Miracles on the Hardwood: The hope-and-a-prayer story of a winning tradition in Catholic college basketball

John Gasaway
·8 min read

Excerpted from Miracles on the Hardwood: The Hope-and-a-Prayer Story of a Winning Tradition in Catholic College Basketball, published on March 16, 2021 by Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY.

You can buy this book on Amazon here.

Bill Russell’s San Francisco teammates for 1955–56 still included KC Jones and Hal Perry, who were now joined by new starters Carl Boldt and Mike Farmer, as well as by reserve Gene Brown. Jones had been allowed to play varsity ball as a freshman in 1951–52 due to the same Korean War–era exemption that had applied to Tom Gola. In his “first” junior campaign in 1953–54, Jones had played just one game before his appendix ruptured. Now, prior to the 1955–56 season, he was granted a fifth year of eligibility by the California Basketball Association. The only remaining question was whether Jones would be eligible for the 1956 NCAA tournament. The NCAA would meet in convention in Los Angeles in January, and USF officials would make their case at that time.

Phil Woolpert had to work hard to project his usual worried air with regard to a defending champion returning three of its top four scorers, one that was an overwhelming choice as the nation’s No. 1 team in the season’s initial AP poll. Woolpert sounded far less concerned when discussing a rule change that pretty much everyone in the country, including and especially Russell, viewed as being specifically targeted at Russell. The lane had been widened to 12 feet, and Woolpert, for once, sounded utterly and correctly nonchalant. “They aren’t going to stop [Russell] with puny things like a 12-foot lane,” he said. “The only way they’ll beat him is to pass legislation that will keep him from lifting his arms.”

Woolpert crafted a schedule that was a dramatic departure from the previous year’s. In 1954–55, the Dons had played three regular-season games in Oklahoma City and 21 in the state of California (with 17 in the Bay Area). Now, as the defending champion, USF would venture confidently east of the Mississippi for the first time in any of the players’ careers. The road trip would include stops at Chicago Stadium, Wichita State, Loyola New Orleans, and, finally, Madison Square Garden. It was an ambitious itinerary that got off to a listless start: San Francisco trailed for much of the game against Marquette in the Windy City. Russell scored just one basket in the first half against the 6-foot-9 Terry Rand before the Dons came to life and prevailed 65–58.

Playing a true road game against a less prominent opponent like Loyola New Orleans, as the Dons did next, represented a regional homecoming, of sorts, for Russell, a North Louisiana native who’d lived in Monroe until he was eight years old. On a less sentimental level, it was also a sizable gift to the home team. The Wolf Pack were making a concerted effort to raise the profile of their Jesuit institution through basketball, and why not? Russell himself, despite living in Oakland for a decade, had never heard of the University of San Francisco until he received a phone call from its coaching staff. For its part, however, Loyola was learning that USF’s rise was easier to admire than duplicate. Faced with, among other things, a very different local attitude toward recruiting Black players, the Wolf Pack’s Jim McCafferty was finding it difficult to build his program. Ultimately, the school went for broke, building a new field house and scheduling home games against kindly and accommodating but also powerful Catholic friends like La Salle, San Francisco, and Dayton.

As far as the Dons were concerned, an additional incentive was to help Loyola along in its efforts—to at least be seen as hosting African American opposing players even if the Wolf Pack did not yet recruit such talent. USF’s lead athletic official, the Rev. Ralph Tichenor, was traveling with the team on the trip, and in Wichita he struck up a conversation with a local journalist. “You know,” Tichenor reportedly said, “one of the big reasons we booked a date in New Orleans with Loyola was the school officials there said we could help along their integration program.” The new field house in New Orleans was itself an $800,000 wager that longstanding strictures on segregation could be finessed or even subverted. Seating at the new venue was, in the parlance of the time, “mixed,” and the local Black press took note. “Negro sports fans of this community and surrounding areas will for the first time be treated as normal, ordinary human beings,” the Louisiana Weekly stated when the field house opened. La Salle and Alonzo Lewis had already been hosted by Loyola in December of 1954. While struggling on the court, the Wolf Pack program earned praise nationally, for “its pioneering of mixed athletic events in the South.”

Loyola could control the seating at its field house, but it couldn’t tell local businesses how to operate. Upon arrival in New Orleans, the San Francisco traveling party divided up into whites and African Americans. The former stayed at a hotel, the latter on the campus of Xavier, the HBCU that had put together its own dominant run of basketball in the 1930s.

San Francisco showed up at Loyola’s new field house and won the game by 18 in front of a “non-segregated crowd.” In the revealing formulation of the day, one laden with subtext, the game was said to have been played “without incident” (though not without officious mimicry of Black dialect by one referee). The AP noted only that the Loyola band that night “confined its selections to the Loyola fight song and the national anthem.” The Dons had visited New Orleans and received “thundering ovations,” but this game would prove to be a quiet moment amidst a gathering storm.

Basketball and football teams in the South had played and were playing against African American opponents on occasion, but particularly after Brown v. Board of Education was handed down in May 1954, politicians saw a new opportunity to take stands and make news. In the same month that USF played in New Orleans, Georgia’s governor vowed to block Georgia Tech’s football team from playing Pitt and Bobby Grier in the 1956 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. “The South stands at Armageddon,” Governor Marvin Griffin proclaimed. “We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle.” As it happens, the governor failed to prevent Georgia Tech from playing Pitt. Yet the battles continued and, if anything, intensified. The issue of teams playing against African American opponents would become more hotly contested in the South, not less, after December 1955.

The brackets held true, and USF and UCLA would meet in the title game. John Wooden had to be persuaded by Ned Irish and Garden officials to allow Willie Naulls and Morris Taft to play after the two players had violated curfew on their visit to the big city. In the end, the two stars did take the floor, and Wooden planned to stall if the Bruins could get a lead. Instead, the Dons captured the tournament title in convincing fashion, 70–53. In an otherwise lopsided game, Russell and Naulls provided a glimpse of basketball’s future, both in terms of entertainment value and in officiating. When Naulls sailed high above the rim only to have his attempt at a two-handed dunk stuffed by Russell, Wooden lobbied the officials for a goaltending call. The ball was obviously heading down, after all, but no one had ever seen a play like this before. Eventually, the call stood as a blocked shot.

Upon their return to San Francisco, the Dons publicly aired their grievances regarding what they called harsh and unfair treatment by the New York writers. “I kind of think I was the most hated man in New York,” Russell said, “what with all the catcalls, the boos, and the description of me in the papers.” If there was an injustice in how observers evaluated Russell’s game, it was found in a persistent reluctance to value him correctly as a scorer. One journalist managed to denigrate the star for shooting 77 percent and scoring 20 points from the floor. In this writer’s estimation, Russell “hit 10 of 13 from the field—a good percentage, yes, but not spectacular when it is realized practically all his shots were taken from close range, sometimes directly above the bucket.” The player who “couldn’t shoot” in fact became his program’s all-time leading scorer in his 41st game, breaking a record that Don Lofgran had set over the course of 56 outings. It is often said that Russell changed the game, and he did. He changed it faster than people could change how they thought and wrote about it.

Excerpted from Miracles on the Hardwood: The Hope-and-a-Prayer Story of a Winning Tradition in Catholic College Basketball, published on March 16, 2021 by Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY.

You can buy this book on Amazon here.