By Adam Lucas
I never saw Lennie Rosenbluth play and maybe you didn’t either, and it doesn’t matter one bit.
Because Rosenbluth, who died Saturday at the age of 89, is probably responsible for more Carolina Basketball fans than any individual other than Michael Jordan. And you could make a very fair argument that without Rosenbluth, there was no Jordan. Because without Rosenbluth—the superstar on the undefeated national championship 1957 team—there was no Dean Smith, who met Frank McGuire on that fateful championship weekend in 1957. That meeting set in motion Smith’s eventual move to Carolina as an assistant coach, which in turn helped make Tar Heel basketball part of all of our lives.
It is very simple: every aspect of Carolina Basketball as we know it can eventually be traced directly back to Rosenbluth’s decision to play for McGuire in Chapel Hill. Rosenbluth frequently laughed about how close he came to attending the NC State. A botched tryout left him without a scholarship offer from the Wolfpack, and instead he came to Chapel Hill.
If at least two generations of your family are North Carolina natives, then someone on the family tree has a story about following that 1957 squad through the postseason. Just this week I was with two mid-60s Carolina undergrads who fondly remembered watching the national semifinal and the championship game, contests that were broadcast to a breathless state of North Carolina. That weekend, Lennie and his teammates—who frequently joked that they had one primary play, “Feed the monster,” which was designed to get the ball to Rosenbluth—changed this region forever. Our college basketball obsession was born in 1957, and it’s every bit a part of us as the mountains and the beaches and the longleaf pine.
Lennie had a way of being confident without being cocky. This was, after all, someone who boldly predicted on the first day of practice during the 1956-57 season that the Tar Heels would be undefeated. But even after he moved back to the area in 2010, he never loomed over the Carolina basketball program the way some all-time greats might have. Here was one of Carolina’s greatest players, still shy about asking for tickets or a parking pass.
“He had such a dignity about him,” said Roy Williams, who eventually made clear to Lennie and his wife, the luminescent Dianne, that they had tickets to any game they wanted. “The guys who came after him, they talked about Lennie with reverence. There was always something special about him.”
Let’s be very, very clear about this: Rosenbluth played in a different generation. But he could play in any era, because he scored in a way that would translate to any decade. The numbers are incredible.
His 2,047 career points, achieved without the three-point line and in only three seasons, are the most ever by a three-year Tar Heel. In the last fifty years, no one has come within five points of his all-time best 26.9 points per game scoring average. Likewise, no one in the past half-century has sniffed his single-season Tar Heel record of 28.0 points per game, set during the title-winning 1957 season in which he—this should sound familiar—set a school record that still stands by scoring 897 points.
Players recognize players, even when they didn’t see them playing in person. It only took one time flipping through the Carolina record book for Tyler Hansbrough to understand the legendary place Rosenbluth held in the program.
“He was one of the first players who started the foundation of Carolina basketball,” Hansbrough said. “He helped make it what it is today. He embraced the family aspect and showed his support, especially when I was in school. It meant a lot to me and he was a great example.”
He was a great example as a player, but he was also a great example as a Tar Heel—and as a person. Before returning to Chapel Hill, Rosenbluth had lived in Florida and worked as a high school teacher and coach. Returning to Chapel Hill for the final act of his life was perfect. It helped remind him how important he was to all of us, and it helped remind all of us how important he was to Carolina. Who knows how many grandfathers turned to grandsons when Rosenbluth was shown on the Smith Center video board and told them, for the first time, “That’s Lennie Rosenbluth. He is the greatest I ever saw.”
In 2013, he returned to the scene of the 1957 championship game in Kansas City and walked a small group of Tar Heels through Municipal Auditorium. Watching the memories come back to him that afternoon was magical. He pointed to the sections where Carolina fans sat on that March evening. He talked about how the building looked and sounded and smelled that night. He never mentioned his specific role in the championship—he scored a team-high 20 points—but talked about the memorable plays made by his teammates and the joy of walking out into the Kansas City night with them after the victory.
He could have lived off that night forever, reminding us at every opportunity of the important role he played in Carolina basketball. Instead, he chose to sit quietly in the background, cheering for the Heels at every opportunity, maybe mentioning a couple fundamentals they could execute a little more adeptly—”Use the backboard!” he would say—but mostly content just to be part of the crowd. That was true even in a 21,750-seat building in which, if we were to trace back the lineage of every fan in the building, he likely would have been responsible for the vast majority of the crowd learning to love Carolina basketball. My dad was a Tar Heel because of Lennie Rosenbluth, and so therefore am I, and someday hopefully my kids realize that he helped make them a Tar Heel, too.
Lennie Rosenbluth, Bronx born and former Florida resident, died a Tar Heel on Saturday. For which we are all eternally grateful.
At the family’s request, in lieu of flowers, contributions can be directed to the Carolina Men’s Basketball Endowment to support a program that was so meaningful to Lennie. Donations can also be made by calling the Rams Club at 919-843-2000.