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
No, I wasn't nervous," grinned Russell. "I was just flat
AND TWO MAKES
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.
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."
Said SMU's Doc
Hayes: " San Francisco can beat Iowa [in the finals]. San Francisco can beat
any basketball team I know of. San Francisco," he added thoughtfully,
"can beat the Russians."
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.
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.