A look back at the 1955 and ’56 University of San Francisco NCAA championship basketball teams.
In an era in which integration was still frowned upon, if not unheard of, in many Southern states, legendary African-American center Bill Russell emerged as the future of basketball. With his long arms, astonishing leaping ability and uncanny timing, Russell turned the act of shot-blocking into an art form. Under the guidance of cerebral coach Phil Woolpert, and alongside fellow future NBA hall-of-famer K.C. Jones, Russell led the Dons—who, with multiple black players, shocked and scandalized the basketball community—to back-to-back championships and redefined what it meant to play defense. Johnson (The Wow Boys: A Coach, a Team, and a Turning Point in College Football, 2006, etc.) combs through archival interviews as well as articles and books written by Russell and Jones to piece together the story of a team that revolutionized the game and endured an era of racial turmoil, supplementing the material with his own interviews. Without new input from Russell, Jones or the deceased Woolpert, however, the narrative feels like a discovery from a time capsule, with much of its perspective originating in an earlier era. There is little commentary from modern pundits, making it difficult to adequately contextualize and frame the legacy and influence of the team beyond the time period in which it played. Distance from segregation and a lack of game film contribute to USF’s accomplishments being overlooked, which makes Johnson’s chronicle a much-needed piece of basketball literature. But incorporating interviews with some of today’s top coaches, analysts and players—who could address modern facets of the game and its culture developed or influenced by USF—would have injected welcome insight.
A worthy topic for a retrospective—if only the narrative were as fresh and innovative as its subject.