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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
We reach for Iowa angles in our sports coverage sometimes because, well, Iowa doesn’t churn out a lot of Bill Russells itself.
That said, you can’t tell the story of University of Iowa men’s basketball without mentioning Russell, the NBA legend who died Sunday at 88.
The Hawkeyes have played in one NCAA championship game, in 1956. They lost, to Russell’s San Francisco team. That was the last Iowa team to win back-to-back Big Ten titles, in 1955 and 1956. Both of those teams went to the Final Four.
What the Hawkeyes did over those two years so moved people here that all five of the senior starters in 1956 — dubbed the “Fabulous Five” — had their jersey numbers retired.
Iowa began the 1955-56 season with five losses in its first eight games, including its Big Ten opener. It won its next 17 contests, then faced San Francisco.
The Hawkeyes opened an early 11-point lead, but the headline on the next day’s Daily Iowan told the tale: “Too Much Russell, 83-71.”
The start of Gus Scharder’s story in that day’s Gazette: “It took the college game’s greatest team and greatest individual star to stop Iowa’s most terrific basketball team on the very threshold of basketball immortality.”
Russell, Schrader said, blocked 13 or 14 shots. The NCAA didn’t keep track of that statistic then. A shame.
“When I went way up for that hook shot and brought the ball over my head and still saw that Russell looking down at me you can bet it was discouraging,” said Iowa’s Bill Logan. “He’s just tremendous — a wonderful basketball player.”
Russell scored 26 points and had 27 rebounds in that game. If that seems like a ridiculous number of rebounds, know that Russell averaged 20.7 in his USF career.
With Russell blocking and altering shots like few ever have, his team held the opposition to 31.8 percent from the field that season. USF only shot 38.1 percent itself, yet won all of its games by at least seven points.
After the game, Russell was asked what he thought of the Hawkeyes. He cupped his hand to the reporter’s ear and said “Just damn good.”
The win over Iowa gave the Dons a 55-game winning streak and two consecutive national titles. Russell then moved on to the Boston Celtics, where he was on 11 championship teams and was a five-time league MVP.
His most incredible statistic may be this: He played in 21 winner-take-all games in college, the Olympics and the NBA. His teams won them all.
Nonetheless, most fans of today will tell you Michael Jordan, a six-time NBA champ, is the greatest player of all-time. Which he may very well be, but it still begs this question:
Had Jordan played in the 1950s and ’60s and Russell played in the 1990s, wouldn’t more people side with Russell?
It’s like the 1955-56 Hawkeyes. If you asked people today to name the best Iowa men’s basketball team of all-time, most votes probably would be split between the 1969-70 and 1986-87 Hawkeyes.
The former went unbeaten in the Big Ten and shattered all sorts of league scoring records. The latter was ranked No. 1 for a short while during the season and won 30 games before falling in an NCAA regional final.
The 1954-55 and 1955-56 teams? Well, almost none of us saw them play. Most of us, including even myself, weren’t born yet. We rely on history to tell us they won two straight Big Ten titles and went to two straight Final Fours.
That USF-Iowa game was played at McGaw Hall in Evanston, Ill. It was televised on WMT in Cedar Rapids, causing a sudden rush for TVs or TV service in Eastern Iowa.
From the Daily Iowan the day after the USF-Iowa title tilt: “Iowa City taverns added extra chairs and booths for the overflow crowds.
“Television retail stores reported their heaviest business in years. There were numerous calls all day Friday for TV repairmen.”
An 8-year-old who got to stay up late that night for the 9 p.m. game would be either 73 or 74 today. A 21-year-old who saw the game in a tavern would be 86 or 87. Time waits for no one.
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