Fans who attended Sunday night’s NBA All Star Game in Houston, Texas had nothing but praise for Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell who sat courtside for the contest. “The man is a good hearted person,” said Cory "Sauce" Brown, 21, a pro player for Ball Up Streetball. “As an athlete, he’s one of the greatest centers of all-time.”
Russell, an 11-time champion and five-time Most Valuable Player, is still quick to credit his success to the players around him. “What I considered a good game was one in which more of my guys were able to play well,” he said in a Feb. 16 interview with the "Houston Chronicle."
No one played alongside Russell longer than Boston’s feisty point guard K.C. Jones, now a Special Assistant at the University of Hartford. Together they helped lead the Celtics to eight championships, the most by any pair of teammates. Nearly fifty years later, the two remain close friends and still talk. One must wonder if they ever discuss their college visit to Alcatraz, still active at the time.
Russell and Jones met at the University of San Francisco where along with Hal Perry, who later played for the Harlem Globetrotters, they became the first trio of black players to start in college basketball.
They endured rampant racism on the road, once being denied reservations at a hotel. Rather than separate, the entire team decided to stay together at a nearby college dorm. The bonding experience was invaluable as the Dons proceeded to win back to back NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, proving that skin color had nothing to do with skill and ability.
“The university promoted people based on merit at that time. They didn't fall into a race trap,” said Alex Fulbright, 23, a USF alumnus who volunteered with the National Park Service on Alcatraz via a college program.
Ironically, Alcatraz convicts were among the Dons biggest fans. They listened to the USF games on newly installed radio jacks in their cells. “They rooted for them, and screamed when they won,” said George DeVincenzi, a guard on the island from 1950 to 1957. The games gave them something to look forward to after supper.
Shortly after the title run in '56, Russell and Jones were drafted by the Boston Celtics and given a rare behind the scenes tour of Alcatraz. Neither had ever been to a prison before. Their walk-through included stops inside the cellhouse and prisoner workshops although contact with the inmates was prohibited.
Russell and Jones didn't appear to be afraid of the cons according to former inmate Robert Luke, a convicted bank robber who was working in the laundry when the players entered.
“We weren't told they were coming and we were all surprised by the visit,” said Luke, no.1118-AZ “It was the only time I saw an outsider in the prison.”
Their brief appearance delivered a moment of humility to the cons. “If I saw them today, I would tell them of that day, and how it gave me a good feeling for a short while,” Luke said, adding “It got me out of the boredom and regimentation of Alcatraz.”
Russell and Jones went on to lead Team USA to Olympic gold that December. They reunited in 1958 after Jones's two-year Army stint.
Success followed each in their post-playing years as both won two rings a piece as Celtics head coaches. Jones won a third as an L.A. Lakers assistant.
Both are enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
No word on whether or not they've been back to the Rock.