CAROLINA ALUMNI REVIEW 19
Joe Quigg was the top scorer in Brooklyn high school basketball in 1953. The next year, Pete Brennan
was. Tommy Kearns was the best in
the Bronx. Bob Cunningham was throwing
’em down in the Bronx, too, before he
nearly lost the thumb on his shooting hand
in an accident. So he specialized in defense.
They all went south, spirited out of the
city to a place they’d never heard much
about — certainly not on the subject of
basketball. Kearns looked around him and
Lennie Rosenbluth had come down
from the Bronx a year before the four
Catholic boys. He is back in Chapel Hill
now, and he has more trees than he knows
what to do with. The tall picture windows
separate the early October forest by inches
from the den where he relaxes. But he can’t
keep his impossibly long arms and those
graceful hands still.
“I tried every which way, over my head
and everything else,” he explains. “But then
I started to really” — he pauses — “how do
you shoot a basketball? And the idea came
from watching baseball pitchers.” Over and
over, the fluid rise of the arms, the snap of
“If you want to throw a baseball straight,
you have to throw it and your hand has
to go out. Where your hand goes, the ball
goes. That was the first thing that hit me.
And if you throw a baseball straight, your
elbow is in. So then I started shooting like
this, following through with the hand.
Wherever the hands go, that’s where the
ball is going. And I got better and better.
“I had almost perfect form.”
It did not come easy. Not for the young
Rosenbluth, not for the Carolina team that
finished with 32 wins and not one defeat
60 years ago. As Kearns said, “We won too
many games that we should have lost.”
Sometimes they made it look awfully easy.
And when it wasn’t, they always reached
deeper and made it go their way.
What happened in March 1957 and in
the months leading up to it did not nec-
essarily make North Carolinians crazy for
basketball, but it made sure they stayed that
way. As sports writer Frank Deford said:
“Before this weekend, ACC basketball was
popular as a sport; after this, it was woven
Consider some of what happened to
cause a ho-hum pastime between football
seasons evolve into the mania that oozes
from every pore of this campus: An elite
coach needed to get out of the big city; his
disabled son, too; N.C. State took a pass
on one of the greatest players the game
has known; a controversial call could have
ended the championship run back in the
ACC tournament; out of 32 games the
Heels played, only eight were at home (and
seven were in Reynolds Coliseum); an
aspiring coach — a nobody in the game —
rubbed the right elbows in Kansas City.
At the climax: triple overtime wins
on consecutive nights; a bad pass to Wilt
Chamberlain; players who defined the word
“team” as the star spent the final 17 minutes
on the bench.
Chapel Hill was quite the sports town
during World War II. The Navy’s preflight
school filled out its baseball team with
Ted Williams and other big-name major
leaguers, and Kenan Stadium saw the likes
of Otto Graham and Bear Bryant. Usually
overlooked in that list is Frank McGuire, an
officer in the school who helped coach the
high school basketball team while he was
here — the only one of them who came
back after the war. The town had left an
unforgettable impression on him.
McGuire developed into a big shot in
New York as coach of St. John’s, but by the
early 1950s, basketball in the city’s colleges
was wracked by scandal, and he decided his
best course was to seek his fortune else-
where. He thought, too, of Frankie, his son
with cerebral palsy; a city apartment was a
terrible place for him, and a better climate,
McGuire’s touch had a special impact on
Kearns that year.
“If you look at my sophomore year, I
did not have a great year, and I think that
was a testament to Coach McGuire,” he
recalled. “He knew I was getting a little
bit out of control, and I think that coaches
have a way of dealing with that, and the
way they deal with it is they don’t play you
as much as you think you should be playing. That really sent me a big-time message.
I got myself straightened out, came down
off my perch and moved on, and we had a
“But that transition from my second
year was what he did to me and for me.
I’ll be eternally indebted to him for that. I
didn’t think so at the time, but it was a very,
very wise move.”
As captain, Rosenbluth called a presea-
son team meeting, pulled out the schedule
and said he couldn’t find a team on there
that could beat them. Only internal dissen-
tion could do that, and he kept calling those
meetings every week.
“If you think I’m shooting too much, let
me know.” He would average 28 that year.
As the season reached the midpoint,
McGuire proved no match for his players’
relentless optimism. Down four to Mary-
land with time running out, he huddled
them and told them to be gracious in
defeat. After two overtimes, Maryland was
What happened in March 1957
and in the months leading up
to it did not necessarily
make North Carolinians crazy
for basketball, but it made
sure they stayed that way.
As sports writer Frank Deford
said: ‘Before this weekend,
ACC basketball was popular
as a sport; after this,
it was woven into the fabric
of North Carolina society.’