The Origin of the Celtics-Lakers Rivalry
The 1950’s was a special time for college basketball in the Bay Area. During that decade, the University of San Francisco and UC Berkley combined to win three national championships and helped unofficially launch one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. Though the championships were won more than half a century ago, their impact is still felt to this day.
Since its inception in 1923, the USF Dons men’s basketball team had some fine squads such as a 14-4 record in their inaugural season and a 21-2 finish to the 1928-1929 campaign. Coach James Needles built a respectable team from the dust and did well against the competition as an Independent. The head coaching job changed hands over the years, from Needles to Wally Cameron in 1932 to Needles again in 1942. Eventually Phil Woolpert took over in 1950 from Pete Newell. The Dons had enjoyed some success under Newell, going 19-7 the year before Woolport’s hiring, but had never been to the NCAA Tournament.
Across the Bay, the UC Berkley Golden Bears had enjoyed great success under Nibs Price since 1924; notably going undefeated in back-to-back seasons in 1925-1926 and 1926-1927. In 1946, he led the Golden Bears to their first NCAA Tournament, losing in the Final Four. Price retired following the 1954 season and Pete Newell, from USF, took his place.
Building a Contender
After going a combined 20-30 in his first two years, Phil Woolpert was ready to start building a champion. His first great recruit was K.C. Jones, a guard from Commerce High School in San Francisco. Jones was sensational as a freshman, averaging nine points per game which was fourth on the team. Sophomore forward Jerry Mullen averaged 9.9 points per game, giving the Dons hope for the future.
Woolpert recruited center Bill Russell from McClymonds High School in Oakland. The rebound machine was the defensive presence the Dons craved. Russell was incredible in his first year, averaging 19.9 points and 19.2 rebounds per game. Even with more room to roam due to Russell’s presence, Jones averaged just eight points that year as USF finished 14-7.
Pete Newell’s first season at Cal in 1954 was a rough one, going 9-16. Senior Bob McKeen led by example and scored a team high 19.8 points per game while averaging 11 rebounds. Sophomore Larry Friend showed a glimpse of the future by averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds. Junior Bob Blake and sophomore Mike Diaz contributed with 9.4 and 8.8 points per game, proving that Cal had depth for the next couple of seasons.
Cal was much better the following year, going 17-8 and finishing third in the PCC. Friend, Blake, sophomore Earl Robinson and junior Duane Apslund all averaged more than 10 points per game. The Golden Bears had the pieces in place for a championship run.
The Dons began the 1954-1955 season on a mission to claim a national championship. After demolishing Chico State and handling Loyola, USF was stunned by a resurging UCLA team coached by John Wooden. They played UCLA one week later at the Cow Palace and this time was different. USF won 56-44 getting its revenge. Wins against 17th ranked Wichita State and 8th ranked George Washington further moved USF up in the polls and boosted their confidence.
The Dons entered the NCAA Tournament 23-1 and with the number one seed. After vanquishing West Texas A&M 89-66 and Utah 78-59 they fought a hard battle against Oregon State. Bill Russell came up big, scoring 29 points and collecting 16 rebounds, willing the Dons to a 57-56 nail biter. They then traveled to Kansas City for the Final Four. Colorado tried and failed to defeat the determined Dons, ultimately falling 62-50 in the National Semifinal. USF faced off against a Tom Gola led La Salle squad looking to pull off an upset. The Explorers didn’t stand a chance against a complete team effort, with Jones scoring 24 points and Russell collecting 25 rebounds. USF defeated La Salle 77-63 and became national champions for the first time in school history.
Following their victory in the national championship game, USF was determined to defend their national crown. They breezed through most of the regular season and entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. They beat UCLA 72-61 in the first round and Utah 92-77 in the second. Russell was a man on a mission against Utah, scoring 27 points and collecting 23 rebounds. USF traveled to Evanston, Illinois to play in the Final Four. They crushed SMU 86-68 in the National Semifinal and handled Iowa 83-71. Russell finished his illustrious collegiate career scoring 26 points and collecting 27 rebounds against the Hawkeyes. Looking on was USF’s former coach Pete Newell and his Golden Bears.
One Golden Year
Cal began the 1956-1957 season losing to USF 70-56 and top ranked Kansas 66-56. The Golden Bears caught fire and went on a 14 game winning streak before losing to Washington. They lost a close game to sixth ranked UCLA 71-66 but beat them 73-68 the next night. Senior Larry Friend averaged 18.9 points and six rebounds while junior Earl Robinson averaged 12.2 points and senior Duane Apslund averaged 11.4 points and eight rebounds. After beating BYU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament but lost to USF 50-46. The Dons would go on to lose to Kansas in the National Semifinal.
The Golden Bears began the 1957-1958 season against three teams ranked in the top ten in the nation, San Francisco (6), Kansas State (3) and Kansas (2), losing to all. Cal eventually righted the ship and made the NCAA Tournament. They beat Idaho State 54-43 and lost to Seattle in overtime 66-64; both games were played in the Cow Palace.
Cal was determined to win the national championship in 1959. They had gone 0-3 against top 10 teams the year before and they knew that they weren’t quite ready to become champions. Denny Fitzpatrick led the team with 13.3 points per game and junior Darrall Imhoff came into his own, averaging 11.3 points and 11 rebounds per game. They didn’t just
rely on those two individuals; they knew that to become champions would be a complete team effort the entire season. Al Buch averaged 9.2 points, Bill McClintock averaged 7.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, Bob Dalton averaged 7.3 points and Jack Grout averaged 11.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
After a 3-0 start, Cal lost to third ranked Kansas 68-65. After losing at Stanford 56-53, the Golden Bears didn’t lose a game the rest of the season, winning 16 straight. After throttling Utah (71-53) and Saint Mary’s (66-46) in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Golden Bears headed to Louisville, Kentucky for the Final Four. They defeated an Oscar Robertson led Cincinnati 64-58 in the National Semifinal. At long last, Cal was headed to the National Championship Game where Jerry West and a talented West Virginia squad stood in their way. It was a hard fought game, with neither team able to get much of a lead. The Golden Bears prevailed and won the national championship 71-70.
What may have been the greatest era of college basketball in the Bay Area had major ramifications for the sport throughout the country which is still felt to this day. Bill Russell and K.C. Jones learned how to be a champion while they were students at USF and when they were drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1956 they brought those championship principles with them. As a result, Boston won 11 NBA championships during Russell’s reign, with Jones winning eight due to a military commitment early in his career. The two would go on to lead the Celtics to championships as coaches too and today the Boston Celtics are one of the most storied organizations in the world.
Jerry West first became known as one of history’s great championship losers while at West Virginia and he would bring that reputation with him to Los Angeles when he was drafted by the Lakers in 1960. West would play against Russell and Jones in six NBA Finals, losing every time. In total, West would lose eight times in the NBA Finals, finally winning it all in 1972. His continued persistence of a championship would mold him into one of the greatest players of all time. Eventually, the NBA decided to honor him by making their logo in his image. The 1960’s was dominated by the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, with both teams led by men whose lives were so greatly impacted by the dominance of USF and Cal in the 1950’s. The Celtics-Lakers rivalry remains one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports with both teams claiming 17 NBA championships. And it all began in the Bay Area.