BEFORE HE BECAME known as the greatest team player in pro sports, by winning 11 NBA titles in 13 years with the Celtics, Bill Russell was a late bloomer on the Bay Area high school basketball scene. His plan, after graduating from Oakland's McClymonds High in 1952, was to work in the local shipyards and save money for college. But then a scout from San Francisco, a small Jesuit university with no gym of its own, saw him play a rare good game and offered him a scholarship. And so the course of college basketball was forever altered.
Not much was expected of Russell, a 6'10" junior center (19.9 points, 19.2 rebounds as a sophomore), and his teammates—most of whom had been, like him, overlooked Bay Area prospects—at the start of the '54--55 season. But after an early loss to UCLA, Dons coach Phil Woolpert made a change that put an unheard-of three black players—Russell and guards K.C. Jones and Hal Perry—in the starting lineup. The reconfigured team went on a winning streak that would stretch to two years and a record 60 games, including the 1955 and '56 NCAA finals. Over the course of that run San Francisco tipped the balance of power from offense to defense, from white to black and, thanks to Russell, from horizontal to vertical. "We changed the game," he told SI in 2006. "I think you can even say we developed a whole new philosophy of basketball. We attacked the offense and made it react to the defense."
Aside from the presence of Russell—who averaged 20.5 points and 20.1 rebounds in 24 minutes per game that season—the Dons' offense wasn't noteworthy; indeed, it had just one play (a weave to the weak side). But their innovative, full-court pressure D was a thing of beauty. Its central element was the towering, often glowering, lefthanded Russell, whose flurry of blocks, and the fast breaks they often sparked, sadly went uncounted.
In the 1955 NCAA tournament, San Francisco had its only close call of the streak, a 57--56 win over Oregon State in the Western Regional final. In the title game the Dons beat defending champion La Salle 77--63. The next year they played to packed houses everywhere they went (they didn't get their own gym until '58), averaging 72 points—this in the era before the shot clock and the three-point arc—while holding opponents to 52 and finishing with a 25--0 regular-season record. In the NCAA finals, San Francisco beat Iowa 83--71 to become the third back-to-back champion and the first undefeated team in NCAA history. In that Final Four, Russell set rebounding standards that still stand: 27 boards in the final, 50 in the two games combined. (He influenced the rule book too: The lane was widened from six feet to 12 before the '56--57 season largely because of his shot-blocking abilities.)
Nearly 60 years after Russell played his last game for the Dons, it can still be said: The Oakland shipyards' loss was college basketball's gain.