Bill Russell beat Tom Gola de La Salle before tormenting Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors and 76ers

It’s a testament to Bill Russell that one of the most underrated aspects of his life is that he revolutionized college basketball. His work and activism in the civil rights movement, his remarkable career with the Boston Celtics, his well-deserved status as the greatest winner in North American team sports: these qualities and achievements have been listed and praised, rightly so, immediately after his death last Sunday. They also gave his passing resonance in Philadelphia, as did his role as opponents of two of the city’s basketball legends. One of them was his Hector the day he changed a sport forever.

READ MORE: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell: Reflecting on the NBA’s First One-on-One Rivalry

For those who grew up with the Warriors or the 76ers, Russell was a special kind of rival. He possessed an immaterial, nameless… Something — An unsurpassable will to win? Hardness? Disinterestedness? All these attributes and more? – which Wilt Chamberlain did not have and the Celtics’ opponents could not overcome. Red Auerbach would light a victory cigar and gloat, which made him easy to hate, but it had nothing to do with Russell but recognized his greatness, especially his ability to improve the collective performance of his teammates, and respected him. for it.

Before beating the Warriors and Sixers seven times in the playoffs and winning those 11 championships in his 13 NBA seasons, Russell dethroned the king of college hoops – Philadelphia college hoops king, national college hoops king .

More than 70 years have passed since Tom Gola became the savior of a sport that needed saving, so it’s hard now to appreciate his impact. But it was tangible and meaningful. When Gola led La Salle to the 1952 NIT Championship at Madison Square Garden – at a time when the NIT was more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament – ​​it marked the moment when college basketball began to cleanse itself of shaving scandals points, largely in schools. based in New York, which had tarnished the sport.

READ MORE: Remembering Tom Gola: A Philadelphia Legend

Gola was the perfect poster boy. He was a cop’s son. His reputation was blank. He played for a small college in his hometown. He was handsome and 6ft 6in and unlike any player who had come before him in that he could play any position on the floor and did.

“He was Magic Johnson,” the late writer and college basketball historian Bob Vetrone Sr. once said, “without the flair.”

National magazines profiled him and put his picture on their covers. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. He will finish his collegiate career with 2,461 points and 2,201 rebounds; the latter mark remains the NCAA record. La Salle won the 1954 national championship and again reached the title game the following year, where the Explorers 26-4 would face a team with only one loss: the San Francisco Dons. A team that no one in the whole country paid much attention to. A team, back when college basketball was just beginning to integrate, with three black starters, one of whom was a junior center who was 6-foot-5, 158 pounds when he entered at USF and had grown four inches and put on over 50 pounds of muscle over the next two years. A team with Bill Russell.

“The West Coast wasn’t a big factor in NCAA basketball,” Gola said in 1989. “People aren’t going to believe me, but Bill Russell wasn’t a big name on the East Coast. …Russell didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him. In fact, I had never seen Bill Russell until we met in the hotel lobby.

This meeting took place on March 19, 1955, the day of the national title game, at the Kansas City hotel where the La Salle and USF teams were staying. Russell and assistant coach Ross Giudice passed Gola and La Salle head coach Ken Loeffler in the hall.

“Well, we’re honored,” Russell told Giudice. “This is Mr. Gola.”

“You guys are going to see it a lot tonight,” Loeffler said.

Not enough. Because Gola was La Salle’s de facto point guard, USF head coach Phil Woolpert wanted to limit the time Russell spent guarding him, lest Gola take Russell off the lane and the basket. . So Woolpert assigned guard KC Jones to cover Gola, which allowed Russell to break away from his man and help Jones. The strategy surprised Loeffler and the explorers and worked wonders. Billy Packer, who spent more than 30 years as a college basketball analyst, was then 15 and a Gola enthusiast. He was listening to the game on the radio and couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“The guy making the play kept talking about this guy Russell blocking Tom Gola’s shots,” Packer told John Feinstein for Feinstein’s book. Last Dance: Behind the scenes of the Final Four. “I think, ‘It’s impossible. Nobody can do that in Gola. Who is this guy Russell?'”

He finished that game with 23 points and 25 rebounds, leading the Dons to an easy 77-63 win. Which, along with Jones, forced Gola to miss nine of 15 shots from the field and limited him to 16 points. Who led San Francisco to a 55-game winning streak, an undefeated season and another national title in 1955-56. Who lifted college basketball above the edge. Which forced the NCAA to change its rules, widening the lane from six feet to 12 feet and banning offensive goaltenders.

Gola helped rebuild the sport. Russell helped redefine it. Gola represented where the sport was. Russell represented where the sport would be. It is a worthy aspect of a worthy man’s inheritance.

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