USF basketball players from the 1950’s “Golden Era” share their memories and discuss how teammates turned into friends
Last week, Bernie Schneider made a trip from San Francisco to Lake County to visit his friend, Ed Slevin. Since they met each other nearly 60 years ago, their focus has moved from basketball courts to golf courses, but the importance of their friendship has not diminished at all.
During Schneider and Slevin’s time as basketball players for USF from 1955 to 1959, they witnessed what was undoubtedly the most decorated era in the university’s sports history. From experiencing the 1955 NCAA Championship victory to practicing against all-time greats like Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, to playing as seniors in the first year of War Memorial Gym’s existence, the two players were present for countless legendary moments, all the while developing special, long-lasting relationships with other teammates.
“The friends that I met at USF are still my friends,” Slevin said. “My teammates are still my closest friends.”
The Dons were on top of the college basketball world in the mid 1950’s, winning USF’s first NCAA Championship in 1955, and then repeating as champions in 1956. These San Francisco teams were led by future NBA Hall-of-Famers Russell and Jones, as well as standouts such as Hal Perry, Gene Brown, and Warren Baxter. With coach Phil Woolpert at the helm, the Dons won 55 consecutive games between 1955 and 1956, coming in third place in the country in 1957, after Russell and Jones had headed to the NBA.
“It was kind of a golden era at USF,” Slevin said. “They really had a powerful bunch of guys there.”
Slevin came to USF on a scholarship in 1955 and played on the school’s freshman team during his first year as a Don. In the 1950’s, USF had freshman, junior varsity, and varsity basketball teams, and even though Slevin didn’t play for varsity until the 1958-59 season, he lived with all of the other basketball players on campus in Phelan Hall. Here, Slevin quickly got to know his teammates.
“If you were on scholarship, you had to live in the dorms, so we all lived together, and we all lived on basically two floors,” Slevin said. “It was just like a bunch of good friends living together.”
Eating countless meals together and holding ping-pong tournaments bonded the team together. Some of the players, such as Perry, were also gifted musicians, and the team would often hold their own “jam sessions”.
Slevin lived one floor below Russell and Jones, who were roommates, and he remembers them as intense competitors during games, but genuinely nice people off of the court. Once, Slevin recalls, he walked up to their room and asked them if they could provide tickets for his friends who wanted to attend their next game. The game, which was against St. Mary’s at the infamous Cow Palace was sold out, and neither Russell nor Jones had any extra tickets. However, they thought of a gesture that would be nearly as meaningful. They each wrote notes on a copy of a Look Magazine issue that they had been featured in, apologizing to Slevin’s friends that they were not able to give them tickets. They then gave the magazine to Slevin and told him to send it to his friends.
“That’s the kind of guys they were,” Slevin said.
While Slevin had plenty of time to socialize with his fellow Dons in the dormitories, Schneider lived off campus during his time at USF. However, both got to play with the best team in the country during practice. At the beginning of their first years, the freshman team scrimmaged against the varsity squad in a game for the media before the season got started. Right off the bat, Slevin and Schneider were forced to get used to competing against the nation’s top talent.
“It was fun being on the same court as them,” Schneider said. “I can say I had my shot blocked by Bill Russell, so that’s a claim to fame. I also scored one basket over his fingertips that I’m pretty proud of.”
Slevin remembers marveling at Russell’s “fantastic athletic ability,” as well as the mean streak that the team had when they stepped onto the court.
“You didn’t want to screw around with Russell on the court, or any of them,” Slevin said.
By 1959, USF’s top players from the “golden era” had graduated, and the team was no longer a NCAA Championship contender. However, the 1958-59 season was still a memorable one for Slevin and Schneider. Along with their good friends John Cunningham and Dave Lillevand, they made varsity and were key contributors to the first USF team to ever play in War Memorial Gym, which remains the Dons’ home to this day.
Even though Slevin and Schneider were never star players in their careers as Dons, their time spent as USF athletes profoundly affected the way they would lead their lives after college. After graduating, Schneider went on to coach basketball at Marin Catholic High School, and later Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Calif. He then became a teacher until retiring in the 1990’s.
“My experiences at USF prepared me for a coaching and teaching career,” Schneider said. “I feel that my life would have been a lot different were it not for what I experienced at USF. I was very lucky, and my kids have enjoyed playing basketball also.”
Schneider’s children have certainly taken after their father in terms of their athletic interests. He has a son that coaches at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose Calif., and another that works as a referee for high school games. Schneider also has two grandchildren that play high school basketball.
“Our family has been very much involved in the basketball scene,” Schneider said. “We’re very fortunate that way, to have great joy from the game of basketball.”
Basketball is not just something that has been instilled in the family lineage of USF players from the 1950’s – it is also a sport that has brought a group of men together and created bonds that remained strong long after they left college. Each Fourth of July, four players from the 1950’s teams, including Schneider and Cunningham, travel to Slevin’s Lake County residence to celebrate and spend time together. When they were younger, this special occasion would consist of shooting hoops and playing golf, but now, according to Slevin, the former Dons “just sit around and drink beer.” No matter what activities they engage in, though, they ensure that at least once a year, they will unite just as they once did on the basketball floor.
Slevin, Schneider, and the other Dons from the class of 1959 recently attended their 50th college reunion. This was another event that brought former USF basketball players together, and Slevin found the reunion valuable in that it rekindled his appreciation for the team and the school itself.
“It brought back a lot of fond memories, and renewed the love for the University of San Francisco, which you never lose once you’re there,” Slevin said.