Chances are good Lennie Rosenbluth will be on hand at the Smith Center this coming Sunday when North Carolina plays its ninth game of the season. Watch closely and you’ll eventually see Rosenbluth pass along the sidelines, a tall, slightly stooped older man with dark hair – an unassuming icon of another era, leader of a group of Yankees (gasp!) whose surpassing success aligned a fledgling Southern conference with its signature sport.
The Dec. 4 meeting with Radford quietly coincides with the date 60 years ago that the 1956-57 UNC basketball season began with a decisive Tar Heels victory over Furman. When the season ended on March 23, Frank McGuire’s fifth UNC squad would be the 32-0 national champion, darling of a predominantly Protestant state where youngsters suddenly crossed themselves prior to shooting free throws to emulate the Heels’ Catholic stars.
“Everybody got behind us,” says Rosenbluth, 83, a resident of Chapel Hill since 2010 and a Smith Center habitue. “It changed basketball somewhat, maybe not being Carolina fans but becoming basketball fans. It sort of got people interested, kids interested in basketball because of what we did.”
The ’57 squad produced the only unblemished record by one of the ACC’s 13 men’s national champions, capping a season that reoriented a conference founded for football purposes. (See the market expansion of 2014 for similar unintended consequences). It would be the only championship achieved by an original ACC member in the first 35 seasons of NCAA tournament competition.
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Perhaps more significant, the Heels’ electrifying run spurred entrepreneur Castleman D. Chesley to broadcast the Final Four at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium to five stations back in North Carolina, the only telecasts anywhere of the NCAA’s climactic weekend. Soon ACC basketball and the relatively new medium of TV were married, to their mutual and enduring benefit.
Road to the title
A world where television played a minor role isn’t the only difference between the game then and now. North Carolina scheduled only eight games on its home court, 6,000-seat Woollen Gym. After Furman, the games at Chapel Hill were the home halves of the now-defunct round-robin league schedule. The ’57 Heels played almost as often – seven times – in tournaments and regular-season competition at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum, not exactly a welcoming venue.
The team drove to games in separate cars, one reserved for cigarette smokers like Rosenbluth who hid their habit from McGuire. Players actually ate and lived with other students. “I never felt elite,” says Rosenbluth, at 6 feet 5 one of the taller players in the game.
At a time when only the league champion advanced to postseason play, the Heels reached the NCAAs after surviving Wake Forest in the semifinals as Rosenbluth made a shot and got fouled on the most disputed block/charge call in ACC tournament history. UNC’s leading scorer with a 28.0 average, the senior forward had scored 45 points the previous day against Clemson, still the tournament single-game record.
UNC also endured four overtime contests en route to the national title, all on the road, including back-to-back triple overtimes against Michigan State and Kansas in the Final Four. The season’s first extra period came at South Carolina at mid-December. Tar Heels guard Stan Groll was dribbling near midcourt with about 30 seconds to go, killing the clock even though UNC trailed by a basket. This inexplicable choice caused McGuire to call timeout and demand an explanation.
“’Coach, just look at the scoreboard,’” Groll said, recounts a laughing Rosenbluth. “ ‘Carolina’s ahead by two points.’ ” To which McGuire replied, according to Rosenbluth’s expurgated rendering, “You dumb so-and-so, that’s South Carolina!” UNC then scored, forcing overtime.
When next you encounter the promiscuous use of “Carolina” to denote either school, recall how confusion over that single word might have changed sports history.
McGuire’s commentary was notably rougher-edged. “McGuire in practice would ream you out,” Rosenbluth recalls. “He would call you every name in the book.” That included ethnic barbs unimaginable (so far) in today’s game.
Players knew a comparable blast was coming when taken out of a game and forced to sit beside their coach. Before rendering his verdict the New Yorker with a taste for life’s finery would smooth his well-tailored suit jacket or shoot his cuff-linked sleeves. Then he would settle beside the offending player, lean over, and, reports Rosenbluth, “he’d whisper every (offensive) word he could think of.” The ’57 All-American and ACC player of the year , insisted the Heels took no offense at their coach’s impolitic harangues.
Fortunately for sensitive souls, McGuire’s best players rarely spent time on the bench. He believed in a minimal playing rotation. (So, more recently, did Georgia Tech program-builder Bobby Cremins, who played for McGuire at South Carolina.) McGuire wasn’t much for tired signals, either. “Suck it up!” he’d yell when a player’s energy flagged. “Suck it up! Suck it up! Are you kidding?”
Even with his ’57 team playing for a national championship, embroiled in its second consecutive 55-minute game within a 24-hour period, McGuire utilized only seven players. One came in to replace Rosenbluth, who had fouled out. “Everybody asked us after the three-overtime games, weren’t you tired?” says Rosenbluth. “I say, no.” Running sprints in two-hour practices was more wearing. “We’d certainly rather play a game than practice.”
A dozen years later, McGuire’s South Carolina squad matched Duke in the only ACC tournament game in which neither club substituted. “I don’t think it’s fair to say he wouldn’t play (team members) unless they were from New York,” said Dean Smith, McGuire’s former assistant. “That’s true, but it’s a terrible thing to say.”
Smith, a Kansas alum, came to Chapel Hill soon after the Tar Heels defeated the Jayhawks to become the first Southern school to win an NCAA championship. KU had featured 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain, so dominant a force that rules were rewritten (banning a pass over the backboard to inbound the ball, for instance) to neutralize his unique advantages.
North Carolina employed no special strategy to contend with the sophomore center. “Frank wasn’t into the technical aspects of coaching,” Smith said. Hall of Famer McGuire, who took St. John’s to the Final Four in 1952, stressed a few basic playing principles: Limit opponents to a single shot. Value the ball like gold. Be aggressive. “It’s not a complicated game,” Rosenbluth learned from his coach. “We tell people, they think I’m crazy, we never had any plays. My God, he threw the ball out there and said, ‘Do your thing,’ basically.”
UNC’s all-hands-on-deck approach to containing Chamberlain was nothing new. But what McGuire and assistant Buck Freeman devised for the opening tap was unique. In an act of seeming disrespect, a psychological ploy that knocked Chamberlain off stride, they sent 5-11 guard Tommy Kearns, their shortest starter, to jump against the giant. McGuire told his team, “Look, we’re not going to get the tap. No matter how high you jump, Chamberlain’s is higher,” remembers Rosenbluth. North Carolina took control early, built a game-long shooting and rebounding edge, then won 54-53 on Joe Quigg’s free throws and subsequent steal of a pass to Chamberlain in the third extra period.
Sixty seasons later Rosenbluth says he finds it “truly amazing” how many people remember those perfect Tar Heels. Actually, it’s amazing how many don’t.