Getting to know the Carolina hero of 1957
“I didn't touch a basketball until I was in the seventh grade.”
Lennie Rosenbluth, hero of the undefeated and NCAA champion 1957 Carolina basketball team, was telling stories the other day to the East Chapel Hill Rotary Club.
When Rosenbluth described how he tried out for the junior high school basketball team that same year and didn't make it, nobody in the audience was surprised. After all, he was just getting started.
The next year, when he was in eighth grade, he had grown to 6 feet 4 inches tall. So, he tried out again. And, here Rosenbluth paused to be sure we were listening before he told us that again he failed to make the team. Nor did he make it in the ninth grade.
In the 10th grade he tried out for the high school junior varsity team. Again he didn't make it. Same thing in the 11th grade. Here, people in the audience were shaking their heads and having a hard time believing their speaker.
Finally Rosenbluth was believable again, explaining that in January of that year the high school coach called and offered another chance for a tryout. Rosenbluth made the team and became a starter.
Things began to roll. The next summer Rosenbluth played in the summer “hotel” league in the Catskills. There the famous Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach took an interest in him and invited him to work out with the Celtics and their players, including Bob Cousy, Bones McKinney, and Ed Macauley. Auerbach put him on a list of people who could get into the players’ entrance at any basketball game in Madison Square Garden.
As a result, Rosenbluth got to know the basketball coach at St. John’s, Frank McGuire. Although he admired and liked McGuire, Rosenbluth did not want to stay in New York City to go to college.
Ironically, the first coach from North Carolina to take an interest in Rosenbluth was N.C, State’s Everett Case, who offered him a scholarship. However, after seeing a tired out-of-shape Rosenbluth scrimmaging in borrowed ill-fitting shoes. Case took him aside and said, “I can’t waste a scholarship on you.”
About the same time Frank McGuire contacted Rosenbluth to tell him, in confidence, “I am leaving St. John's. I've got to have you.”
Rosenbluth committed to McGuire to go wherever he decided to coach.
“That's how I wound up at Carolina,” Rosenbluth told the group.
Rosenbluth reminisced about McGuire's coaching style.
“He never had to call a timeout at the end of the game,” Rosenbluth said. “We practiced what to do in the last two minutes over and over again. So we knew exactly what to do in those situations.”
Rosenbluth said that McGuire would never embarrass a player in public. If a player made a mistake in a game, he would not jerk him out of the game, but might wait a few minutes before substituting.
But McGuire always kept an empty seat beside him on the bench. A player knew, said Rosenbluth, when he called you to sit beside him that he was going to give a very strong private lecture.
Why did Frank McGuire come south to North Carolina when he left St. John’s? In large part it was because of UNC’s medical facilities that would be available to his son Frank Jr., who had serious health issues.
Ironically, it was also medical resources that brought Rosenbluth back to Chapel Hill to live so that his wife Pat’s cancer could be treated at the Lineberger Cancer Center. Although Pat died in 2010, Rosenbluth remains in Chapel Hill and has married again to the former Dianne Stabler, who cheered him on during his talk to the Rotarians.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch