharp and clear. The following night, after Iowa built up its early 11-point lead, the handful of Dons out on the floor remained the five calmest individuals in the house. Methodically they wove a web around their own basket and began to riddle the defenses of the Hawkeyes; in eight minutes they were out ahead, and midway of the second half, before relaxing, the Dons once led by 17 points.
Bill Russell scored 26 points. He came down with 27 rebounds. He knocked away almost a dozen Iowa shots. And he so befuddled Hawkeye Bill Logan that the 6-foot-7 center who had scored 36 points against Temple in the other semifinal abandoned all attempts at scoring from underneath the basket and finished the evening with only 12 points. The only thing that prevented Bill Russell from winning the writers' award as most valuable player in the tournament was the most astounding shooting exhibition in NCAA playoff history, a 48-point spree by Temple's brilliant 5-foot-11 guard, Hal Lear, which helped the Owls to third place over SMU 90-81. But even so, most basketball men in the audience agreed among themselves that they would personally prefer a 6 foot 10-inch man—if he could do the things Russell could do—any old time.