1956 SAN FRANCISCO
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Greatest College Basketball Teams: Spotlight 1956 San Francisco
The 1956 San Fransisco Dons basketball team went 29-0. They were in the middle of a 60-game winning streak, which is second only to the 88-game UCLA winning streak from 1971-1974. Hall of Fame Coach Phil Woolpert was the first coach to start three black players: guards K.C. Jones and Hal Perry and the greatest defensive center ever, Bill Russell. “Yes, it’s Russell,” Woolpert said when asked about his team, “but it’s more than just him. Why, this is the finest college basketball team I’ve ever seen.”
Bill Russell was uncoordinated in junior high and high school. He was cut from his junior high school basketball team. In high school in Oakland, he barely made the team, but by his junior and senior years, he was a good player. He was never a good shooter, however, and the only college to offer Russell a scholarship was nearby University of San Francisco. Coach Phil Woolpert was impressed with Russell’s leaping ability, but described him as “ungainly.”
Russell went out for both the basketball team and the track team. On the track team, he ran the 440 yard dash and was a high jumper. In 1956, Russell was considered the seventh best high jumper in the world.
In his first varsity game against California at the start of the 1953-54 season, Russell scored 25 points and blocked 13 shots. Junior guard K.C. Jones ruptured his appendix the next day and was out for the rest of the season.
The team struggled. Russell blamed his teammates and his coach. Woolpert and Russell were constantly arguing. “He was a lazy player,” Woolpert said. “I kicked him out of the gym many, many times.”
In 1954-55, K.C. Jones returned. Russell’s attitude and the team’s fortunes changed.
Russell and Jones became good friends. After talking to Jones, Russell came to the realization that basketball was a team game. He realized that the team could be better than its individual players by playing and making adjustments together. He learned this so well that Boston Celtics teammate Bob Cousy later called Russell “the ultimate team player.”
The Dons went 28-1 and won the NCAA Championship. Russell averaged 21.4 points and 20.5 rebounds per game. Although blocked shot statistics were not kept in 1955, Russell almost certainly had more than any player before him. He would stand just outside the lane, perfectly time his jumps and swat opponents’ shots away from the basket. He was ambidextrous and could block a shot with either hand. “Heck, I’d rather block a shot any day than score,” Russell said. “It seems to do more for team morale.” On offense, he would use his leaping ability to guide teammates’ shots into the basket and to perform spectacular backwards dunks. Three-time All-American Tom Gola said that even though Russell couldn’t shoot, guiding teammates’ shots in the basket gave Russell 20 points per game. Russell was named an All-American and the most outstanding player of the NCAA Tournament.
“They’d never seen anything like him,” K.C. Jones said of Russell. “He was a shot-blocker and rebounder and skinny, with determination and an intelligence for the game.”
After the season, the NCAA widened the lane to move Russell further from the basket and adopted an offensive goaltending rule. These rules didn’t stop Russell. He moved to the high post and averaged 20.5 points and 21 rebounds in 1955-56. On defense, Russell was still able to jump across the lane and block shots. He was again named All-American and All-NCAA Tournament. He was also named most outstanding college basketball player by UPI.
Russell still holds the University of San Francisco record for career rebounds with 1,606 (in only three years of play, since freshmen were not eligible to play varsity basketball when Russell played). Russell is also one of only six college players to average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds for an entire college career.
Enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Russell was the captain of the gold-medal winning 1956 U.S. Olympic basketball team and is considered the greatest defensive center in the history of the NBA. Russell was five-time NBA MVP (1958, 1961-63, 1965), 12-time NBA All-Star, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year (1968), and The Sporting News Athlete of the Decade (1970). He led the Boston Celtics to 11 Championships, including eight in a row.
K.C. Jones came to the University of San Francisco one year before Russell. What does K.C. stand for? Nothing. K.C. is Jones’ given name.
Jones went to high school at Commerce High in San Francisco. Like Bill Russell, the only scholarship offer K.C. Jones received was from nearby University of San Francisco. Also like Bill Russell, K.C. Jones is one of the best defensive players in basketball history.
Jones was quiet, but very popular. Fellow guard Hal Perry described Jones as “a quiet leader. He’d say, I’m not going to tell you to do anything. I’m just going to ask you to do what you do best.” Teammate Mike Preaseau agreed. “He was so nice and quiet, but what a leader!” Bill Russell said that when he first joined the team, Jones didn’t speak to him for nearly a month, and Jones was his roommate!
After sitting out the 1953-54 season, Jones came back and averaged 10.6 points and 5.1 rebounds in 1954-55. In the 1955 NCAA championship game, although only 6’1”, K.C. Jones was asked to guard 6’6” superstar Tom Gola on the defending champion LaSalle Explorers. Jones said “the word on the street was LaSalle was going to beat us by 900 points, that the University of San Francisco had a better chance of being struck by lightning on a sunny day.” In the event, Jones held Gola to just 16 points, while leading all scorers with 24 points himself. San Francisco won easily, 77-63. “There’s always a guy on the team who sacrifices, who plays good defense, who moves the ball, and that was K.C.,” Gola later said, “He was the catalyst for those San Francisco teams.”
At the start of the 1955-56 season, coach Woolpert was told that K.C. Jones was eligible to play the season, but because he played one game before his injury in 1953-54, he was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. Jones averaged 9.8 points and 5.2 rebounds during the 1955-56 regular season and was named an All-American.
A Hall of Famer, Jones joined Bill Russell on the gold-medal winning 1956 U.S. Olympic team and won eight NBA championships with Russell on the Boston Celtics. He later coached the Celtics to two NBA championships in 1984 and 1986.
At the beginning of the 1954-55 season, the 2-0 Dons faced the UCLA Bruins in Los Angeles. The Bruins won 47-40. After the game, coach Woolpert replaced starting guard Bill Bush with Hal Perry, giving the Dons three black starters. When replaced, to Bush’s credit, he said “This is best for the team, and I’ll do it coming off the bench.” For the rest of Russell’s, Jones’ and Perry’s college careers, the Dons never lost a game.
Perry averaged 6.9 points in 1955 and 9.1 points in 1956. Together with Jones, he swarmed opposing teams with aggressive full-court pressure defense. Jones and Perry could take chances because if someone got by them, Russell would block the shot.
The remaining two starters for the 1955-56 season were forwards Carl Boldt (8.6 pts., 5.0 reb.) and Mike Farmer (8.4 pts., 7.7 reb.). Boldt was recruited out of the Army. He was a good offensive player. Boldt was convinced to play for the Dons because of Russell. “We were a great team,” Boldt said, “but so much came down to Russell.” Farmer was the Dons’ second leading rebounder and a solid inside player.
There was an unwritten rule in college basketball at that time that teams did not start three black players. Coach Woolpert said that nobody ever told him there was a quota for black starters, “but you knew as a coach that you had to be aware of the quota thing.” Shortly after Perry was inserted into the Dons starting lineup, the team ran into racial problems at the All-College Tournament in Oklahoma City. The Dons were told that the black players could not stay in any downtown hotels. A team meeting was held and the team voted to all stay in a school dorm that was empty for the holidays. Hal Perry later said of Woolpert, “He deserved as much respect as any coach, but even more than that, as much as any person in any phase of the civil rights movement…. He went through hell.”
Bill Russell never forgot the subtle and overt racism he experienced playing college basketball. In the NBA, he became an outspoken, almost militant, critic of racism.
The Dons won with terrific defense. In both 1955 and 1956, the Dons allowed fewer points than any other team in college basketball. “If your opponents can’t shoot,” Woolpert said, “they can’t score.”
The Dons started the 1955-56 season having won 26 games in a row. They showed up for the Holiday Festival Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York with a 7-0 record. The Dons’ two tournament opponents couldn’t compete. In the first game, the Dons crushed LaSalle, 79-62. In the second game, they pounded Holy Cross 67-51. St. Johns also competed in the tournament. Afterwards, St. Johns’ coach said that San Francisco was “the best college basketball team I’ve ever seen.”
On January 28, 1956, the Dons took on California. California employed a slow down offense, at one point having a player stand and hold the ball for eight minutes. The slow down offense didn’t work. San Francisco won easily, 33-24.
A huge crowd of 15,732 fans showed up at the Cow Palace in San Francisco to see the Dons’ last regular season game. The Dons crushed St. Mary’s College 82-49. When K.C. Jones left the game, which would be his last as a Don, with nine minutes to play, he received a standing ovation.
Reserve Gene Brown filled in for the ineligible K.C. Jones in the NCAA Tournament. In the first game against UCLA, the Dons were trailing 4-2. For the next eight minutes, UCLA was unable to score. Gene Brown led the Dons with 23 points as the Dons cruised to a 72-61 victory.
The Dons faced Utah in the second game. The Dons led by only three at the half. Early in the second half, Utah cut the lead to 56-55. After that, the Dons ran away with the game, ultimately winning 92-77. Russell scored 27 and Gene Brown 18. After the tournament, Utah’s coach said “This was the greatest college team ever assembled.”
The 1956 Final Four was held in Evanston, Illinois. San Francisco easily defeated Southern Methodist in the semifinal game, 86-68. Russell scored 17 points and pulled down 23 rebounds, but Mike Farmer was the high scorer for San Francisco with 26. In the championship, San Francisco faced off against the Big Ten champion Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa jumped out to a 15-4 lead, but then San Francisco’s defense took over. Three possessions in a row, Bill Russell blocked Iowa shots. At halftime, San Francisco led 38-33. Russell ended up with 26 points and 27 rebounds, en route to an 83-71 San Francisco victory and second consecutive NCAA championship. Russell and Hal Perry were named to the All-NCAA Tournament team.
Name Pos Class Pts Reb
Bill Russell C SR 20.6 21.0
K.C. Jones G SR 9.8 5.2
Hal Perry G SR 9.1 2.0
Carl Boldt F JR 8.6 5.0
Mike Farmer F/C SO 8.4 7.8
Gene Brown G/F SO 7.1 4.4
Mike Preaseau F SO 4.1 3.1
Warren Baxter G SR 2.2 0.7
Bill Bush G SR 0.9 0.8
Tom Nelson C JR 0.5 0.7
How would the 1956 San Francisco Dons do against the teams of today? How would they handle the shot clock and the three pointer?
The 1956 Dons would be a very good team today. Bill Russell and K.C. Jones were fantastic pros and Mike Farmer was the third overall pick in the 1958 NBA draft. When asked in late 1980’s how Bill Russell would do against modern competition, Tom Gola said “Nobody could touch Russell.” The aggressive pressing defense invented by San Francisco has been used by many subsequent great teams, such as the UCLA teams of the late 60s and early 70s, 1988 Oklahoma, 1994 Arkansas, and 1996 Kentucky. Bill Russell and K.C. Jones are two of the best defensive players in the history of the game and would undoubtedly be great defenders today. Offensively, San Francisco might have trouble against today’s teams. San Francisco’s weakness was its lack of outside shooters. Jones, Perry and Boldt could all shoot from outside, but none of them were great shooters. Today, teams would collapse on Russell in a tight zone and force the Dons to make the three pointer. The Dons scored a lot of points on fast breaks off turnovers and blocked shots, but their half-court offense was slow. They would have to speed things up to avoid shot clock violations. Jones and Perry were excellent ball-handlers and passers, however, and could probably move the ball down the court more quickly if they needed to.
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