I’ve never seen Lennie Rosenbluth play and she probably never was, and one thing doesn’t matter.
Because Rosenbluth, who died Saturday at the age of 89, is probably responsible for more Carolina basketball fans than anyone other than Michael Jordan. And you can make a fair argument that without Rosenbluth, there would have been no Jordan. Because without Rosenbluth—the star in the 1957 undefeated national championship—there would have been no Dean Smith, who met Frank McGuire at that fateful championship weekend in 1957. This meeting initiated Smith’s eventual move to Carolina as assistant coach, Which in turn has helped make Tar Heel basketball a part of our entire lives.
It’s pretty simple: every aspect of Carolina Basketball as we know it can ultimately be traced directly back to Rosenbluth’s decision to play McGuire at Chapel Hill. Rosenbluth laughed over and over about how close he came to attending NC State. A failed experience left him without a scholarship offer from Wolfpack, and instead he came to Chapel Hill.
If at least two generations in your family have been North Carolina residents, someone in the family tree has a story about following the 1957 team through the post-season. Just this week I was with two University of Carolina students in the mid-1960s who fondly remembered watching the semifinals and the National Championships, competitions telecast in the exciting state of North Carolina. This weekend, Lenny and his co-workers—who have often joked that they introduced one core game, “Feed the Beast,” which was designed to get the ball rolling to Rosenbluth—changed this area forever. Born in 1957, our college basketball obsession is as part of us as the mountains, beaches, and tall-leafed pines are.
Lenny had a way of being confident without being cocky. This was, after all, someone who boldly predicted on the first day of training during the 1956-57 season that Tar Heels would not be defeated. But even after returning to the area in 2010, he never loomed large on the Carolina basketball program as some of the all-time greats might be. One of Carolina’s greatest players used to be here, and still shy away from asking for tickets or a parking permit.
“He had such dignity about him,” said Roy Williams, who eventually explained to Lenny and his wife, Luminous Diane, that they had tickets for any game they wanted. “The men who came after him, spoke of Lenny with respect. There was always something special about him.”
Let’s be very clear about this: Rosenbluth played in a different generation. But he can play in any era, because he scored in a way that translates into any decade. The numbers are incredible.
He achieved 2,047 points in his career, without the three-point streak and in just three seasons, the most ever in three tar-heel years. In the past 50 years, no one has been five points away from their all-time best average of 26.9 points per game. Likewise, no one in the past half century has smelled his one-season Tar Heel record of 28.0 points per game, set during the 1957 title-winning season and which—this should sound familiar—set a school record that still stands at 897. a point.
Players get to know the players, even when they don’t see them playing head to head. It only took me once reading Tyler Hansbro’s book The Carolina Records to understand Rosenbluth’s legendary place on the show.
“He was one of the first guys to start founding basketball in the Carolinas,” Hansbro said. “He helped make it what it is today. Embrace the family side and show their support, especially when I was in school. It meant a lot to me and was a great example.”
He was a great example as a player, but he was also a great example as Tar Heel – and as a person. Before returning to Chapel Hill, Rosenbluth lived in Florida and worked as a high school teacher and coach. Returning to Chapel Hill for the last chapter of his life was perfect. It helped remind him how important he was to all of us, and it helped remind us all how important he is to Carolina. Who knows how many grandparents turned grandchildren when Rosenbluth was featured on the Smith Center video board and told, for the first time, “This is Lenny Rosenbluth. It’s the greatest I’ve ever seen.”
In 2013, he returned to the 1957 Championship stage in Kansas City A small group walked Tar heels through town hall. Watching the memories come back to him that afternoon was magical. He pointed to the sections where the Carolina lovers sat on that March evening. Talk about what the building looked like, how it looked, and how it smelled that night. He never mentioned his specific championship role—he scored 20 points for the team—but he did talk about the memorable plays his teammates made and the joy of going out to Kansas City night with them after the win.
He could have lived that night forever, reminding us at every opportunity of the important role he played in basketball for the Carolinas. Instead, he chooses to sit quietly in the background, cheering on his heels at every opportunity, and perhaps mentioning some basics they can do a little more subtly – “Use the backboard!” He would say – but mostly just being a part of the audience. This was true even of a 21,750-seat building, and if we were to trace the lineage of every fan in the building, it probably accounts for the vast majority of fans learning to love Carolina basketball. My dad used to wear tar heels because of Lennie Rosenbluth, so I am, and I hope one day my kids will realize he helped them make tar heels too.
Bronx-born Lenny Rosenbluth and former Florida resident, Heel Tarr passed away on Saturday. For which we are all forever grateful.
At the request of the family, instead of flowers, contributions can be directed to Carolina Men’s Basketball Scholarship To support the program was very meaningful to Lenny. Donations can also be made by calling The Rams Club at 919-843-2000.