Op Ed: Is Bill Russell Forever a Don?

Caption: USF upholds Bill Russell’s legacy despite his apathy toward the University. PHOTO BY JOHN PAOLO/SF FOGHORN

USF prides itself on its change-making alumni, particularly former NBA player Bill Russell. But a closer look at USF’s history with its most famous former player reveals a complicated and fractured relationship.

On Feb. 2 and 4, every player in the West Coast Conference from schools in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona wore number 6 in honor of Russell Recognition week. Russell was an iconic Don as well as a legend on and off the basketball court. He inspired the WCC’s Russell Rule, the first diversity hiring commitment in college sports. 

Following his death on Jul. 31 of last year, the USF community was quick to champion Russell as the epitome of what it means to be a Don. But after Russell’s exit from USF after winning the 1956 NCAA Championship, his affiliation with the University was virtually nonexistent. 

After a year in the NBA, Russell returned to USF in 1957 in hopes of finishing his degree. But the University informed him that his four-year scholarship had expired, and he would need to pay full tuition — around $9,500 in today’s money to complete his remaining credits. Russell’s appearances on the Hilltop after were few and far between. 

Over the ensuing years, USF made several attempts to reconcile with Russell. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the first things President Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. did in his position was fly to Seattle in hopes of mending fences between Russell and USF. He hoped to offer Russell an honorary doctorate and a full scholarship to complete the last 16 credits of his bachelor’s degree. However, Russell’s lawyer refused to let Fitzgerald meet with the basketball star, and Fitzgerald flew back to the Bay, unsuccessful.

Fitzgerald was not the first USF president to attempt to make amends with Russell. According to the LA Times, President John Lo Schiavo, S.J., made attempts to repair relations between Russell and the University in the mid-80s, but Russell wasn’t interested. In the same 2007 LA Times interview, Lo Schiavo begrudgingly admitted that the University was partly responsible for the broken ties with Russell. 

Russell’s accomplishments are recognized as an important building block of not just USF athletics, but of USF’s commitment to social justice. Certainly Russell deserved to finish his degree on scholarship. 

Despite their fractured relationship with him, USF continues to use Russell’s image as a marketing tool. Russell appears in a USF Athletics recruiting video, his image appeared on posters around campus after his death, a section of USF’s weight room is named after him with a quote about his perseverance is painted on the wall, and his achievements are touted on the University website. 

The attempts to reconcile may well have been a nod to Russell’s life work. However, USF had a lot to gain from a mended relationship with him. A bachelor’s degree was not necessarily a valuable asset to Russell who had already accomplished plenty without it. 

The same steely disposition that made Russell turn Fitzgerald away in Seattle made him an iconic athlete and activist in the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1966, Texas Western became the first team to win an NCAA championship with an all-Black starting lineup. But this was simply a punctuation mark on a long history of Black players transforming basketball, a history USF players helped write. Ten years earlier, in 1956, USF won its second consecutive NCAA championship with Russell on the starting roster. 

In a historical context, Russell’s accomplishments surpassed the realm of sports. He went on to work with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammed Ali. The 1963 KKK assassination of Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran and prominent NAACP field officer, ignited national rage. In response, Russell started an integrated basketball camp in Evers’ hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, braving the intense racist attitudes of the South in the ‘60s. In 2010, Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. “More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word winner,” Obama said at the ceremony for the medal. 

Russell’s various contributions both to basketball and to civil rights will be remembered for generations. Being turned away from the last 16 credits of his bachelor’s degree didn’t stop his commitment to changing the world.


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