Bill Russell Blocked Iowa From Basketball Immortality

We sometimes reach for Iowa corners in our sports coverage because, well, Iowa doesn’t produce many 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 age 88.

The Hawkeyes played in one NCAA championship in 1956. It lost to Russell’s team in San Francisco. That was the last Iowa team to win back-to-back Big Ten titles, in 1955 and 1956. Both teams went to the Final Four.

What the Hawkeyes did in those two years moved people here so much that in 1956 all five senior starters – dubbed the “Fabulous Five” – ​​had their jersey numbers retired.

Iowa started the 1955-56 season with five losses in the first eight games, including the Big Ten opener. It won the next 17 games and then faced San Francisco.

The Hawkeyes opened an early 11-point lead, but the Daily Iowan’s headline the next day told the story: “Too Much Russell, 83-71.”

The beginning of Gus Scharder’s story in that day’s Gazette: “It took the biggest team in the college game and the biggest individual star to stop Iowa’s greatest basketball team on the brink of basketball immortality.”

Russell, Schrader said, blocked 13 or 14 shots. The NCAA didn’t keep that stat at the time. A disgrace.

“When I went way up for that hookshot and brought the ball over my head and still saw Russell looking down on me, you can bet it was daunting,” said Iowa’s Bill Logan. “He’s just amazing – a great 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 shots and changing like few have ever done, his team kept the opposition at 31.8 percent of the field that season. USF shot just 38.1 percent itself, but won all its games by at least seven points.

After the game, Russell was asked what he thought of the Hawkeyes. He put his hand to the reporter’s ear and said, “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 MVP in the league.

His most incredible stat might be this: He played in 21 winner-take-all games in college, the Olympics, and the NBA. His teams won them all.

Nevertheless, most fans today will tell you that Michael Jordan, a six-time NBA champion, is the greatest player of all time. Which he may very well be, but it still begs this question:

If Jordan had played in the 1950s and ’60s and Russell in the 1990s, wouldn’t more people side with Russell?

It’s like the 1955-56 Hawkeyes. If you were to ask people today to name the greatest Iowa men’s basketball team of all time, the most votes would likely be split between the 1969-70 and 1986-87 Hawkeyes.

The former remained undefeated in the Big Ten, shattering all manner of competition records. The latter was #1 for a short time during the season, winning 30 games before falling in an NCAA regional final.

The 1954-55 and 1955-56 teams? Well, hardly any of us have seen them play. Most of us, even myself, were not yet born. We rely on history to tell us that they won two consecutive Big Ten titles and went to two consecutive Final Fours.

That USF-Iowa game was played at McGaw Hall in Evanston, Illinois. It aired on WMT in Cedar Rapids, causing a sudden rush on TVs or TV services in Eastern Iowa.

From the Daily Iowan the day after USF-Iowa’s title: “Taverns in Iowa City added extra seating and booths for the overcrowded crowd.

“Television stores reported their heaviest turnover in years. There were countless phone calls for TV repairmen all day Friday.”

An 8-year-old who had to stay up late that night for the 9 p.m. game would be 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.

Notes: (319) 398-8440; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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