Lennie Rosenbluth, the All-America forward who led a North Carolina team with a starting team of New Yorkers to an undefeated season and a thrilling victory over Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in the 1957 NCAA basketball championship game , died on Saturday. He was 89 years old.
His death was announced by the North Carolina athletics department, which did not name the cause or say where he died. He was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the university’s main campus is located.
Rosenbluth, at 190 cm, averaged 28 points per game in the 1956-57 season and defeated Chamberlain for the Helms Foundation College Player of the Year award. His Tar Heels went 32–0 and ended the season with a 54–53 overtime win over Kansas, with Rosenbluth scoring 20 points before being eliminated at the end of regulation time. Chamberlain, who has become one of the most dominant players in the National Basketball Association, was left with 23 points after averaging 30 during the regular season.
In the semifinals, Rosenbluth hit two shots in the third overtime of North Carolina’s 74-70 victory over Michigan State and finished with 31 points.
Born in the Bronx, he played sparingly for the James Monroe High School basketball team in that neighborhood but put on an impressive showing playing basketball at the Catskill summer resort hotels, a magnet for major players in the New York metropolitan area. He caught the attention of Frank McGuire, who was named North Carolina’s head coach in 1953 after leading the St. John’s, located in Brooklyn at the time, for the NCAA title game.
Rosenbluth was at the forefront of a pipeline of players from New York to North Carolina orchestrated by McGuire.
“Basketball was not yet a truly national sport, and the game was still more often a city game, played best, it was believed, in New York,” wrote David Halberstam in The New York Times in 1999. college sports in New York. The points-rigging scandals of the early 1950s destroyed the sport locally.”
McGuire developed a North Carolina team that thrived in a predominantly Protestant region with a lineup that included 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 of St. Augustine, Brooklyn; Joe Quigg, from St. Francis Prep, in Queens; and Bobby Cunningham of All Hallows in the Bronx.
Rosenbluth averaged 28 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in the Tar Heels’ 1956–57 regular season. His 2,047 career points are the most for a North Carolina player who played in just three seasons.
He was named second-team All-American by the Associated Press and United Press International in the 1955-56 season when he was a junior, and a “consensus” All-American in the 1956-57 season, meaning a several media outlets agreed that he was among the top five players in college basketball.
He was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors as the sixth pick in the 1957 NBA draft. But the Warriors already had leading scorer Paul Arizin on the small wing. Rosenbluth, his reserve, averaged just 4.2 points per game over his two professional seasons.
Leonard Robert Rosenbluth was born on January 22, 1933 to 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 sort of comparison to his national champion team Tar Heel, he once joked how “in my freshman year, we had a perfect season again, except we lost every game.”
Rosenbluth again taught history and coached high school basketball in Florida for about 35 years. When his first wife, Helen (Oliver) Rosenbluth, known as Pat, was diagnosed with cancer, they returned to Chapel Hill so 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 conference history. North Carolina retired its number 10.
During the 2006-2007 college basketball season, Michael Jordan and James Worthy, who played for the 1982 champion team Tar Heel, participated in an event for the champion teams from North Carolina. 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’ve got it all.’