Bill Russell, the 6-9 beacon of the Dons' early light, returned to the Hilltop this week to help his alma mater, the University of San Francisco, step out of scandal's red glare and back onto the basketball court.
One hundred and thirty years after Jesuit priests founded this school, 30 years after Russell led its basketball team to the first of two straight national titles, and three years after another Jesuit father, President John LoSchiavo, took the air out of the basketball and much of the heart out of the university by dropping the sport in shame, memory-pocked Memorial Gym was the place to be again Friday night on Ignatian Heights.
As all the posters, pamphlets, schedules and even some candy bars around campus proclaimed, the Tradition Continues, albeit humbly.
When stopped in mid-dribble in 1982, the Dons were a national basketball power, winners of 19 games or more for 11 years in a row, a perennial Top 20 team. The list of alumni that went on to the pros starts with Russell and K.C. Jones and includes such names as Bill Cartwright, Phil Smith, Erwin Mueller, Kevin Restani and Quintin Dailey.
The Dons returned to the court Friday night, beating St. Mary's of Minnesota, 80-60, with a virtual pickup team consisting of freshmen, junior college transfers and one senior. The senior is reserve guard Jimmy Giron, the 5-10 son of the university's longtime equipment manager, Bob Giron. A freshman walk-on with the 1981-82 Dons, Giron gives USF the benefit of his seven games of college experience, in which he scored four points.
Friday night, Giron played the last 62 seconds, but the significance of his brief appearance was lost on the crowd of 4,920, which was several hundred short of capacity.
"We've got a ways to go, don't we?" Coach Jim Brovelli said, when someone mentioned his team needed just 59 more wins to match the record of 60 straight set by the Russell teams.
"I suspect we'll be a little erratic this season," said Brovelli, who built one successful program at the University of San Diego, only to start from scratch with another, this one at his alma mater. He was in the class of '64.
Erratic, perhaps, but they shouldn't be outclassed, at least not on the first weekend. The Dons, once known as the UCLA of the North, found easy pickings in St. Mary's, a Division III school that is scarcely known outside the city limits of Winona, Minn. Tonight's opponent comes direct from La Grande, Ore.--Eastern Oregon State, home of the NAIA Mountaineers.
You have to start somewhere. Brovelli says Digger Phelps has called, saying he wants to renew Notre Dame's rivalry with USF. There have been talks with DePaul, too, and Brovelli has been in touch with Stan Morrison at USC. Of course, he'd like to play UCLA, too.
But will the Dons ever be a national power again? Just as important, do they want to be?
Another Bill Russell would help.
"I hope there is one out there," said Brovelli, who is gray before his time--he's 42--but still smiles readily. "Believe me, the opening is there.
"That's the great thing about basketball. One guy can put your program there."
At the moment, there is more consensus about where the Dons don't want to be than where they're going.
The reason Father LoSchiavo disbanded the program in the first place was to end the cycle of recruiting violations and illegal payments that finally came to a head in the case of Dailey, who was implicated in a play-for-pay scandal and also pleaded guilty to assaulting a nursing student in her dormitory room.
Dailey was the heavy when basketball went under, but the atmosphere already had been fouled. Giron, who chose to stay at the school from which both his brother and sister graduated, was left to live with the stigma.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say I was embarrassed," said Giron, whose teammates refer to him as Grampa.
"But a lot of people in the community asked me, 'How was Quintin Dailey?' A lot of people had misperceived attitudes about Quintin. To me, he was a friend and a great player who sometimes had his priorities mixed up.
"I hope Quintin gets his life together on and off the court. But whether it was his fault or anybody else's fault they dropped the program, Quintin was a good person to me, and I looked up to him as a player. I never felt any resentment against him."
But when Dailey took the fall, he took USF basketball with him. Along with the program went the athletic director, Bill Fusco, and the coach, Pete Barry.
Gone, too, was the overzealous booster club, the Dons Century Club. In its place is the Green and Gold Club, a new group of boosters that is under the direct control of the athletic department.
"All monies are deposited within the university," said Father Robert Sunderland, the new athletic director. "I'm aware of how much money there is, who's giving it and where it's going. There are no outside bank accounts, like with most booster clubs.
"We want to try to win, but not at all costs."
Save the snickers. Sunderland and Brovelli already have heard them.
"They say you can't win without cheating. I don't buy it," Brovelli said. "If you're telling me that the 64 teams that play in the NCAA tournament cheat, I just don't buy it. I don't believe (cheating) is across the board, and I don't think I'm naive about that, either."
If anything, Sunderland is very much aware that there is no fail-safe way to run a clean program. At best, he can only make it tougher for cheaters to break the rules.
"There's only one way to get around our system, and that's to get to the student-athlete directly," he said. "That's why we tell them repeatedly, if anybody gives you anything, don't accept it. Talk to the coach.
"But ultimately, we're at the mercy of the teen-age student-athletes and their integrity."
Brovelli is offended by the notion that he is running a scaled-down program.
"This is a Division I program, and we want to be successful," he said. "And to be on this level you have to be very competitive.
"They say we're only going to recruit locally. Well, we want to keep the best local players at home--I happen to believe that's essential to developing a solid program.
"Look at the teams in the Final Four--Villanova won with local kids; St. John's, Memphis State, Georgetown. I believe in that.
"But that doesn't mean I wouldn't go after a kid on the East Coast or in Southern California who showed interest in USF. I'm against hopping on a plane just to see if there's any interest."
Russell wasn't present for the opening tipoff Friday night. But he was the keynote speaker the night before, when they held a dinner in honor of the 30th anniversary of the '55 team.
"Phil, who are all these old people who said they played with us?" Russell said to his former coach, Phil Woolpert, sitting nearby at the head table.
Woolpert, who went from coaching to driving a school bus in Sequim, Wash., had already made the introductions of his former team. Five of them had gone on to become attorneys. One was a judge. There was a broker, a high school principal, an importer-exporter, an owner of a cooking gallery. Some were teachers, one was a recreation supervisor, another a private investigator. K.C. Jones, Woolpert joked, "was now employed in Massachusetts."
"Can you believe how successful these guys are?" Russell asked.
All but one of them, Mike Farmer, had received their degrees, and Farmer had sold his business and returned to school.
Russell had grown up in West Oakland. Until he went to USF, he said he never heard of the school.
"My home was 12 miles from the university," he said, "but worlds apart. . . . When I came across the bay to San Francisco, it opened a whole new world to me that I didn't know existed.
"It opened the doors for me to visit four-fifths of the nations on this planet. It taught me the science of thinking. My philosophical outlook became totally different. And, most of all, the university freed me from poverty and ignorance."
In his book, "Second Wind," Russell wrote that recruitment violations in college sports "are like snow in the Alps--all over the place and so bright that you go snowblind and can't see anything at all."
However, before a roomful of USF believers, Russell said that the Dons could rise again.
"But only if we approach it with an honest program, a program of integrity, a program that educates its players."
He'd seen it happen before--with his own teams. Now, he said, it was time to do it again.