I’ve never seen Lennie Rosenbluth play and maybe you haven’t either, and that doesn’t matter.
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 point that without Rosenbluth, there was no Jordan. Because without Rosenbluth – the superstar of the undefeated 1957 National Championship team – there was no Dean Smith, who met Frank McGuire on that fateful championship weekend in 1957. That meeting sparked the Smith’s eventual move to Carolina as an assistant coach, which in turn helped make Tar Heel basketball an integral part of our lives.
It’s very simple: every aspect of Carolina basketball as we know it can potentially be directly linked to Rosenbluth’s decision to play for McGuire in Chapel Hill. Rosenbluth frequently laughed at how close he came to NC State. A failed 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 hail from North Carolina, then someone on the family tree has a story about following that 1957 team through the playoffs. Just this week, I was with two mid-60s Carolina undergraduates who fondly remembered watching the national semifinal and championship game, competitions broadcast in a state breathless from North Carolina. That weekend, Lennie and his teammates – who often joked that they had a main game, “Feed the Monster”, which was designed to send the ball to Rosenbluth – changed that region forever. Our college basketball obsession began in 1957, and it’s a part of us like the mountains, the beaches and the longleaf pine.
Lennie had a way of being confident without being arrogant. He was, after all, someone who boldly predicted on the first day of practice of the 1956-57 season that the Tar Heels would be undefeated. But even after returning to the area in 2010, he never dominated Carolina’s basketball program the way some all-time greats might have. He was one of Carolina’s greatest players, still shy about asking for tickets or a parking pass.
“He had such dignity about him,” said Roy Williams, who finally made it 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 spoke of 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 into any decade. The numbers are incredible.
His 2,047 career points, off the three-point line and in just three seasons, are the most ever by a three-year-old Tar Heel. In the past fifty years, no one has come within five points of his all-time best average of 26.9 points per game. Likewise, no one in the last half-century has sniffed his Tar Heel single-season record of 28.0 points per game, set in the title-winning 1957 season in which he – this should sound familiar. – set a school record that still stands. scoring 897 points.
Players recognize players, even when they haven’t seen them play in person. It only took Tyler Hansbrough flipping through the Carolina record book once to realize the legendary place Rosenbluth held in the program.
“He was one of the first players to start Carolina’s basketball foundation,” Hansbrough said. “He helped make it what it is today. He embraced the family aspect and showed his support, especially when I was at 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. Coming back to Chapel Hill for the last act of his life was perfect. It helped remind him how important he was to all of us, and it reminded 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’s video board and told them, for the first time, “This is Lennie Rosenbluth. This is the greatest that I have ever seen.”
In 2013, he returned to the scene of the 1957 championship game in Kansas City and accompanied a small group of Tar Heels into the municipal auditorium. Seeing the memories come back to him that afternoon was magical. He pointed to the sections where Carolina fans sat that March evening. He talked about how the building looked, sounded and smelled that night. He never mentioned his specific role in the championship – he scored a team-high 20 points – but spoke of his teammates’ memorable plays and the joy of hanging out with them on the night in Kansas City after the victoire.
He could have lived that night forever, reminding us at every opportunity of the important role he played in Carolina basketball. Instead, he opted to sit quietly in the background, cheering the Heels on at every opportunity, perhaps mentioning a few fundamentals they could execute a little more skillfully: “Use the backboard!” he said, but above all happy to be part of the crowd. That was true even in a 21,750-seat building in which, if we were to trace the lineage of every fan in the building, they would likely 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 am I, and I hope one day my kids will realize that he helped make them a Tar Heel too.
Bronx-born and former Florida resident Lennie Rosenbluth died of a Tar Heel on Saturday. For which we are all eternally grateful.
At the request of the family, in lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to Carolina men’s basketball endowment to support a program that was so important to Lennie. Donations can also be made by calling the Rams Club at 919-843-2000.