Lennie Rosenbluth’s Road to Chapel Hill

(Photo: Getty)

Lennie Rosenbluth took a winding route to North Carolina. It is a story almost as remarkable as his incomparable achievements.

The leader of the 1957 national championship team and record holder for the most points scored by a Tar Heel in three years died Saturday at the age of 89.

Since then, no one has come within five points of his scoring average of 26.9 points per game or the Heels’ single-season record of 28 points per game, set in 1956-57. And that was long before the 3-point shot. That season, Rosenbluth scored 897 points, a Carolina record.

Rosenbluth helped the Heels beat Michigan State in the 1957 semifinals in triple overtime and then Kansas in the final, also in triple overtime. The games were played 20 hours apart, with no TV timeouts, and with one minute between overtimes. For the 1956-57 season, the Heels went 32-0.

Unlike his 1956-57 teammates, whom Carolina head coach Frank McGuire and New York City scout Harry Gotkin plucked from the city’s Catholic prep schools, Rosenbluth took a Very different path towards Chapel Hill.

While at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Rosenbluth worked summers at a hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains, a popular destination for city vacationers. Hotels and country clubs in the region maintained basketball teams to play one or two nights a week as entertainment for guests.

“That helped me, because most of my games I played against older players who had graduated from college,” Rosenbluth recalled in an interview earlier this year. “I got more experience playing against them than I did playing against high school players.

“I played against Red Auerbach’s team.” Boston Celtics coach Auerbach coached a summer team in the Catskills. “I played really well against them and he invited me to come to Boston to train at the beginning of my senior year.”

So he worked out for two weeks, and Auerbach tried to recruit him. The NBA said it was against the rules to draft a player fresh out of high school. But Auerbach put Rosenbluth on the list of players to enter Madison Square Garden. The problem was that he didn’t have a seat.

So-St. John’s trainer, McGuire, saw him and invited him to sit in the trainers’ box. “So I sat with Coach McGuire the whole time.”

Gotkin asked Rosenbluth if he wanted to go to St. John’s.

“I said no, I don’t want to go to a school where I have to get on the subway. I want to go to a school where there is a university in a small town.”

And then Rosenbluth almost went to NC State. He was then scouted by State head coach Everett Case when Rosenbluth was still at James Monroe and also playing for the otherwise all-black team at the Carlton YMCA in Brooklyn. Case invited Rosenbluth to work out with State when the team played at Madison Square Garden and later invited Rosenbluth and his father to see the State campus.

Once in Raleigh, Case insisted that Rosenbluth work out with the team.

“I said ‘Coach, I’m not in shape, I don’t have workout clothes, I don’t have sneakers.'” But Case provided it all. The problem was that the new shoes created blisters. “Those kids were throwing the ball at my feet and over my head. I played as bad as you can play… After two days of limping and hurting myself, he called me into his office and said, ‘Lennie, I know I offered you a scholarship, but you didn’t sign anything. I only have one scholarship left.’ And he tells me he can’t afford to waste it on me. He thought that he should try a lower level of ball”.

So Case moved on to Rosenbluth, who would go on to be named the 1957 ACC and Helms Foundation Player of the Year.

McGuire called Rosenbluth and said he had heard what happened with State. “I told him, ‘Coach, I’d love to play for you, but I don’t want to play in town.’ He said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m leaving St. John’s. I’ll probably go to North Carolina or Alabama. I told him, ‘Coach, wherever you go, I’ll go with you.’”

It turned out that Alabama would not accept McGuire’s assistant coach, Buck Freeman, who according to the 1957 players had a drinking problem. Caroline would.

What made a Jewish player from New York promise to go south with an Irish Catholic coach in 1953?

“I liked the way he trained. When I saw him at St. John’s, he never yelled at a player. If a player made mistakes and the people in the Garden yelled ‘Get him out!’ … The coach wouldn’t bring him out until maybe a minute or two later, when the crowd had calmed down and he was talking to him. I like that. Other coaches were yelling at the players.”

But Rosenbluth first went to Staunton Military Academy in Virginia in 1952-53 because he was missing two subjects to get into Carolina: math and a language.

When he got to Chapel Hill, “I saw the campus and it was great. It was something you only dream of.”

Ultimately, Rosenbluth was named the 1957 ACC Player of the Year, ACC Men’s Athlete of the Year, Helms Hall of Fame Collegiate Player of the Year, and 1957 ACC Tournament MVP. He was later inducted into the Helms College Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2002, he was named to the ACC 50th Anniversary Men’s Basketball Team as one of the 50 greatest players in ACC history.

Upon graduating from Carolina in 1957, Rosenbluth was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors, for whom he played until 1959. He then taught school in Wilson, NC, for $3,500 a year. “Miami came looking for teachers and his salary was $5,200.” He and his wife, Pat, decided they couldn’t afford to turn him down.

Rosenbluth taught American history and social studies and coached basketball at Coral Gables High School in Miami for 15 years until higher-paying private schools came along. He and his wife retired from teaching after 30 years and began to travel.

But in 2009, Pat developed cancer. “He was taking chemotherapy in Miami but he wasn’t doing well.” Woody Durham called and suggested that Pat go to the UNC cancer hospital. “They tried to save her, but they couldn’t. After her passing, everyone was like, ‘Stay here.’”

So he did. In 2011 he met and married Dianne, a retired real estate agent, and they became a fixture at Carolina basketball games.

“It’s fantastic to be remembered all these years later,” Rosenbluth said. “Not many teams are remembered, but even the young students remember the name of our team and that of my teammates.”

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