Up Close and Personal: A Game of Inches

By George Edmonston Jr.

The sound of a leather ball clanging iron can still be heard.

Well, not really, for no one that Saturday night in 1955 could hear anything. The record-setting Gill Coliseum crowd of over 11,200 was screaming loud enough to trigger a blip on a seismograph machine. The crowd was watching the last 13 seconds of a struggle of historic proportions. Whoever "hears" the clang today does so symbolically, in a lasting testament to what is remembered as the greatest might-have-been, could-have-been, should-have-been basketball game ever played by an Orange and Black men’s quintet.

The date was March 12, and the game was one of those that players and coaches prepare for their entire careers, assuming they’re good enough and lucky enough to be there when the ball bounces the right way.

During the 1954-55 season, the basketball had bounced the right way a lot for the two teams locking horns. After a very shaky 4-6 start, the Oregon State College Beavers, under Head Coach Slats Gill, and led by 7-foot 3 Wade "Swede" Halbrook, had polished off 17 of 18 opponents to stand at an impressive 22-7 overall record and a No. 8 national ranking. They were also 15-1 in the Pacific Coast Conference, more than good enough for the PCC crown and their fourth overall title. The year before, OSC had finished second to Southern California in the conference race. Slats had a quality program, and the nation knew it. Losing only one senior, the ’55 Beavers had done what was expected and now sat poised at one victory away from college basketball’s ultimate road trip...an appearance in the Final Four in Kansas City.

To get there, OSC’s last hurdle would be a monster in tennis shoes, the equivalent of going against Ruth and Gehrig’s 1927 Yankees. Its opponent would be the No.1 team in the country, the University of San Francisco Dons. USF’s stellar lineup featured two players who would achieve both college basketball’s highest honors and induction many years later into the National Basketball Association’s Hall of Fame.

The first was K.C. Jones, the second Bill Russell. At 6-10, Russell was the best defensive player in the country and had already earned first-team All-American honors. The two had anchored their school to a 24-1 record, their only loss coming at the hands of UCLA before smashing OSC 60-34 a few nights later. That win gave Gill one of the worst beatings of his long career and would be the Dons’ start to a then NCAA-record 60 consecutive victories. USF’s string ended five games deep into the 1956-57 season when it was defeated by the U.S. Olympic Team in an exhibition game. Ironically, Russell and Jones, who had finished their eligibility the year before, played for the Olympians and would guide the team to a Gold Medal at the 1956 games in Melbourne. They later became superstar teammates with the Boston Celtics, helping the franchise establish a dynasty in professional basketball with eight NBA championships.

Wrote Steve Giethschier in a tribute to the Dons for the Sporting News in 2000:

"When the country's best teams regularly were averaging 80 or more points, the 1954-55 Dons had topped the nation by allowing only 52.1 per game. They played suffocating defense. The guards pressed, the forwards fought through screens to contest shots and the center, a guy named Russell, blocked shots like he had invented a new art form. ‘If your opponents can't shoot,' (USF Head Coach) Phil Woolpert reasoned, 'they can't score.’

"Or win... which hardly could have happened to a less conspicuous school. Situated on a hilltop near Golden Gate Park, the Jesuit university with an enrollment of 3,000 was so small it lacked a campus gymnasium. Woolpert had to beg practice time at a local boys' club or at a parish hall or at nearby St. Ignatius High School, where he had coached before taking the USF job in 1950.

"San Francisco opened the 1954-55 season with victories over Chico State and Loyola of Los Angeles, but then lost, 47-40, to UCLA. At this point, Woolpert inserted (Don) Perry into the starting lineup, joining Russell, Jones and forwards Jerry Mullen and Stan Buchanan. Now USF would have three starters who were black, a risky move anywhere in 1954. ‘It was never said,’ Woolpert said, ‘but you knew as a coach that you had to be aware of the quota thing.’

"The Dons began to win: Oregon State, UCLA, three games at the All-College Tournament in Oklahoma City, where the team chose to stay in a dorm instead of having the white players check into a whites-only hotel."

Elsewhere in the tournament, the ’55 NCAA regionals witnessed three major upsets within the field of 16. In Philadelphia, Villanova was stunned by Canisius; perennial power Kentucky was crushed by Marquette in Evanston, Ill.; and SMU got nipped by Bradley in Manhattan, Kan.

Attention now turned to Corvallis, where No. 4 Utah, at 22-3, would square of against the Dons, while the Beavers would face a talented 22-5 Seattle University team. Both OSC and USF breezed by with easy victories, the former by a score of 83-71 and the top-ranked Dons humbling Utah 78-59.

Gill Coliseum’s Western Regional was now ready for the main event. Almost ready might be a better way of putting it. Just hours before tip-off, a story developed that has to rank as one of the most bizarre in the annals of college hoops.

It began in the Don dressing room during the half-time of the Utah game. Russell, who had been battling a bout with the flu, collapsed in a vomiting spell. Team physicians rushed to his aid and quickly diagnosed the problem as "tension." Not deemed serious, the big center was allowed to play the second half, where his smothering defensive play pushed Utah into a hole from which it never recovered. The end of that game, however, was the beginning of even bigger problems for Russell, meaning that, for a time during the early morning hours of the 26th, there was some doubt if he would even be allowed to suit up for the championship game.

To this day, the details of the whole incident remain fuzzy. As word of Russell’s illness hit the streets, someone came up with the idea that USF’s star center might be showing early signs of pneumonia or, even worse, tuberculosis. The latter would be a health hazard to both players and fans alike and would automatically force the removal of his name from the starting lineup. A Corvallis doctor was quickly called in to make a decision. Although he never said it was TB, he did advise the big man to steer clear of the game.

To be sure, the ruling did not sit well with Woolpert, who knew his guys would have little chance of beating OSC without Russell. He demanded a second opinion and got it from one of his own physicians, who said he could find no reason why USF’s star should be kept out of the game.

Gill used eight players against the Dons, and their names are still remembered by the many fans who were there: in addition to Swede Halbrook, known as the tallest basketball player in the country, Tony Vlastelica, Tex Whiteman, Phil Shadoin, Bill Toole, Reggie Halligan and Johnny Jarboe all saw action, along with senior guard Ron Robins. Shadoin, topping out at an even 7-feet, gave OSC the distinction of being the only Division I school in the country to have two players of that size on the roster. At some point in the contest, although newspaper stories don’t say exactly when, both Halbrook and Shadoin were in the game together, making this the first instance in college basketball history where two 7-footers were on the floor at the same time.

Jumping out to an early lead, then losing it, OSC found itself up by one, 26-25, late in the first period. At half-time, the Dons were ahead 31-28, a three-point margin they built to 10 points by midway through the final period. Things looked bad for the Beavers. With a minute to go, OSC had cut the lead to eight, 56-48, and from this point on, action in the game would become almost breathtaking.

Halbrook hit a free throw, then Halligan scored on a bucket from the side to cut the lead by three more. Score: 56-51. USF’s Jerry Mullen, playing with a sprained ankle, was fouled. His charity shot hit nothing but net for one precious point to give his team a 57-51 lead.

Now, with 32 seconds left, Swede sank a hook shot to pull Oregon State to within four, 57-53. On the Dons’ trip down court to attack the OSC basket, Bill Toole reached out, stole the ball and with one quick feed to Halbrook, the score was cut to 57-55. Woolpert called time out. There were 13 seconds showing on the clock. For both teams, the moment of truth was at hand.

As the guys came back out to resume play, K.C. Jones accidentally knocked Toole to the hardwood and was called for a technical foul. Reggie Halligan went to the line and calmly put the ball where it needed to be. Now the lead was one, 57-56.

Toole, for 41 years an electrical engineer with CH2M HILL and a resident of Washington state, said in a recent interview that what he remembers about this moment was the noise of the huge crowd. "This was before there were fire marshals and so all the aisles were full. To get up and down, you had to walk over people. There must have been 12,000 people there and people were going crazy. It seems they stood and yelled the whole game, and there was so much noise we always had a hard time hearing Slats."

Another time out. Because the ball would automatically go to the Beavers when play resumed, as was the rule governing technicals, Gill wanted to plan for the last shot. Later in his career, he would be asked to name the three greatest clutch players he had ever coached. One was sitting on the bench next to him that night: assistant coach Paul Valenti. Another was standing before him in uniform, waiting with the rest of the team for instructions. It was Robins, at 5-foot 8 inches the smallest man of the bunch. The decision was made: get the ball to Ron.

The play worked to perfection. Halligan took the ball as it was inbounded and immediately fired it to Toole. Before the Dons could react, Toole whipped the ball to a wide-open Robins standing at one of his favorite spots on the court, near the northeast corner of the giant coliseum. Over the years, the young man from Marshfield, Ore., had made hundreds of baskets from there, both in practice and in games.

Using his patented two-handed set shot, Robins let the ball fly. Eleven thousand hearts went to 11,000 throats. Up and up, then down it flew, straight for the basket, a one point Beaver lead, a trip to Kansas City. For a split second it looked good. Then it hit the back of the rim...and then the front of the rim....

...and then...it bounced out.

No good!

Robins had missed by half an inch.

Now a retired Boise, Idaho, real estate executive, Robins commented for this story that he has replayed the shot in his head a thousand times. Double the number if you the count the fans and reporters who have asked him about what many consider to be "the shot."

He remains good natured about his place in OSU sports history and has developed a series of humorous one-liners to counter the questions."It was good," he will say with a smile in his voice, "but somebody opened a door at Gill, and the wind blew it out."

Or...

"The shot went in. It’s the press that got it wrong."

Turning serious for a moment, Robins still remembers that Slats had to think before settling on a strategy for the last play. "He didn’t come up with a plan right away but had to consider who he thought had the best chance of winning the game. It turned out to be me," he said.

Asked what his thoughts were the minute he let the ball fly, he responded, "It felt good. I had confidence it would go in and knew right away it was a basket. It almost was."

In the struggle for the rebound, a jump ball was called between Halbrook and Jones. With a 14-inch height advantage over his opponent, Swede easily won the battle in the air, but his control was off and the ball went merrily into the hands of USF’s Don Perry, who made an attempt to hold it until the final buzzer. Halligan had other ideas and stripped the ball away. However, his shot at the basket was too late.

It had been a game of inches: two of America’s tallest basketball players going at one another for control of the middle, with Russell winning the battle; the smallest man on the court taking the final shot; the shot missing by the length of a large thumbnail. When it was all over, USF was on its way to Kansas City, where Russell and Jones would lead their team to the first of back-to-back national championships, piling up in the process a string of victories that still stands as an amazing achievement in the annals of the NCAA.

Robins also remembers what Gill told the team after he had returned from watching the Final Four in Kansas City.

In a way, it was more disappointing news.

"He came back and told us that had we gotten by San Francisco, we would have won it all. He was convinced."

For Toole and Robins and thousands of other Beaver fans, there was and is nothing left but a memory, of a night so long ago when a team from Corvallis came within a hair of toppling a giant with a single stone.