WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

The return of a legend

Former UNC star, Fike coach Rosenbluth pays a visit

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Sixty-two years after being a part of the second — and last — unbeaten men’s basketball team at North Carolina, Lennie Rosenbluth will readily tell anyone who cares to listen.

His 1956-57 Tar Heels are the most important team in the program’s storied history.

That blanket statement was enough to elicit a few gasps and laughs from the crowd at Wednesday’s meeting of the All-American Kiwanis Club of Wilson, held at Western Sizzlin. The gathering also included legendary Fike head football coach Henry Trevathan as a guest, who directed the Cyclones to three straight North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4-A championships from 1967-69. Serving as luncheon speaker, Rosenbluth almost immediately deflected any discussions of “legend” status onto Trevathan.

But Rosenbluth, who spent two seasons at Fike (1963-64, 64-65) as head coach of the Cyclones’ basketball team after the conclusion of his playing career, made a compelling case for his UNC squad sending the next six-plus decades into motion.

What’s more, Rosenbluth’s 32-0 team that won the 1957 national championship gave instant credibility to an Atlantic Coast Conference still in its infancy. The interest generated around the Tar Heels’ run to the 1957 national title — which was televised and produced back to the state by C.D. Chesley — was the forerunner to the first Raycom package for the ACC the very next season.

“In the fourth year of a new conference, we go undefeated and win the national championship,” Rosenbluth, the 1957 ACC Player of the Year, recalled. “What did we do? We legitimized a new conference. The second thing, we played eight home games and 24 on the road. I don’t know how many games, other than the finals, were on TV. And it’s not like today. What did Carolina do last night — did they win? Unless you were fortunate enough to have a seat somewhere or listen on the radio, that’s it.”

However, one twist of fate would deliver the Tar Heels the foundation of their coaching tree that continues today.

Rosenbluth, who was brought to Chapel Hill by Frank McGuire after the latter came over from St. John’s, described the plight of assistant coach James Ambrose “Buck” Freeman. As the wins piled up for the 1957 Tar Heels, Rosenbluth and his fellow New Yorkers on the roster were undeterred by the history unfolding in front of them.

Freeman wasn’t as fortunate. Rosenbluth described Freeman’s struggles with drinking, which relapsed, as the pressure continued to accumulate. The UNC administration urged McGuire to make a change on his staff for the following season, which yielded a former Kansas and Air Force Academy assistant by the name of Dean Smith.

“If we don’t go undefeated, and it’s a normal season and go maybe 24-3, the pressure’s not there,” Rosenbluth said. “Buck is not drinking again. And so Coach McGuire, Buck Freeman, they go into the next year. There’s no more, we have to get a new coach. We are basically responsible for Dean Smith coming to Carolina. Who else? Larry Brown becomes an assistant, Roy Williams becomes an assistant. So if we don’t go undefeated, we don’t go to Kansas City (site of the national championship), there is no Dean Smith, there’s no Larry Brown coaching, there’s no Roy Williams coaching. So are we the most important team? Things have a way.”

ROAD TO CHAPEL HILL

As for the now 86-year-old Rosenbluth, he was initially coaxed from the Bronx to North Carolina by N.C. State head coach Everett Case. With the Wolfpack playing regularly at Madison Square Garden and ranked among the nation’s top teams, Rosenbluth knew of N.C. State despite the lack of widespread media attention at the time.

In April 1952, Case invited Rosenbluth to Raleigh. While there, he took part in a workout. 

Rosenbluth, a 6-foot-5 small forward, was out of shape and performed poorly. 

Case summoned Rosenbluth into his office. There was one precious scholarship left to give. Rosenbluth wasn’t in the Wolfpack’s plans after all.

Thus, Rosenbluth returned to New York, where McGuire was waiting with a phone call. Rosenbluth respected McGuire immensely, but had no interest in playing college basketball in a big city at St. John’s.

But McGuire was holding a secret unknown to many. He was leaving St. John’s and wanted Rosenbluth to help build his program at his next stop.

“I said, ‘Coach, wherever you go, I’m going with you,’” Rosenbluth said. “I never heard about Chapel Hill, never saw the University of North Carolina. I’m going with Frank McGuire, wherever he goes!”

With no 3-point line in Rosenbluth’s day and the the shot clock still several decades away, games could turn into defensive slugfests in short order. Only the ACC tournament champion reached the NCAA field in 1957, which meant nothing was guaranteed for a team that entered postseason play at 23-0.

In the semifinals against Wake Forest in Reynolds Coliseum, victory wasn’t assured until Rosenbluth converted a three-point play in the only manner available. Despite the protests from Demon Deacon fans, Rosenbluth hit a hook shot over Wendell Carr, who was whistled for a block, and Rosenbluth hit the free throw to help cement a 61-59 victory for UNC.

On the play, the Wake opinion was that Rosenbluth committed a charging foul.

To win the national title, UNC had to survive a pair of triple-overtime games on consecutive nights over Michigan State and Kansas, with the Jayhawks being led by Wilt Chamberlain. UNC survived the Jayhawks for the title despite Rosenbluth fouling out in the closing stages of regulation.

ROAD TO WILSON

Rosenbluth, whose No. 10 jersey has been retired by UNC, was taken with the No. 6 pick in the 1957 NBA draft by the Philadelphia Warriors. He played professionally until 1959 and arrived at Fike as a history and geography teacher and helped out with driver education. 

“Dean Smith knew somebody and came down and talked to me about coming to Fike,” he said. “And I said, sure. I had a great time. The players played as hard as they can, but they didn’t have it. The second year, everybody came back and we had a big man who transferred in from another school. We were undefeated until he came down with the mumps! And once that happened, we reverted back to the previous year! We didn’t win another game.”

A drastic increase in the teaching supplement prompted Rosenbluth and his late wife, Pat, to pursue opportunities in Florida, where he still resides and taught until retirement. He married his second wife, Dianne, in 2011.

“I think I was making $3,500 dollars a year,” Rosenbluth said. “And after taxes —  and you get paid once a month — it’s not a lot of money. Miami came recruiting teachers, and they started off at $5,200. They had steps for each year, and you went up higher. Between my wife teaching and I, that’s a whole lot of money!”

Added Rosenbluth: ”Even though we were losing, we still laughed about it,” Rosenbluth said. “It was a nice bunch of guys.”

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