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Carolina On His Mind

Carolina On His Mind

Chapel Hill, N.C. — With 11 minutes left in the first half of a recent University of North Carolina home basketball game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, the giant TV screens above the Dean E. Smith Center flash the image of a graying, bespectacled septuagenarian Jew from the East Bronx.

As the athletes, mostly African Americans from the South, huddle courtside around their coaches during a timeout, the voice of Lennie Rosenbluth, talking about a “magical season” in a pre-recorded interview, blares from the microphones. A roar grows in the arena.Then a camera finds Rosenbluth, sitting in the stands behind the Wake Forest basket. He stands and waves, larger than life on the TV screens, and the capacity crowd of 21,572 gives him an ovation until play resumes.

Fifty years ago this month, the nation’s top collegiate basketball player fouled out of the NCAA championship game with 1:45 left in the second half. His warm-up jacket draped over his shoulders, he sat on the bench next to his coach, cheering on his teammates during the remainder of regular time, which ended in a tie, and through three overtime periods.

When UNC finally beat the Kansas Jayhawks, 54-53, the player leaped in the air and hugged his coach.Wilt Chamberlain, an intimidating 7-foot center who went on to a Hall of Fame career in the National Basketball Association and a reputation as one of the greatest players in basketball history, was the star of the Kansas team.

In 1957 Wilt Chamberlain was Goliath — but a team of carpetbagger Davids, led by a jump-shooting forward from James Madison High School, won the last game of the year.

In 1957 the player of the year — named by the Helms Hall of Fame, then the sport’s most prestigious athletic foundation — was Rosenbluth, a skinny forward from New York City who ended the championship game as his team’s leading scorer, despite missing nearly 17 minutes of play.

In 1957, before Sandy Koufax tamed his fastball to become baseball’s most feared pitcher, Rosenbluth was arguably the pre-eminent Jewish athlete in the United States, one of superstar proportions. But he was a superstar before the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball championship, which tips off next week, turned into the wildly popular “March Madness,” before the announcement of the NCAA’s playoff teams itself became a TV event, before cable TV carried every post-season game.

“To Jewish people there was nothing like Lennie,” says Bobby Gersten, a native of Long Beach, L.I., who preceded Rosenbluth by 15 years on the UNC basketball team. “He outplayed Wilt.”

“He was Michael Jordan 25 years before Jordan was here,” says Josh Blumenthal, executive director of North Carolina Hillel.

After graduating in 1957, Rosenbluth went on to a brief, undistinguished career in the NBA, and a long career as a high school teacher and coach. His star quickly faded.

This year, Rosenbluth is shining again.

He was honored, as part of the Tar Heels’ championship 1957 team, during halftime of the Wake Forest game in the Smith Center — aka the “Dean Dome,” named for the team’s retired coach — along with the players, including Jordan, from UNC’s 1982 championship team. The ’57 players will be feted again during the post-season tournament of the Athletic Coast Conference, which precedes this year’s March Madness, starting this week.

And Rosenbluth, 74, already a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, in Israel, will be inducted April 29 into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, based at the Suffolk Y, along with sportscaster Howard Cosell, Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, NFL referee Jerry Markbreit, and other prominent Jews from the sports world.

“It’s a fantastic feeling,” says Rosenbluth, now retired. “I’m extremely honored to put my name even close to Michael Jordan and James Worthy.” Worthy was a teammate of Jordan on the UNC ’82 team, and a star in the NBA. “It just humbles me.”

In Chapel Hill, Rosenbluth’s legacy is as fresh as 50 years ago. Fans routinely brag that listings of the top 100 all-time college basketball players always include his name. The UNC athletic department periodically salutes the ’57 team; 10 years ago the players received belated championship rings, bearing an embossed “#1.”

“Any fan in Chapel Hill can tell you the starting five of the 1957 team,” Rosenbluth says, sitting in a hotel lobby here the day before the Wake Forest game. “Every time I go back to and watch a game and they put me on the [TV] screen, I get the same tremendous ovation.”

More than 50 years after he left New York, he speaks with the slightest trace of a Bronx accent. Rosenbluth last played ball several decades ago. A little stockier than during his college days, he’s in good health, now a doting grandfather. He favors jeans and cable sweaters, and talks quietly, without boasting, about his halcyon days. At home in Florida, he still gets “two or three letters a week,” asking for an autograph, he says.

Icon In Bible BeltIn the southern Bible Belt, in this corner of Dixie’s Tobacco Road, basketball ranks as a religion whose icons are outfitted in white and sky blue, the Tar Heels’ colors. In Chapel Hill, in North Carolina, in wider part of the South, the ’57 championship game in Kansas City has assumed mythic status, partly because the Tar Heels finished the season with a perfect 32-0 record, partly because the game was the first one with live local television coverage, partly because the opponents in the final game featured “Wilt the Stilt,” partly because both of the Tar Heels’ Final Four games went into triple overtime.

And mostly because the championship established UNC as one of the country’s dominant college basketball teams and the four-year-old ACC as one of the top basketball conferences. (At the end of the 2006-07 regular season, the 24-5 Tar Heels were the 8th-ranked team in the country, and several ACC teams had qualified for the NCAA playoffs.)

At the same time, the game marked the beginning of the end of an era — the era of the great collegiate Jewish basketball player. For three decades, once basketball captured the imagination of American youth, the sport was the City Game, an exit out of the urban ghetto. For three decades, the sons and grandsons of Jewish immigrants dominated college basketball.

Rosenbluth was among the sport’s last Jewish stars. In the late 1950s, the early years of the civil rights movement, integration of American universities and of their teams’ rosters was underway. Black stars, like Chamberlain at Kansas and Bill Russell at the University of San Francisco, were on the rise. By the late 1960s, basketball at its highest levels was a black man’s sport.

While Jewish athletes continued to play for college teams after Rosenbluth — Duke’s Art Heyman, also a New York City native, was AP and UPI’s player of the year in 1963 — none became icons like Rosenbluth. Sports like basketball and boxing took a lower profile in the Jewish community.

For aspiring young Jews, “there are other things they can do,” Rosenbluth says. The standard Jewish professions, he means.

“Jews don’t have the economic drive to use sports to get out of the neighborhood,” says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University and longtime assistant coach of the school’s basketball team.

“It’s a function of their suburbanization,” Gurock says. “As they moved out of urban areas they started playing other games — golf, tennis. They started swimming.”

In the 1950s South, where Jews were usually seen as merchants or scholars, Rosenbluth’s on-court success changed their image.

Still the holder of several UNC records, including season and career scoring average, Rosenbluth holds a place of honor in the Smith Center rafters — his No. 10 jersey is among seven retired by the team. His picture, next to Jordan’s, graces the cover of a 2005 book, “Images of Sports,” that chronicles the Tar Heels’ history. He is featured in the cottage industry of academic and anecdotal books about Tar Heels history.

The day before the Wake Forest game, he sat with a few teammates at an off-campus book signing, while fans — from current students to grandfathers with grandchildren in tow — stood in line outside for hours in the cold. “A bunch of old guys signing books,” Rosenbluth says.

Rosenbluth says he felt at home the first time he set foot on campus.Already integrated, UNC was by a liberal-minded school, open to Jews and blacks and other minorities.

“Chapel Hill was a beacon of progressiveness,” says Eli Evans, historian of the Jewish South and retired president of the Revson Foundation. “North Carolina was a very progressive state. Being Jewish in Chapel Hill,” Evans says, “was not an unhappy, anti-Semitic experience.”

Like throughout much of the South, Jews in North Carolina traditionally found themselves a respected minority in the largely Protestant region. Today, about 25,000 Jews live in the state, several thousand in the Research Triangle of Chapel Hill-Raleigh-Durham.

Some 200 Jews numbered among the school’s 6,000 students in 1957. Today, the numbers have grown to 1,200 and 26,000, respectively. Jewish life here has similarly grown. There’s a Jewish fraternity and sorority, a renovated Hillel building along Greek Row, a 2-year-old Chabad House that hosts packed classes and Friday night dinners, and the school’s Carolina Center for Jewish Studies, which features a picture of Rosenbluth on its Web page. The Daily Tar Heel newspaper even runs a column of students’ complaints called “Kvetching Board.”

Quintessential New Yorker

Rosenbluth says he knew little about the city or the school when he decided to enroll there in 1953, following Frank McGuire, the street-smart coach from St. John’s University who had left Queens the previous year. Rosenbluth knew the coach from playing and watching games in New York City, and trusted him.

Rosenbluth “was the quintessential New York kid who used to sit in the Yankee Stadium bleachers and root for Joe DiMaggio,” Adam Lucas writes in “The Best Game Ever: How Frank McGuire’s ’57 Tar Heels Beat Wilt and Revolutionized College Basketball” (The Lyons Press, 2006).Rosenbluth saw his first basketball game, at the old Madison Square Garden, with his father in sixth grade, and fell in love with the sport. His idol was Dolph Schayes, star of the Syracuse Nationals. “He’s an unassuming guy,” Rosenbluth says. “He’s a Jewish guy.”

Rosenbluth started playing pickup games around the city.

Three times he tried out for his high school team. Three times he didn’t make the cut. “I wasn’t good enough,” he says.He kept practicing. “I played every day. I played in the snow with gloves on. I was getting better. I could dunk.”

He made the team by the middle of his junior year. The next year a teacher’s strike cancelled the basketball season; he played only eight games in high school.

But McGuire, who brought a stream of city boys to Chapel Hill on recruiting missions dubbed the “underground railroad,” knew Rosenbluth’s reputation. “He never saw me play,” Rosenbluth says.

By the time Rosenbluth arrived in Chapel Hill, he was a scoring machine.

“He was deadly. He was unerring. He had this fluid, unforgettable jump shot,” says Evans, who attended UNC during what he calls “The Lennie Era.”

For the school’s small Jewish population, “there was an instant pride,” Evans says, though Rosenbluth, shy by nature, was not active in the campus’ Jewish activities.

Following the custom of Southerners who had dual “Billie Bob” first names, Rosenbluth chose a second name for himself: Lennie “Shoot-a-Lot” Rosenbluth.

The lone Jew on the roster, playing with fellow Yankees, he was part of a starting five that came to be known as “Four Catholics and a Jew.”

Rosenbluth didn’t wear his ethnicity as a badge, but his Jewish identity was obvious. “How could you not know with a name like Rosenbluth,” says Leonard Rogoff, research historian at the Rosenzweig Museum and Jewish Foundation of North Carolina.

“For Carolina Jews he gave the epithet ‘New Yorker’ a good name,” Rogoff wrote in “Homelands: Southern Jewish Identity in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina” (The University of Alabama Press, 2001).

“He was the vanguard of what became the ‘New South’ — taking a New Yorker and making him one of its own,” Rogoff says.

“He did a lot for his religion in the South,” McGuire was quoted as saying. “The more Rosenbluths we get down here the better.”

Dave Kufeld, a basketball player for Yeshiva University in the late 1970s who was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers, says he studied Rosenbluth’s career. “It was no secret to the New York Jewish community,” Kufeld says. “Here was a guy from the Bronx playing down in Dixie. It started my fascination with North Carolina basketball.”

Rosenbluth says his religious identity presented no problems as a player. “I never had an anti-Semitic incident from opposing players or fans,” he says. However, knowledgeable Jewish fans tell of one opponent who tried to bait Rosenbluth with anti-Semitic taunts in a road game and was quickly straightened out by Tar Heel teammates.

Rosenbluth shrugs at mention of the story.He was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors in 1957. For two seasons he played behind Paul Arizin, a future hall-of-famer. The traveling, the bench time, the low wages discouraged Rosenbluth. He didn’t return to the NBA for a third year.

He went back to Chapel Hill, got a teacher’s certificate, taught high school history and coached basketball there and in Miami until retiring in 1995.

“I was teaching high school 30 years, and nobody knew who I was,” he says. His students didn’t know that their teacher had been a star. “I didn’t talk about it. It was a game. The game was over. I don’t live in the past at all,” Rosenbluth says.

His trophies and old uniforms are packed away in his Fort Myers home where he and his wife moved last year.

He thinks about 1957 only during anniversary years. “Basically at the reunions.” Next month he’ll go back to Chapel Hill again, to speak at a campus-wide Maccabiah sporting competition hosted by North Carolina Hillel.

“Now I just babysit,” Rosenbluth says.

“I’m still the same guy” who took a jump shot south and found 15 minutes of fame that lasted, intermittently, a half-century, he says. “I happened to play basketball.”

Does he regret giving up on a professional basketball career after only two seasons?

“I have no regrets at all,” he says. “It was fun. I’ve had a happy life.”

Near the end of halftime during the Tar Heels’ game against Wake Forest, the Dean Dome’s TV screens carry the day’s trivia question: Which UNC player holds the team’s season scoring record?

The answer never appears in the second half. Apparently, everyone in Chapel Hill knows Lennie Rosenbluth.

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