Oops. I almost missed my interview with Bobby Gersten twice Wednesday.
The first time was when we had to reschedule around his afternoon tennis match.
The second was when I walked right past him.
Gersten is 94, and I was looking for a 94-year-old man to dodder into the Friday Center. The trim dude who bounded through the doors, voice booming as he joked with the receptionist, looked and sounded decades younger.
He, thank goodness, recognized me.
Gersten, the oldest living former UNC Tar Heel basketball player, has been committed to physical fitness his entire life – and it shows. His handshake is firm, and when you pat him on the back, it’s like patting a tree.
Man, I thought wistfully, I hope I’m in shape as good as that when I turn 94. Of course, that was before sadly acknowledging that I’m not in shape as good as that now.
Gersten said, “I’ve spent my whole life in physical education, in college, in the Air Force, coaching. When I was a boy, my mother used to say ‘Don’t ask anyone for a ride,’ so I walked everywhere.”
Walking for health
Starting at noon Saturday, Gersten will walk from UNC’s campus to the Finley golf course to promote physical fitness as part of the UNC Walk for Health. Details at www.uncwalkforhealth.com.
If you’ve got a pair of sneakers, you can join him at the Jackson Hall tennis courts. The event will have musical entertainment featuring beach music and Motown, so you can shag, frug and Charleston after you finish the walk. The Orange County Jammers, a senior citizen cheerleading team, will be there to cheer you on.
You don’t have to pay a thing to participate, but your body may pay you back with 90 plus years of good health if you do.
William Thorpe, hired by Gersten’s family to drive him to his daily tennis or golf matches, said Gersten’s only concession to old age is a hearing aid. “He reads the newspaper every day and doesn’t even wear glasses, Thorpe said.
When Thorpe first signed up for the job of driving the then-93-year-old to play tennis and golf, he said, “I figured it would be for a couple of weeks and that would be that.”
That was almost two years ago, and Gersten rarely misses a day playing one or the other. “If the weather’s bad, he’ll go to a movie. He’s doing something every day,” Thorpe said. “I’ve never heard of anything remotely like that.”
Gersten and his wife, Libbie – whom he met while both were students at UNC – celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in November. She is 92.
Gersten’s affiliation with and contributions to UNC continue today: he is a senior mentor to UNC medical school students in a program designed to acquaint them with healthy older adults and their health-care needs.
For someone who walked everywhere and was committed to physical fitness, his most important contributions to UNC occurred in a car and over the telephone.
Gersten, a former high school basketball coach in New York, said he drove two of his former players to UNC’s campus to play ball there. One of those players was Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown.
What about the rumor that he was the person who recommended that Frank McGuire hire Dean Smith as his assistant?
“I absolutely was the guy,” Gersten said. “Here’s how that happened. Frank and I were good friends from way back. ... I was going to Florida, and I stopped by Chapel Hill to see him. He said ‘You’ve got to help me.’”
McGuire was preparing to fire his assistant coach – yes, there was a time when head coaches had only one assistant – and he enlisted Gersten’s help.
“First he said ‘Would you like the job?’ I said, ‘I can’t do it,’” Gersten recalled. “He said ‘Do me a favor, then. Go through this package of applicants.’ There were about 50 assistant coaches who wanted to come to Carolina.”
After studying the stack of candidates, Gersten said, he told McGuire to call the head coach at the Air Force Academy. “I said, ‘Why don’t you ask him about his assistant? He sounds great to me.’
“It didn’t turn out great initially,” he said, laughing heartily and recalling how Smith struggled in his first couple of years at UNC. “They hung him in effigy and tried to get rid of him.”
Was being a college jock – in addition to basketball, he also was a baseball player and is the oldest living one of those, too – a big deal in the 1930s and 1940s? I asked.
“Almost as big a deal as it is now, but not quite,” he said.
You might think that a former Tar Heel hoopster such as Gersten would be – like most UNC fans – in mourning over Duke’s national championship win Monday.
One would think wrong.
“I was delighted,” he said. “Almost went to Duke. I played against them 18 times, 10 in baseball, eight in basketball. I like Duke.”
Oh well. Nobody’s perfect – even if he is in perfect shape for 94.
Saunders: 919-836-2811 or firstname.lastname@example.org