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UNC basketball legend Lennie Rosenbluth dies at 89

Lennie Rosenbluth acknowledges the crowd in the Smith Center during a ceremony honoring the 1975 Tar Heels.  Rosenbluth was the 1957 player of the year.

Lennie Rosenbluth acknowledges the crowd in the Smith Center during a ceremony honoring the 1975 Tar Heels. Rosenbluth was the 1957 player of the year.

2006 News & Observer file photo

Lennie Rosenbluth played an integral part in establishing the famed New York to North Carolina pipeline started by former coach Frank McGuire and continued under Dean Smith that helped UNC basketball cement itself as a national brand.

McGuire plucked Rosenbluth out of the Bronx, NY, without ever seeing him play. It turned out to be the right move for Carolina basketball, as Rosenbluth led the Tar Heels to their first NCAA national championship with a school single-season scoring average that is still unbroken.

A fixture at UNC home games for the past decade, Rosenbluth died on Saturday at the age of 89, the school confirmed. His No. 10 jersey hangs on the front row at the Dean E. Smith Center marking the eight retired numbers thanks to being named the Helms Foundation national player of the year in 1957.

Rosenbluth, who played at UNC from 1954-57, once called the Tar Heels’ 1957 national title team the “most important” in school history.

“Bar none, it all began there,” he told The Charlotte Observer in 2020.

The ’57 squad went 32-0 and capped off its title with back-to-back triple overtime wins over Michigan State (74-70) in the semifinals and Kansas (54-53) in the finals despite the Jayhawks featuring legendary 7- foot center Wilt Chamberlain.

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UNC’s Lennie Rosenbluth shoots over Wake Forest during action in the 1957 ACC Tournament in a smoky Reynolds Coliseum. 1957 News & Observer file photo

Rosenbluth was the star on that team that started five New Yorkers. He’d score 20 points in the title game, but fouled out late in regulation.

McGuire told The Associated Press in the story that was published from the game, “It was really remarkable that we won, with Lennie Rosenbluth on the bench, since he was our key man all season.”

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North Carolina’s Lennie Rosenbluth shoots over a Wake Forest player during the 1957 ACC Tournament. 1957 News & Observer file photo

It was not only the first national title for UNC, it was the first among the members of the fledgling Atlantic Coast Conference. The Heels’ win was boosted by the fact that a TV visionary named CD Chelsey helped get some of their games televised. The combination helped grow the game in the state.

Rosenbluth also inspired the Jewish community nationwide with his play. He was arguably the “preeminent Jewish athlete in the United States,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency before pitcher Sandy Koufax began dominating Major League Baseball. Rosenbluth was a 2003 inductee into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

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UNC’s Lennie Rosenbluth poses with coach Frank McGuire in the UNC locker room at the 1957 ACC Tournament. 1957 News & Observer file photo

Rosenbluth, a 6-foot-5 forward, led the team with 28.0 points per game his senior season. It’s a record that still stands in program history along with his career scoring average record of 26.9 points.

He was chosen No. 6 in the 1957 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia Warriors, but his pro career lasted just two seasons. It was partly due to his pay — Rosenbluth’s annual salary was just $5,000. And partly due to the fact he played behind future Hall of Famer Paul Arizin.

His playing days over, Rosenbluth began coaching high school basketball in North Carolina and in Florida, where he once coached NC State great Chris Corchiani.

Rosenbluth and his wife, Dianne, moved back to the Chapel Hill area in 2010, where he remained until his death.

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The 1957 Tar Heels pose with coach Frank McGuire in the UNC locker room at the ACC Tournament. News & Observer file photo

This story was originally published June 18, 2022 7:31 PM.

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CL Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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