The University of San Francisco would like to give the basketball legend his degree, 62 years after he left the school 16 credits shy of graduating. But Russell won’t return the school’s calls.
On the wall of Frank Allocco’s office in the War Memorial Gym at the University of San Francisco’s Sobrato Center, there’s a photo of the school’s 1955 national championship team. It’s a black-and-white picture with the team’s star, Bill Russell, holding a basketball in the center.
Allocco, the school’s associate athletic director, can see the photo while sitting at his desk. It’s a source of pride, but also of confusion. Russell, who led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships and is considered one of the greatest basketball players ever, is the university’s most esteemed alum. Yet despite repeated efforts, USF has been unable to connect with him over the last two decades. And no one understands why.
“We’ve been trying to figure out how to get him back here,” says Allocco. “We’d like to see him in person, but we just haven’t been able to make that bridge.”
Even Bill Cartwright hasn’t been able to make that connection. Cartwright, a USF graduate who played 16 years in the NBA and won three national titles with the Chicago Bulls, now works as the school’s Director of University Initiatives. “Numerous people from USF have reached out to Bill Russell,” says Cartwright. “Three or four of the past presidents have reached out. I’ve reached out to the person who’s closest to him—I don’t want to say specifically who that is—and had numerous conversations. The only person who’s resistant is him.”
It’s difficult to overstate what a big deal Bill Russell is at USF, a Jesuit school with 6,700 undergrads. After leaving the school in 1956, Russell became the anchor of the 1960s Boston Celtics dynasty, an uncanny shot blocker who revolutionized the sport’s defensive game. Over the course of his NBA career, he amassed 21,620 rebounds and was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times. [Despite repeated attempts, Russell could not be reached for comment for this story.]
Russell also became an outspoken civil rights activist, participating in the 1963 March on Washington and defending Muhammad Ali when he refused military service based on his Muslim beliefs. In 2011, Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In the early 1950s, when USF scout Hal DeJulio first saw the future star play in Oakland, however, Russell was still an ungainly and awkward high school student. But, according to a 2007 essay in California History, USF coach Phil Woolpert was impressed by Russell’s “timing, leaping ability, and sense of inner confidence.” He offered him a full scholarship. Once Russell arrived on campus, freshman coach Ross Giudice began teaching his new center the fundamentals of the game.
The lessons, along with teammate K.C. Jones’ guidance, helped Russell become a star. USF was already a basketball powerhouse, having won the 1949 National Invitation Tournament (NIT), and was one of the first universities in the nation to integrate its program. With Russell at center, they won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, and blazed through a record-setting 55-game winning streak. Russell left the school in May 1956, 16 credits shy of graduating, leading the U.S. to gold at the Melbourne Olympics before joining the Celtics in the fall.
After that, things kind of broke down. Russell returned to the school in the summer of 1957, hoping to finish his degree. “I planned on waiving the scholarship and paying for the semester as a gesture of good will,” Russell wrote in his 1966 autobiography, Go Up for Glory. But, he adds, “The gesture was unnecessary. No one offered me the remainder of my scholarship. Dear old USF charged me full retail for my tuition.”
Russell was so angry that he walked away, never finishing his degree. John Troccoe and Bernie Schneider, USF alums and basketball historians, believe the problem was a rule-bound Jesuit named Father Harold, who refused to give Russell his remaining scholarship. “Father Harold was kind of a brute,” says Troccoe. “I think what happened is Father Harold said, ‘Hey, it’s great to see you, Bill. I’m glad your Celtics won the national championship and congratulations on that gold medal. But sorry, you have to pay for those units you need to graduate.’ The funny thing is those units were about $12.50 at the time.”
Russell also harbored resentment for Coach Woolpert, who he felt had not advocated enough for him to be named the Bay Area press’s 1955 Player of the Year. That award went to Santa Clara’s Ken Sears, whose coach, Bob Feerick, lobbied fiercely for his player. “I think, though, that Russell and Woolpert eventually made up,” said Bill Hogan, the school’s athletic director of USF from 1991 to 2006.
The school has honored its most famous alum in a variety of ways—until just recently, an entire room in
Memorial Gym, the “Russell Room,” was devoted to his career—and Russell has returned to the school on several occasions. Troccoe recalls Russell attending a Black Student Union rally in 1967 or ’68. Russell gave a moving speech at the celebration in 1985 when USF reinstated its basketball program, after it had been shut down due to NCAA violations and sexual assault charges. He also attended the 50th anniversary, in 1999, of the NIT championship team, sitting between Ross Guidice and Hal DeJulio.
But then the relationship turned to mostly radio silence. Hogan, the former AD, golfed with him several times, but Russell skipped the school’s 150th anniversary in 2005. He also skipped the 50-year anniversary of his 1955 and ’56 championship teams, a players-only affair. “Bill Russell,” says Schneider, “was the only one who didn’t come.”
By all accounts, Russell was happy at USF. Stan Buchanan, one of his former teammates, recalls one winter when the team traveled to an Oklahoma City tournament, staying in college dorms with no heat. “It was a wonderful—if you’ll forgive the corny term—bonding experience,” says Buchanan. But they were in unheated dorms for a reason: Their hotel refused to allow blacks to stay. The team decided that if their black members couldn’t stay, they wouldn’t either. At a game in the Deep South, however, Russell and other African-American teammates had to stay separately from the team.
These were formative experiences for Russell. Though university officials wish he hadn’t had to experience them, they take great pride that his civil rights work has helped ensure that other athletes never have to
From the university’s point of view, we look at Bill Russell as more of a social activist. The school’s about social justice, and he’s the most pivotal guy from here to have done that. Frank Allocco
experience the same. The school, ranked the seventh most diverse in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, has strong social justice programs. And as part of a current renovation of its Sobrato Center, the university is building a Sport and Social Change Museum. Russell will be at its core. “People talk about the championships and how he was the greatest team player ever,” says Allocco, “but from the university’s point of view, we look at Bill Russell as more of a social activist. The school’s about social justice, and he’s the most pivotal guy from here to have done that.” If Bill Russell returned, the school would like to give him his degree and an honorary doctorate for his social justice work.
Russell, however, is notoriously immune to accolades. When he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, he refused to accept. (He later explained that being the first black NBA player in the Hall felt insulting to the amazing athletes who’d come before.) At this point, USF is racing against time. The people who were in the most contact with Russell from USF, Hal DeJulio and Ross Giudice, are dead. K.C. Jones is suffering from dementia. Russell recently turned 84 and, according to an NBA spokesman, is “not in the best of health.”
USF isn’t giving up. “Look, we just want to celebrate this dude,” said Cartwright. “He may be the best basketball player of all time. He is on our wall. He’s been in the Bill Russell room. The only thing we are missing is him.”