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Frank Deford
April 15, 2009
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April 15, 2009

A Season Of Change


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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March 29, 1982

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA was much more regional in the 1950s. People could be distinguished by what they wore and how they talked and what they ate and on a variety of other indigenous counts. For example, when Frank McGuire left St. John's University, in New York City, to become the coach at North Carolina in 1952, he had trouble persuading players to go South with him. This was because most of the best city players then were Roman Catholic, and the other coaches, friends and hangers-around, even a few priests, would tell a player and his parents that if the boy went with McGuire down to the Protestant Bible Belt, he would surely "lose his soul."

Sometimes parochial schools would even refuse to mail a prospect's transcript to heathen Carolina, but McGuire learned how to fight fire with fire. He would tell parents to look at it this way: Their boy wouldn't just be a basketball player, he'd also be serving as a missionary.

The move South wasn't an easy transition for McGuire, either. He had come from the big time. McGuire was a New Yorker through and through, and one of the biggest names in college basketball, having taken the Redmen to the NCAA title game in 1952, where they lost to Kansas. McGuire knew everybody in town, and everybody returned the honor. The first game he coached at Chapel Hill, about 1,200 fans showed up in a gym that held only 5,632. His office was a shabby, reconstituted section of an old men's room. The Carolina team traveled to away games in crowded private cars, and when the players arrived at the distant campus, they slept on cots set up in the host's gym.

For this bush stuff McGuire never would have left St. John's except for his son. In '51 he and his wife, Pat, had a boy who was named Frankie. Frankie was retarded and had cerebral palsy, and it was very difficult caring for him in a small apartment in the big city.

So it was that McGuire took little North Carolina up on its offer and then started to try to spirit the flower of high school basketball out of the archdiocese of New York.

And he succeeded. In their crew cuts and car coats, four defenders of the faith gathered as freshmen in Chapel Hill in the autumn of '54: Pete Brennan and Joe Quigg from Brooklyn, from St. Augustine and St. Francis, respectively; Bob Cunningham from All Hallows, residing just over the color line, in West Harlem; and Tommy Kearns, who lived across the river in Jersey but commuted an hour and a half each way into Manhattan, to play for Looie Carnesecca at St. Ann's.

Already ensconced in Chapel Hill, a year ahead of the other New Yorkers, was Lennie Rosenbluth, from the Bronx, a somewhat mysterious, wraithlike figure, 6' 5" and maybe 170, a Jewish kid who didn't arrive at college until he was almost 20, after a high school career that consisted of seven games, total. Rosenbluth had played at playgrounds, Y's, parks, church halls and, finally, a military prep school in Virginia. McGuire had never even seen Rosenbluth play; he'd taken him blind on the recommendation of Uncle Harry, who was Harry Gotkin, his main talent scout back in the city.

In his junior year at Carolina, Rosenbluth was joined on the varsity by the four Catholic boys, and the team began to shake out. The Tar Heels went 18-5 in 1955-56, and the next season hopes were high that they would win the ACC. While the college game was almost exclusively sectional then, the four major teams in North Carolina constituted an exception. For years N.C. State, perennially the team to beat, was stocked with Hoosier sharpshooters that coach Everett Case imported from Indiana. Duke featured Philadelphia players—good ball handling was their trademark—just as Carolina now had its Noo Yawkers and Wake its Southern Baptists and a Methodist ringer or two.

To win the ACC was the Tar Heels' great goal for the 1956-57 season. That would make a grand double victory, for school and Noo Yawk basketball alike. The latter was known as give-and-go.

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