Lennie Rosenbluth, the All-America forward who led a North Carolina team with a starting lineup of New Yorkers to an unbeaten season and a thrilling victory over Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas squad in the 1957 NCAA basketball tournament championship game, died on Saturday. He was 89.
His death was announced by North Carolina’s athletic department, which did not cite the cause or say where he died. He had been living in Chapel Hill, NC, home to the university’s main campus.
Rosenbluth, at 6 feet 5 inches, averaged 28 points per game in the 1956-57 season and beat out Chamberlain for the Helms Foundation College Basketball Player of the Year award. His Tar Heels went 32-0 and capped their season with a 54-53 triple-overtime victory over Kansas, with Rosenbluth scoring 20 points before fouling out late in regulation. Chamberlain, who went on to become one of the National Basketball Association’s most dominant players, was held to 23 points after averaging 30 during the regular season.
In the semifinals, Rosenbluth hit two jump shots in the third overtime of North Carolina’s 74-70 victory over Michigan State and finished with 31 points.
A native of the Bronx, he played sparingly for the basketball team at James Monroe High School in that borough but made an impressive showing playing basketball at Catskill summer resort hotels, a magnet for leading New York metropolitan area players. He came to the attention of Frank McGuire, who was named the North Carolina coach in 1953 after taking St. John’s, located in Brooklyn at the time, to the NCAA title game.
Rosenbluth was in the vanguard of a player pipeline from New York to North Carolina orchestrated by McGuire.
“Basketball was not yet a truly national sport, and the game was still more often than not a city game, played best, it was believed, in New York,” David Halberstam wrote in The New York Times in 1999. “But it was a bad time for college sports in New York. The point-fixing scandals of the early ’50s had destroyed the sport locally. ”
McGuire developed a North Carolina team that thrived in a largely Protestant region with a lineup that featured Rosenbluth, who was Jewish, and four Catholic teammates: Tommy Kearns, who had played high school ball at St. Ann’s Academy, in Manhattan; Pete Brennan, from St. Augustine, in Brooklyn; Joe Quigg, from St. Francis Prep, in Queens; and Bobby Cunningham, from All Hallows, in the Bronx.
Rosenbluth averaged 28 points and 8.6 rebounds a game in the Tar Heels’ 1956-57 regular season. His 2,047 career points are the most ever by a North Carolina player who appeared in only three seasons.
He was named a second-team All-American by The Associated Press and United Press International for the 1955-56 season, when he was a junior, and a “consensus” All-American for the 1956-57 championship season, meaning that a host of outlets agreed that he was among the top five players in college basketball.
He was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors as the sixth player chosen in the 1957 NBA draft. But the Warriors already had the high-scoring Paul Arizin at small forward. Rosenbluth, his backup, averaged only 4.2 points a game in his two pro seasons.
Leonard Robert Rosenbluth was born on Jan. 22, 1933, a son of Jack and Rose Rosenbluth. His father worked in the television manufacturing business.
After graduating from North Carolina and playing for the Warriors, Rosenbluth taught American history and coached basketball at a high school in Wilson, NC, east of Raleigh. In a comparison of sorts to his Tar Heel national championship team, he once quipped how “my first year, we had a perfect season again, except we lost every game.”
Rosenbluth again taught history and coached high school basketball in Florida for some 35 years. When his first wife, Helen (Oliver) Rosenbluth, known as Pat, was found to have cancer, they returned to Chapel Hill so that she could be treated in the University of North Carolina hospital system. She died in 2010. He married Dianne Stabler in 2011.
Rosenbluth had a daughter, Elizabeth; a son, Steven, and grandchildren from his first marriage. A list of survivors was not immediately available.
He was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel and the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Commack, NY, on Long Island.
In 2002, the Atlantic Coast Conference selected Rosenbluth for its 50th-anniversary basketball team and named him one of the 50 greatest athletes in the history of the conference. North Carolina retired his No. 10.
During the 2006-2007 college basketball season, Michael Jordan and James Worthy, who played on the 1982 Tar Heel championship team, attended an event for North Carolina title teams. They thanked the players who brought North Carolina to national basketball prominence in 1957.
As Rosenbluth told the New York Times, “They were saying things like, ‘You guys got it all going.'”