For a fewminutes of the first half the big scoreboard high on the McGaw fieldhouse wallin Evanston, Ill. carried strong suggestions of optical illusion. IOWA 15, itsaid, SAN FRANCISCO 4. This was a phenomenon which left the 11,000 observerswho had elbowed their way into Northwestern University's gymnasium to watch the1956 NCAA basketball finals feeling strangely like the occupants of a carcrossing the desert—the mirage was there and they could see it but they knewthat as the journey progressed it would begin to shimmer and dim and finally goaway—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 silvertrophy which meant a second successive NCAA basketball championship, the mirageof mighty San Francisco trailing anyone by 11 points in a basketball game wasstill clear and sharp—an event over which to marvel. So marveling, a reporterasked Bill Russell what had happened there at the first of the game. Was henervous?
"Nervous?No, I wasn't nervous," grinned Russell. "I was just flatscared."
AND TWO MAKES55
April 2, 1956
Perhaps, but noone really believed it. For one thing, 6-foot 10-inch All-Americas just don'tlook scared very often. And for another, no one had been able to detect anytrace of fear or worry or even a sense of urgency in the way Bill Russellplayed basketball during the most impressive series of unbroken victories everrecorded by a college team: 53 in a row coming into Evanston. To find out howSan Francisco did it, strangers to the process had to look no farther than thetwo victories last weekend which made it 55.
In thesemifinals San Francisco met Southern Methodist. This was a good SMU team, oneof the best in Southwest Conference history and it had won 25 games againstonly two defeats with a mixture of accurate shooting, adequate height andsuperb balance. But the Dons almost made a farce of the contest. With theradarlike outside shooting of Harold Perry and Gene Brown threatening to ripthe nets from the rims, and with a big 6-foot-7 sophomore named Mike Farmerleft 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 todo except gather in most of the rebounds, bat away some SMU shots, intercept afew passes and, on occasion, soar into the air to guide back on course a strayshot by one of his teammates which threatened to miss the basket.
The final scorewas 86-68. "We didn't play too good a game," said Russell. "Or atleast I didn't—Farmer and Perry and the others did. But we won and that's whatwe came down for."
Said SMU's DocHayes: "San Francisco can beat Iowa [in the finals]. San Francisco can beatany basketball team I know of. San Francisco," he added thoughtfully,"can beat the Russians."
How much of anauthority the SMU coach is on international sport remains to be seen but he hadthe 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 thefloor remained the five calmest individuals in the house. Methodically theywove a web around their own basket and began to riddle the defenses of theHawkeyes; in eight minutes they were out ahead, and midway of the second half,before relaxing, the Dons once led by 17 points.
Bill Russellscored 26 points. He came down with 27 rebounds. He knocked away almost a dozenIowa shots. And he so befuddled Hawkeye Bill Logan that the 6-foot-7 center whohad scored 36 points against Temple in the other semifinal abandoned allattempts at scoring from underneath the basket and finished the evening withonly 12 points. The only thing that prevented Bill Russell from winning thewriters' award as most valuable player in the tournament was the mostastounding shooting exhibition in NCAA playoff history, a 48-point spree byTemple's brilliant 5-foot-11 guard, Hal Lear, which helped the Owls to thirdplace over SMU 90-81. But even so, most basketball men in the audience agreedamong themselves that they would personally prefer a 6 foot 10-inch man—if hecould do the things Russell could do—any old time.
Coach PhilWoolpert, who has been sadly shaking his head for two years while otherspersisted in ranking his Dons as possibly the greatest team in collegebasketball history, finally had to admit they probably are. "This team isthe finest I've ever seen," he said. "I can say that in all honestynow. It has done everything asked of it. The difference—without a doubt—wasRussell."
While the objectof all the discussion was thinking ahead to gaining an Olympic berth in thetrials at Kansas City April 2, others were thinking even farther ahead. One ofthe first into the San Francisco dressing room with congratulations was a bigguy who used to play quite a bit of basketball himself and is now generalmanager of the professional Minneapolis Lakers—and George Mikan had a fountainpen handy, too. Meanwhile, over in the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Chicago's LakeShore Drive, the rules committee of the National Basketball Coaches Associationwas paying Bill Russell perhaps his biggest tribute: in executive session theywere seriously considering a new set of rules to prevent the inordinately talland agile player from vaulting into the air and slapping the ball down into thebasket. It was a problem which no one worried much about before Russell and wasthe coaches' way of bidding goodby to an era—and taking steps to preventanother.
The NationalInvitation Tournament in Madison Square Garden brought more proof thatchampions come tall.
Dayton, rankedNo. 3 in the nation and top-seeded for the NIT, had a lineup which included7-foot Bill Uhl and averaged 6 feet 5½ inches for the starting five. Inpreliminary rounds they polished off slick little Xavier of Cincinnati 72-68and St. Francis of Brooklyn 89-58. Louisville, No. 6 nationally and seededsecond for the tournament, was a little smaller at 6 foot 4 but had in 6-foot-8Charlie (The Moose) Tyra, a player almost the equal of Uhl in physique andreportedly superior in talent. Louisville breezed past Duquesne 84-72 and St.Joseph's of Philadelphia 89-79. Then on Saturday, before 16,000 in the Gardenand a national television audience, the two big teams squared off against eachother.
Before thetournament began the bookies had picked Dayton. But after watching both teamsperform, they reversed their position: Louisville and Tyra, they said, was abetter combination. So it proved. After a nearly even first half Louisvilleoutran, outpassed and outshot Dayton so badly that with almost 10 minutes stillto play they had built up a 71-59 lead. The final score was 93-80.
Tyra, who scored27 points (Uhl had 19) and grabbed off 19 rebounds (Uhl had 10) was named thetournament's most valuable player. Not a Bill Russell, perhaps, but goodenough. And he has another year.