THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA WAS MUCH more regional four decades
ago. This was before Air Jordans. 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, in New York City, to become the coach at the
University of North Carolina in 1952, he had trouble persuading
players to go south with him. This was because most of the best city
players were Catholic, and 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.''
McGuire points out, ''This was my biggest hurdle -- souls.''
Sometimes Catholic schools would even refuse to mail a prospect's
transcript to heathen Carolina, but McGuire learned, to some extent,
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. And at some of the kitchen tables where
McGuire raised this point, it went over very well.
Recruiting at that time largely took place right there, at the
The move south wasn't an easy transition for McGuire himself,
either. He had come from the big time. For 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 and could not accommodate two grown men standing shoulder to
shoulder. The North 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. This was called ''local
McGuire never would have left St. John's for this bush stuff had
it not been for his son, Frankie.
The coach was a New Yorker through and through and one of the
biggest names in college basketball, having taken the Redmen to the
NCAA finals in 1952. Frank McGuire knew everybody in town, and
everybody returned the honor. He had the gift of gab, a fine Irish
way about him. He had a handsome, open face, and he parted his golden
hair high and made you think of the movie actor Dan Duryea -- that
is, if just once Dan Duryea had played the good guy. Certainly
McGuire would never have left New York, but 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.
It helped McGuire that a lot of the big-city colleges recently had
been caught fixing games; it also helped that Uncle Harry continued
to work the territory for him.
Consequently, in their crew cuts and car coats, four defenders of
the faith gathered as freshmen in Chapel Hill in the autumn of 1954:
Pete Brennan from St. Augustine High and Joe Quigg from St. Francis
Prep, in Brooklyn; Bob Cunningham from All Hallows, in Manhattan; and
Tommy Kearns, who had grown up in the Bronx and moved across the
river to New Jersey, but commuted an hour and a half each way into
Manhattan to play for Looie Carnesecca at St. Ann's, where he had a
basketball scholarship. In those more freewheeling times, the
Catholic high schools serious about basketball held citywide tryouts,
and practice began the week after the fall semester started. It was
pretty much the only dream in town. ''We played some softball, too,''
Kearns says, ''but it couldn't take you anyplace.''
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 ft. 5 in. and maybe 170, a Jew 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, ''the mountains'' (i.e., the
Catskills, a.k.a. the Jewish Alps) 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, McGuire's main talent scout back in the city.
McGuire had implicit faith in Uncle Harry's basketball judgment,
doubting it perhaps only once, in Rosenbluth's sophomore year, when
Uncle Harry called up and told McGuire he had a hot prospect named
Lotz. ''Damn it, Harry, all you get me is Jews and Catholics; can't
you ever get me a Protestant?'' McGuire snapped. He was thinking of
lox and bagels. In fact, as Uncle Harry then tried to explain, Danny
Lotz's father was a Baptist minister. They had really struck it rich,
Protestant-wise. Later on, Danny Lotz even married Billy Graham's
But getting back to Rosenbluth. In his junior year at Carolina he
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 they were a set piece from the first victory, in Asheboro,
over a semipro club known as the McCrary Eagles. About then, the
jokes began about ''the four Catholics chasing the Jew upcourt'' and
other hilarious variations on this theme.
Here's one such variation, and, as it happens, a true one. Waning
seconds, close game, Rosenbluth at the line.
McGuire: ''Say a Hail Mary, Lennie, and make the shot.''
Lennie: ''But I don't know how to say a Hail Mary.''
Brennan: ''We'll say a Hail Mary. You make the shot.''
And so forth and so on.
Hopes were high that the Tar Heels would win the Atlantic Coast
Conference, because that would have redounded not only to the glory
of the university but also to the good repute of what all the
principals still pronounce as ''Noo Yawk'' basketball. 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, the Old Gray Fox, imported
from Indiana. Duke featured Philadelphia players -- good ball
handling was their trademark -- just as Carolina now had its Noo
Yawkers and Wake Forest its Southern Baptists and a Methodist ringer
To win the ACC was the Tar Heels' great goal that year. That would
make a grand double victory, for both school and style. The latter
was known as give- and-go.
There was indeed an NCAA tournament then, had been for years, but
Carolina dared harbor no serious aspirations of winning the national
title, because everyone everywhere simply assumed that Kansas would
win the crown in 1957. And in '58 and '59, for that matter. This was
because a young giant from Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain, had
decided to play for the Jayhawks, and now he was entering his
sophomore year, his first of varsity eligibility.
He was then perceived as superhuman. ''People today cannot imagine
the impact that man had on us all at that time,'' Joe Quigg says.
''Wilt was just a colossus.'' He stood somewhat over seven feet, he
was powerful and quick, and he was black! His reputation preceded him
to Lawrence, Kans., because he was surely the first high school
athlete whose recruiting was coast-to-coast news. ''I don't mean
these things to sound wrong, but I was above all the other guys
then,'' Chamberlain says. ''I guess I was just ahead of my time.''
The only question seriously debated was whether or not Wilt would
destroy college basketball.
It didn't take long for teams that were playing Chamberlain to
figure out that their only chance was to collapse the defense around
him and hold the ball on offense. Kansas would even lose twice --
each time by a basket in a low-scoring game on the road. ''What they
did to Wilt would have provoked you or me to distraction -- two or
three bodies always packed up against him,'' says Dick Harp, who was
his coach. ''He never got any breaks from the officials, but he never
lost his composure.''
''Looking back, I don't ever remember feeling any pressure that
season,'' Chamberlain says. ''All I can remember is getting bored so
often.'' The NCAA title would be restorative. Kansas drew San
Francisco, the defending champ, in the semifinals. A 6 ft. 9 in. guy
named Art Day jumped against Wilt. ''So you're Mr. Chamberlain,'' he
said, and Wilt only snarled at him and made it a point to crush Day's
first shot. At that, Day looked up awestruck. ''So, you are Mr.
Chamberlain,'' he said, and Wilt broke out laughing right on the
court. Chamberlain scored 32, and the Jayhawks won 80-56.
Kansas's victory was so devastating that most people forgot which
team was coming into the final game undefeated.
Midway through its schedule, with its record 16-0, North Carolina
traveled to Maryland to play the Terps before 12,200, then the
largest basketball crowd in the history of the South. When Maryland
got possession of the ball, leading by four with 40 seconds left,
McGuire called timeout for the purpose of reviewing how the Tar Heels
were to act -- like gentlemen -- in defeat. North Carolina won in
overtime. ''After that, after I called timeout to tell them how to
lose, and still they couldn't -- well, from then on I knew they were
really something special,'' McGuire says.
But it was McGuire who set the tone. ''The best thing he did was,
he left us alone, five guys who played Noo Yawk style,'' Brennan
says. Much of the strategy, the matchups, McGuire turned over to his
assistant, the late Buck Freeman, who had, years before, been the
head coach of the St. John's Wonder Five. Freeman was tall and
white-maned, leonine, but he was also a fussy old bachelor who liked
his whiskey. Above all, he was an utter technical genius, perfectly
complementing the young McGuire, who was a master of tempo and of
game and group psychology. It's said that no coach has better
understood when to call timeouts than Frank McGuire.
* The Tar Heels aligned themselves in such a way as to defy
conventional defenses. ''There was a chemistry, patterns, not
plays,'' Rosenbluth says, ''and when you have that, scouting reports
don't mean a thing.'' In fact, broken down, the Carolina offense more
closely resembled that of the Harlem Globetrotters than any other.
Rosenbluth was in the middle, back to the basket, the ''showman,'' as
the Globies call their ''lead'' (Meadowlark, Goose, Geese, whomever).
Kearns was the ''floorman'' (Marques or Curly), out front with the
ball. The two more traditional sturdy-center types, Quigg and
Brennan, weren't under the basket, where they might get in the
showman's way, but were put out in the corners.
Cunningham, tall at 6 ft. 3 in. for a 1950s guard -- and, to gild
the lily, McGuire listed him at 6 ft. 4 in. -- was the other starter.
Just where were you, Bobby? ''Sneakin'. Always sneakin' around,'' he
says. ''Lookin' after my children.'' He means the four more visible
starters. He was the classic fifth man.
As a high school junior Cunningham scored more than 20 points a
game and got 30 college offers. But in November of his senior year,
he took 100 stitches in his shooting hand when it went through a
window. The doctors wanted to amputate his thumb, and they would have
but for the pleas of Bobby's father, an immigrant laborer from
Ireland. So the thumb was salvaged, but only McGuire kept his promise
of a scholarship, a display of loyalty that also had much to do with
cementing Kearns's decision in favor of Chapel Hill.
His touch gone, Cunningham accepted the grubby tasks. ''After
where I came from and what I'd been through, I was just glad to be a
part,'' he says. Even Rosenbluth, the big scorer, says that
Cunningham, the least renowned of that Tar Heel five, was ''the
key.'' But they all had to give up something. Rosenbluth would take
himself out of the flow and let his teammates score more if he was
But none of the others ever resented sending the ball in to
Rosenbluth, because they'd never seen a man who could shoot as he
could -- spinning layups, hooks, turnaround jumpers. Three of the
other four starters -- Kearns, Cunningham and Brennan -- all proudly,
distinctly recall being the one who threw the pass to Rosenbluth when
he scored his most extraordinary basket, a 14-foot hook shot in
traffic, against Wake in the ACC tournament, in the final minute,
down a point.
Kearns, although the cockiest of the lot, probably had the most
difficult time adjusting, both to the team and to ''the foreign
country down there.'' Popular and smooth though he was, Kearns was
more of a loner than his classmates on the team and would have left
Carolina as a freshman except that his father, who was a cop and a
Coast Guardsman, wouldn't brook that kind of move. ''I had real
culture shock,'' Kearns says. ''I mean, trees! And I'd be walking
around the campus, and all of a sudden everybody is saying hello to
me: Hi, how you? I kept thinking, What do they want out of me? What's
But Kearns found new friends, joined a fraternity in which he was
the only member from north of the Mason-Dixon line, fell in love with
a bank president's daughter over at Duke (McGuire feared Kearns would
give away team secrets between kisses) and at last acclimated himself
to that strange existence beyond the subways.
It may seem odd that it was the playmaker and the leading scorer,
the two who started and ended most of the action, who were the
individuals on the team most distant from one another. But
interpersonal dynamics are often overrated. Kearns and Rosenbluth
were Noo Yawk when it mattered. As Rosenbluth, the captain, the old
man, remembers, ''We got so close on the court that we got to know
exactly what everybody else was doing -- and we were free-lance, too.
For example, I knew that if Pete put the ball on the floor, it was
But certainly, everybody rooting for the Tar Heels had fallen in
love with them. Even the most devout Catholics could see some
advantages in that. McGuire received this advice from a bishop: ''I
know you're making a lot of converts down South, but tell the boys
not to bless themselves on the free throw line unless they're sure
they can make the shot.'' Coincidence or not, the roughest games
tended to be at Wake, where anti-Semitic remarks were directed from
the stands at Rosenbluth. The Tar Heels played the Deacons four times
that season and won each time. But every game was tight, and when
Rosenbluth won the last one with his miraculous hook, McGuire was
moved to observe, ''The Catholics and the Baptists were having a hell
of a battle, until the Jew took over and broke it up.''
And the Tar Heels were good public relations for the state of
North Carolina. To have the Heels associated with urbane, ethnic New
York was hardly all bad, especially since New York was the limited
partner in this endeavor. In a way, you could say that with McGuire's
team, the Sun Belt, as we know it, , began its transmutation --
visibly, anyway -- from the Bible Belt. Lennie Rosenbluth was this
century's Virginia Dare.
Carolina moved on to the Final Four at 30-0, 31-0 counting the lid
lifter over the McCrary Eagles, which some people did. Unfortunately,
if the Tar Heels got past Michigan State in the semis, their opponent
in the championship game would surely be Kansas and Chamberlain, and
they would have to face them in the Jayhawks' home territory, in
Kansas City, Mo. As the Tar Heels' play- by-play announcer, Ray
Reeve, was to say over the radio from K.C.: ''Nobody's given them a
THE FINAL FOUR
Point of fact: North Carolina had no business beating Michigan
State. The Spartans' coach cried in the locker room afterward because
he knew his team should have won. The Tar Heels' victory took three
overtimes. Rosenbluth went for 29 points, but he forced his shots,
often firing attempts that Jumpin' Johnny Green slapped away. Kearns
played his worst game of the season, and Quigg got off only one shot
before he fouled out.
So Cunningham, realizing he had to shoot, scored 21, his career
high, and he and Brennan saved the streak. Still, it almost ended in
regulation when, at 58-all, the Spartans' Jack Quiggle threw in a
desperation try at half court at the buzzer. But the referee said
time had run out before the shot. ''All the luck we had that year,''
Rosenbluth says. ''I guess we used it up for all the Carolina teams
Then, at the end of the first overtime, it was truly finished.
''That's all she wrote,'' Reeves said on the air. State was up 64-62,
six seconds left, Jumpin' Johnny at the line, one-and-one. Kearns
remembers how desperate the situation was. The little guy he was
guarding just walked over to him and, with a big grin, said three
dirty words: ''Thirty and one.''
But Green missed the front end, and on the left side, Brennan came
down with the rebound. He didn't call timeout. He didn't look to pass
out. He turned and dribbled. If Pete put the ball on the floor, it
was going up. Only this one time Pete was 80 feet away. He started
upcourt by himself, and suddenly he found himself near the other end,
20 feet from the hoop, two defenders in front of him, all his
teammates behind. So he pulled up and fired. The buzzer sounded just
after the ball went through the twine.
The Tar Heels won, anticlimactically, two overtimes later.
Then they watched for a while as Chamberlain annihilated San
Francisco. Far ! from being intimidated, though, the Tar Heels came
away calm in the knowledge of how they had to play him. ''San
Francisco let him get away with too much,'' Brennan says. ''I don't
care how awesome he was. We had to be physical with him.'' The next
day, in the lobby of Carolina's hotel, the Continental, Kearns hung
out, loving it, advising whatever skeptics would listen, ''We're
chilly. We're cool. Chamberlain won't give us any jitters.'' At some
point (accounts differ), McGuire told Kearns that if he was so cocky,
he should go out and jump against Chamberlain at the start of the
game. Kearns said sure.
The arena was thronged, and almost all the 10,500 fans were for
Kansas. But even this failed to undo the Tar Heels, who had played
only eight home games all season. And they did have their governor,
Luther Hodges, with them. He flew out after the defeat of Michigan
State, possibly because the games were being specially televised back
home, and the state was on its ear. Before this weekend, ACC
basketball was popular as a sport; after this, it was woven into the
fabric of North Carolina society. Hodges looked around and then
plunked himself down in the most visible place he could find, on the
bench between McGuire and his team.
The coach apologized and invited the governor to take a seat at
the other end of the bench, and then, as the fans blinked and
snickered, here came Kearns, 5 ft. 10 in. and change, elbowing his
way into the center circle opposite Chamberlain. The big man glared
down. Kearns played it for all it was worth, tensing, getting way
down as if he could spring 20 feet into the air.
So began the most exciting game in NCAA tournament history.
Carolina immediately assumed control. The Tar Heels collapsed two
or three men on Wilt and dared the other Jayhawks to stick the ball
in from outside. Kansas played a box-and-one, with Maurice King
shadowing Rosenbluth. It was a disastrous strategy; it didn't contain
Rosenbluth, and it left the other Tar Heels free to shoot over the
zone. Of the first seven shots they threw up, Brennan hit one and
Rosenbluth, Kearns and Quigg hit two apiece. Chamberlain would
forever retain the vision of the Carolina center, Quigg, staying way
out, chewing gum, throwing up the jumper. It was 17-7, Carolina,
before the Jayhawks went to man-to-man, and still 29-22 at the half.
Wilt led Kansas back, and before the second half was nine minutes
gone, the Jayhawks were in front 36-35. Quigg and Rosenbluth each
picked up his fourth foul along in here, too, but even when
Chamberlain, then a fine free throw shooter, made both shots of a
one-and-one to put Kansas up by three, Harp kept Kansas in a
deliberate offense. Ironically, Harp still maintains, ''Had a shot
clock been employed then, no one would've been able to come even
close to beating Wilt.'' But still, Harp elected to hold the ball.
It almost worked, too. Say that. With 1:45 left, Chamberlain,
moving up high, whipped a beautiful pass down into Gene Elstun, who
not only made the shot but also drew Rosenbluth's fifth foul. As
Elstun stood at the line, it was 44-41, Kansas, and Chamberlain
distinctly recalls glancing up into the stands at this moment,
spotting a good friend and sighing at him, at last sure of victory.
But Elstun missed, the Tar Heels scratched back, and in the waning
seconds Kearns tied it at 46 from the line.
In the first overtime, each team scored only one basket; in the
second, none. Carolina was certainly tired by now, and both teams
were tight. Kearns missed three straight foul shots; Quigg, the only
one he tried. Chamberlain blew a free throw too. Cunningham had
fouled him, and Brennan had grabbed him around the waist, angering
Chamberlain. He had thrown the ball away and rapped Brennan on the
head with an elbow; Brennan had stormed back at him before others had
rushed in to break it up. Then someone had torn over to the Carolina
bench and tried to slug McGuire. Back in North Carolina, it was
chiming midnight as the Tar Heels went into a third overtime for the
second straight night.
Kearns made a basket first and both ends of a one-and-one to put
Carolina up by four. But Wilt came back with a three-point play, and
when King and Elstun sank free throws, Carolina had one shot, down
53-52. There were 10 seconds left when Quigg ended up with the ball
near the top of the key. ''It's funny,'' he says, ''I rarely wanted
the ball. But this night I'd felt good, right from the start. Good
players feel that way all the time, I guess, but it only occasionally
happened to me. It just happened that one of those nights was the
night of the championship game.'' He made a slight pump fake and
drove against the invincible Wilt Chamberlain himself. King, coming
across to help out, fouled Quigg just as he got off the shot, which
There were six seconds left, and McGuire signaled timeout. The
universal sign. Plane of right palm over tip of left middle finger.
T: Time. You're not supposed to do that in these circumstances.
That is canon. If anybody calls time, it's supposed to be the other
coach, to get the shooter thinking, nervous. But Frank McGuire never
called a bad timeout, and he knew his man, Joe Quigg.
Quigg had hit a solid 72% from the line on the year, but he'd
missed the only free throw he'd taken in the game, under pressure in
the first overtime. In this particular situation he wasn't a lock. So
as soon as the Tar Heels huddled, the first thing McGuire said,
calmly, was, ''Now, Joe, as soon as you make 'em. . . .'' And then he
went on to explain how Carolina would work on defense.
Quigg sat on the bench and thought about his dream. He had often
dreamed of just this situation. ''Only in my dream, it was always a
jump shot with no time left,'' he says. But this would have to do:
down one, at the line for two, six seconds left for the national
Before he walked back to the free throw line, he promised his
fellow Tar Heels that he would make both shots.
And he did. Swish. Swish. Carolina, 54-53.
Not only that, but Quigg was also the one who batted away the
last-ditch pass that was intended for Chamberlain in the low post.
Kearns retrieved the ball with a couple of seconds left, and after
dribbling once, he heaved it away, high up in the air.
It's so strange to see a game end that way, all the players
looking straight up, half of them helplessly, half in exultation. And
then the clock ran out, and all the Kansas players dropped their eyes
to the floor and walked off. All the Carolina players suddenly
lowered their heads, too -- but not down, only around, finding one
another, then running into each other's arms, 32-0, 33-0 if you count
the McCrary Eagles.