How Bill Russell’s USF legacy was poisoned by the school’s mistake

Shortly after becoming president of the University of San Francisco, the Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald flew to Seattle for an important meeting.

There, he told Bill Russell’s lawyer how he would repair USF’s relationship with its most famous former student: free tuition so Russell could finally finish his bachelor’s degree; an honorary doctorate; an invitation to speak at commencement. The problem? Russell had recently collapsed at his home and wasn’t interested in meeting new people.

“I’m sorry, Paul,” Fitzgerald recalled Russell’s lawyer telling him that afternoon in 2014. “You’re too late.”

When news broke Sunday that Russell had died from natural causes at age 88, Fitzgerald was crestfallen. For eight years, he held out hope that Russell would get healthy, move past his old grudge against USF and make a triumphant return to campus. Now, Fitzgerald must face a harsh reality: any chance of reconciliation is gone.

He called it one of the university’s “biggest regrets.” In 1957, after winning his first of 11 NBA titles with the Celtics, Russell arrived at the Hilltop (USF’s main campus) to complete the last 16 credits needed for his degree. But when a Jesuit priest serving as university treasurer informed Russell that he would have to pay full tuition for that final semester — around $900 then, or almost $9,500 today — because his four-year scholarship had expired, Russell stormed off and told friends he was done with his alma mater.

Perry obit_01.jpg Dec. 26, 1955 – USF basketball 1955: From left: KC Jones, Mike Farmer, Bill Russell, Carl Boldt, Harold “Hal” Perry. Associated Press 1955 Chronicle File

Associated Press 1955 / Chronicle File

Outside of a brief return to campus in 1985 when USF reinstated men’s basketball after a three-year shutdown brought on by rampant rules violations, his relationship with the only college to recruit him out of Oakland’s McClymonds High School remained fractured. Calls and emails from Dons officials went unanswered. When USF honored his two NCAA championship teams and retired his No. 6 jersey, Russell was nowhere to be found.

“The school did everything it could to get him back involved,” said Mike Farmer, who at 85 is the only living starter from the Dons’ 1956 national champs. “But Russ had made up his mind, and that was it. I think he took it to the extreme, but that was him.”

Russell’s extended absence from campus saddened anyone who understood how much the tiny Jesuit school and future NBA great once meant to each other.

When a USF booster named Hal DeJulio discovered him during his junior season at McClymonds, the 16-year-old Russell was raw, uncoordinated and played half the time because his coach had him sharing the team’s 15th uniform with another player. After a year working with Dons assistant coach Ross Giudice, Russell blossomed into a two-way force — a big man who revolutionized the game with a blend of athleticism, intimidation and ingenuity.

With Russell patrolling the paint and throwing down the first alley-oop dunks, a college team with no home gym (it practiced at nearby St. Ignatius High School and played at the Cow Palace or Kezar Pavilion) won back-to-back NCAA titles and a then-record 60 straight games. In doing so, the Dons became agents of change.

Their signature full-court press, in which guards KC Jones and Hal Perry herded ballhandlers towards the middle so the left-handed Russell could block ill-advised shots and ignite fastbreaks, forced opponents to place more emphasis on defense. In response to Russell’s dominance, the NCAA widened the lane from six feet to 12 and banned offensive goaltending.

Perhaps USF’s biggest contribution to basketball had little to do with X’s and O’s. A decade before Texas Western became the first team with an all-Black starting lineup to win an NCAA title, the Dons went undefeated in the 1955-56 season with five Black rotation players, including three — Russell, Jones and Perry — who started.

When USF was invited to play at Loyola-New Orleans that December, Dons head coach Phil Woolpert called a meeting. Black players would have to eat in separate restaurants and sleep in a separate motel from their white peers. As the team weighed whether to play, Russell stood in front of the group.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Farmer said. “Russ told us all, ‘Let’s just go and make a statement.’ So, that’s what we did.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 6: Bill Russell (center) sits with his University of San Francisco teammates during a game against St.  Mary's at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, CA., on March 6, 1956. Russell led all scorers with 22 points in a game that capped the end of a perfect regular season for USF.  (Ken McLaughlin/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – MARCH 6: Bill Russell (center) sits with his University of San Francisco teammates during a game against St. Mary’s at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, CA., on March 6, 1956. Russell led all scorers with 22 points in a game that capped the end of a perfect regular season for USF. (Ken McLaughlin/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Ken McLaughlin

As the Dons took the floor for warmups, white Loyola fans mimicked monkeys, shouted racial slurs and tossed change at Black players’ feet. Russell, who had spent his early childhood less than 300 miles away in Monroe, La., was unfazed. By the time the final whistle sounded on USF’s 61-43 win, a capacity crowd stood and applauded.

Dignity in the face of racism would become a huge part of Russell’s legacy. When Jones and another Celtics teammate, Satch Sanders, were denied service at a Louisville restaurant in 1961 because of their race, Russell and other Black players packed up and left town before their scheduled exhibition game there. Two years later, during the prime of his NBA career, Russell marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

When civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated that same summer, Russell worked with Evers’ older brother, Charles, to organize an integrated basketball camp in Mississippi. Even after receiving death threats, Russell ran the camp.

At the risk of alienating fans and sponsors, Russell was one of the first high-profile athletes to call himself “Black” instead of “Negro,” play with a goatee and visit Africa. After each NBA season, Russell took a couple weeks off from workouts to read at home. When fans asked him for autographs, he declined, then offered a handshake instead — an interaction he found far more personal.

“He had a really sophisticated worldview,” Fitzgerald said. “It was an educated worldview, but it was also a really courageous one.”

Farmer acknowledged that Russell felt some racism at USF. But their conversations in the years after college made Farmer believe that the Hilltop was still a special place to Russell. In addition to that being where he burst onto the national scene and developed his voice as an activist, it was where he met his first wife, Rose Swisher, the mother of his three children.

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