Luke DeCock

DeCock: UNC’s Lennie Rosenbluth remembers '57 title, Wilt Chamberlain

The 1957 Tar Heels pose with coach Frank McGuire in the UNC locker room at the ACC Tournament. Lennie Rosenbluth is at far right.
The 1957 Tar Heels pose with coach Frank McGuire in the UNC locker room at the ACC Tournament. Lennie Rosenbluth is at far right. 1957 News & Observer file photo

Lennie Rosenbluth remembers darkness and silence. He couldn’t do anything about the darkness. Municipal Auditorium was – still is – poorly lit, full of corners and angles, even more so back in 1957. The silence had everything to do with Rosenbluth and North Carolina.

Still undefeated after a triple-overtime win over Michigan State in the semifinals, the Tar Heels upset Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas, again in triple-overtime, even after Rosenbluth fouled out late in regulation. Despite the Jayhawks’ home-court advantage, it was quiet at the start and quiet at the finish, after Joe Quigg hit two free throws to seal the 54-53 win.

“The unusual part of it was how quiet the crowd was, said Rosenbluth, 80, one of the great scorers in college basketball history. “(5-foot-10) Tommy Kearns went to jump center against Chamberlain, and there was a hush over the crowd. We opened up with a fast flurry of points and we were up 10 or 12 before they could turn around. The crowd was out of it for nine-tenths of the game. Once we won the game, you could hear a pin drop in the stadium, in Municipal Auditorium. It was so quiet. We were the only ones that were cheering. People filed out so quickly you couldn’t believe it.”

As the Tar Heels return to Kansas City, possibly to play Kansas yet again if they can get past Villanova on Friday and the Jayhawks advance as well, albeit in a shiny new arena, the events of 56 years ago still resonate with both programs and throughout college basketball.

The Tar Heels, a program built from almost nothing in only a few years by coach Frank McGuire with New York imports like Rosenbluth, Quigg, Kearns and Pete Brennan, knocked off heavily favored Kansas in front of a very partisan crowd, with both of the 32-0 Tar Heels’ games in the Final Four beamed back to North Carolina in a television experiment that would prove a resounding success.

And while he was in Kansas City for the Final Four, McGuire met with a young Air Force assistant coach who had played and coached at Kansas. A year later, McGuire hired Dean Smith, and the rest is history.

Rosenbluth, who moved back to Chapel Hill a few years ago after spending most of his adult life in Florida, was the ACC’s biggest star that year, a 6-foot-5 forward who could score from anywhere and was at the center of the Tar Heels’ New York-influenced give-and-go offense. He averaged 28.0 points per game that season, still a North Carolina school record, scoring 29 points against the Spartans and 20 against the Jayhawks before fouling out.

His fame, however, paled in comparison to that of Chamberlain, the 7-foot-1 center from Philadelphia who in his first and only season at Kansas was a national sensation. Even Rosenbluth marveled at his athleticism – and the Tar Heels’ ability to minimize his impact in overtime by forcing the Jayhawks to shoot from outside, although Chamberlain still scored a game-high 23 that night.

“Wilt, at that time, is the best big man who ever played the game,” Rosenbluth said. “You’re talking about an athlete. He high-jumped in college, did the running broad jump in track. This guy can jump. He can play. In the first OT, each team scores two points. The second OT, five minutes more, neither team scores. Here you have on your team Wilt Chamberlain, and you go 10 minutes and only two points are scored. That’s kind of weird.”

Rosenbluth went back to Kansas City in 1988 to be honored as one of the 50 greatest players in NCAA tournament history. He’s back again this week to watch the Tar Heels play, with the same opponent lurking. He visited Memorial Auditorium on Thursday – and the current team plans to take a tour Friday – but his memories need no refreshing.

“When I went there 25 years ago, it was the same place – dark as the dickens,” Rosenbluth said. “I’ve never seen a stadium, and I’m going back 50 years, 55 years remembering, I’ve never seen a stadium as dark as that basketball court. Between the smoke and the auditorium and the lights, it was one of the darkest places I ever played in.”

That’s where his undefeated season finished, and so much else began. It’s hard to think of two programs more closely intertwined than North Carolina and Kansas. There’s Dean, and Roy Williams, and Larry Brown, and even as they face the prospect of another potential rematch on Sunday, the two programs are fighting over the top recruit in the country, Andrew Wiggins. Those links began here, in Kansas City, in 1957.

The relationship between North Carolina and Kansas wasn’t the only thing built that weekend. There are four Final Fours that did more than any others to change the game of college basketball. That was one of them.

Texas Western’s all-black starting five defeating all-white Kentucky in 1966 is one. So is 1979, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird set the stage for the growth of both college and pro basketball. The 1971 Final Four set attendance records at the Astrodome, the first to be played in a football stadium. It would be 11 years before the Final Four was played at a dome again, but the NCAA hasn’t looked back since.

Then there was 1957. The television pioneer C.D. Chesley televised North Carolina’s triple-overtime win over Michigan State in the semifinals and the triple-overtime win over Kansas in the finals, but he had no idea whether anyone was watching until the Tar Heels got home and fans were lining Highway 70 all the way to the airport.

“When they got back, Chesley knew those people had seen it,” retired News & Observer sports columnist Caulton Tudor said. “That’s what everybody was talking about. That told him ACC basketball would work regionally, and he started putting it together. That changed the way everybody looked at TV. That weekend, those games, he saw what it could be.”

On the court, meanwhile, North Carolina’s sudden success was the first real challenge to Everett Case at N.C. State, setting the tone for all the Tobacco Road rivalry to follow. Soon, players from all over the country were heading south to play basketball, and the sport went from local curiosity to regional passion in North Carolina.

“We won it, of course, three years after the ACC was founded,” Rosenbluth said. “Right away, people start talking about this new conference. A lot of people became basketball fans. And then C.D. Chesley televised those games back to North Carolina, the finals, and next year there was so much interest in basketball he began the game of the week.”

What the ACC became – what it is now – owes a great deal to what happened here in 1957. The same can be said of North Carolina and Kansas, who await each other again if circumstances dictate.

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