Road to perfection started at USF: Russell remains estranged, but 1956 team ever a treasure 

It began in December, in the weeks before Christmas, with wins over Chico State and USC and a seven-point victory over Marquette and a series of road trips that exposed the bigoted mores of a large swath of America at the tail end of 1955. They won at Wichita State, this USF men's basketball team that hadn't dropped a single game since an early loss to UCLA the season before, and then the Dons wound up in New Orleans for a game against Loyola of Chicago, where things turned so ugly that they had to dodge the loose change being tossed at them.

They won that game, too, as they won every game during that 1955-56 season. It was one of the few times where they deliberately showed no mercy, pressing relentlessly on defense, running up the score until near the very end, cruising to a 61-43 victory. They were an integrated team with three black starters and a couple more African-Americans coming off the bench, and the fans hurled pennies and nickels and dimes, so many that their best player, a gangly big man named Bill Russell, started picking them up and pocketing them, telling a teammate he figured he might as well get paid something for a trip like this one, telling one of the guys on the bench, "Hold these for me." All through the South, the black players stayed in separate facilities, and used separate bathrooms, and drank from separate water fountains.

"My mother always used to tell me, 'Don't say nothing,'" says one of those players, Gene Brown, who went on to become the first black sheriff of San Francisco. "'Keep your mouth shut.' You have to remember, that was right around the time of Emmett Till. So many different things had happened, and here we are with three black starters, winning every tournament we played in. It was unheard of."

They went to the Holiday Festival New York and beat La Salle and Holy Cross and UCLA, and then they came back home and beat all their competition in California, and then they won the NCAA Tournament almost as effortlessly. The closest call during the regular season was that Marquette game, in which Russell had to face off against Marquette center Terry Rand. Against Iowa in the national championship game, they trailed early on before pulling away to win by 12 points. The only contest beside Marquette that didn't extend to double digits was a 32-24 win over Cal, in which coach Pete Newell stalled the game for a good seven or eight minutes by having his center hold on to the ball at halfcourt.

"We were up five points, and it felt like if he could keep it close in the last three to five minutes, they might have a chance," recalls Mike Farmer, a forward on that team. "It was a weird game. They didn't even pass it around. They just stood out there."

Some six decades on, as Kentucky seeks to complete the eighth undefeated season in college men's basketball history, that USF team's numbers are dwindling — another key cog on that team, Carl Boldt, died in January — and the memories are growing hazier, and the best player on the what might still arguably be the best team in the history of college basketball refuses to come back to campus based on slights both real and perceived (another star player, K.C. Jones, is suffering from dementia).

But even after all these years, the first college basketball squad ever to go undefeated can still stake a claim to being one of the most important teams of all time. The Dons' 29-0 record that season was part of a larger body of work — a 60-game winning streak and two NCAA championships — that planted early seeds for college basketball's popularity in America.

Under coach Phil Woolpert, they ran a full-court press from the start of every game until they finally chose to administer mercy. They so smothered opponents with their defense that they changed the way the game was played. If someone managed to break through the initial layers of the press, there was Russell, guarding the rim like no one had before. They would practice for two hours and then Woolpert would take them outside and force them to run a couple of miles around the track.

"That was all the time," Brown says. "It just became a normal thing."

They were tall and they were fit and they were fast and they shattered racial barriers years before the civil-rights movement fully took hold. They were feted with ticker-tape parades through San Francisco. That undefeated season was the Dons' second consecutive national championship campaign, and was the centerpiece of a 60-game winning streak that remains one of the greatest accomplishments in the sport.

"We never really felt any tension," Farmer says. "The pressure mounted some because the streak was going on, and everybody worked to beat you, just like everyone wants to beat Kentucky. But it was a different era. I don't think you can really compare it."

Virtually the whole team hailed from the Bay Area, including Russell, who came from Oakland. For decades, they set the standard for what local basketball could be, and they propelled USF into a place as a national power until a series of scandals involving boosters and legal issues — most notably the arrest of Quintin Dailey for sexual assault — led the university to shut down the program. When it was restarted, in 1985, Russell showed up and gave a talk, speaking eloquently about what he had learned in his philosophy classes. He was still bitter, though, largely because he'd been asked to pay tuition upon returning to campus to complete his degree in 1957 (when asked during a recent deposition related to the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA, Russell said, he still had a "fractured relationship" with USF).

And so when those teams were honored at halftime of a USF game this season, Russell was once again a no-show, and has held out for the past three decades despite USF's repeated attempts to repair relations with him.

"Bill has a way of doing things," Farmer says, "and this is the way he responded. You can't change Bill."

Sixteen hours short of his degree when he left campus to play for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, Russell expected the school would offer to comp the remainder of his tuition. He then would agree to pay his own way as a goodwill gesture. But when he arrived for classes, he was stunned by a logistical disconnect: Because his scholarship had run out, he indeed would be required to pay his tuition.

"The gesture was unnecessary. No one offered me the remainder of the scholarship,"he wrote in "Go Up For Glory," his autobiography. "Dear old USF charged me full retail for my tuition."

That stubbornness, of course, is part of what made Russell great in the first place. It's part of what made that USF team unbeatable, in that the players refused to let themselves relax until the game was long-decided. Sixty years on, the notion of comparing eras is an impossible task, but there is little doubt that USF team set the tone for everything that came after, for the buildup of March Madness, for the relentless athleticism and unselfishness of a team like Kentucky. All these decades later, Gene Brown says, he's not only glad people still remember that team — on the verge of his 80th birthday, he's also grateful that he can still remember as much as he does.

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Michael Weinreb

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