Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Matt Morgan
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins & UNC Athletic Communications
ranklin Street belongs to the young on Halloween night. Not kids so much but the young. Miles away from subdivisions where school-aged children go from house to house soliciting candy from neighbors, thousands of inebriated college students flood the blocked-off downtown area in search of their own fun.
It’s an annual celebration of excess and a flaunting of youth, a substantially more modest Mardi Gras. The students brave the cold and shaky cell phone reception to wander from one end of the crowded street to the other and back, greeting friends and screaming at nothing in particular. They drink drinks in crowded bars, wear creative and revealing costumes and watch other people drink drinks and wear creative and revealing costumes. It’s often more a rite of passage than it is fun, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters to these students is they were there and they lived it.
Perched on a balcony three stories above the fray is Lennie Rosenbluth and his wife Dianne. It’s about 8:45 p.m. and the 80-year-old North Carolina basketball legend is there to get dinner and watch the festivities. Coming to Top of the Hill on Halloween is a tradition for Dianne, who is dressed as a witch, and Lennie enjoys coming along. He isn’t in costume and has no intention of entering the horde of college students below but his reasons for being here this Thursday night aren’t entirely different from theirs. He wants to make a few memories.
Lennie leans over the edge of the balcony and marvels at the costumes below. He sees one young man wearing a giant, body-sized box with just his head sticking out (“Cheap costume,” he jokes). He waves to a group of people below that he knows but of course they can’t see or hear him over the noise. No matter. He was there and he lived it.
“I think it’s really great,” Lennie says. “All the fraternities, I guess they’re dressing alike and walking up and down the street. It’s a lot of fun. I wish we’d had it when we were in school. … I stayed in Chapel Hill during all the Halloweens because we were practicing but we never had anybody walking up and down the street. There wasn’t much of anything.”
Between stretches of people watching, Lennie entertains a handful of his own admirers on the Top of the Hill porch. What was a restaurant when they arrived is quickly becoming a bar and Carolina fans of varying ages periodically approach their table, in full costume, to introduce themselves, take a picture and share a memory. Some saw Rosenbluth play at Carolina themselves—though this is sadly getting less frequent each year—while others remember their dad talking about watching him play. A few of the younger crowd say their granddad told them about the 6-foot-5 forward’s sweet stroke.
This has become commonplace for Lennie since he moved back to Chapel Hill four years ago and he doesn’t mind it. He is not the type to be holed up in his house, even at 80, and he enjoys talking hoops. He goes to every home Carolina football and basketball game. He’s a regular at several of the town’s notable restaurants. He even comes to the taping of the Roy Williams Live radio show most weeks to get out of the house. He’s a visible member of the Chapel Hill community and greeting fans comes with the territory.
“It’s a great life,” Rosenbluth says. “If you have to be anywhere Chapel Hill is the place to be.”
Dianne is Lennie’s second wife. A talkative blonde several years his junior, Dianne met Lennie about three years ago and the couple married nine months later. Though she grew up in Charlotte, Dianne has lived in Chapel Hill since attending UNC in the ’60s and “gets it” when it comes to Carolina sports. Her father played freshman football at UNC before transferring to the Citadel. He and Dianne watched Carolina games together when she was young and he remained a fan late into life until he died watching—wait for it—a Carolina game. A story that elicits laughs, not sadness from Dianne.
So yes, Dianne gets it. Still, seeing people recall details from a half century ago catches her off-guard. Not that she minds it, of course.
“I was with (Lennie) at a game several years ago,” Dianne says, “and someone stopped him and asked him to sign something and an older man pulled me aside and said, ‘How do you feel about this?’ Meaning the signing thing. And I said ‘Oh my goodness, I think it’s great.’ I’m not a celebrity but if I’m out some place and somebody speaks to me, I’m thrilled and if I had earned the awards he has, especially a while ago, I would be beyond happy.”
“People say ‘Well, you shouldn’t always say you’re amazed,’ but it is amazing. Who talks about things that happened in the 1950s?”
Lennie often uses the phrase “believe it or not” when talking about the signing thing and it isn’t some colloquial reflex for him. He means it. It’s been over 50 years since he and the Tar Heels toppled Goliath—defeating Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in the title game to close an undefeated season with the university’s first national championship—but it might as well have been yesterday for many people. The emotions are still very raw and it surprises him when people approach him to talk.
“People say ‘Well, you shouldn’t always say you’re amazed,’ but it is amazing,” Lennie says. “Who talks about things that happened in the 1950s? Maybe ‘Happy Days.’ That’s about it.”
This is where reasonable people can disagree. Lennie is correct. The attention after 50 years is remarkable. But when you break down what he represents, it shouldn’t surprise him that people want to share these memories.
Think about it. You walk into a room and immediately have a connection with people you’ve never met. You share a memory with these strangers that’s personal and among the best in their life. Not so much the game itself but the fun they had watching it. The excitement they experienced during big games or the relationships with parents, siblings that were built around Carolina basketball. Lennie wasn’t in these people’s living rooms or dorm rooms but he’s still a part of their story. Wouldn’t you expect a conversation?
This is what Lennie is often doing when he walks into a place like Top of the Hill. People come and talk to him like an old friend because, in a way, he is.
“It’s like this event in their lives,” Dianne says. “They remember exactly where they were or what they were doing or how they knew about the game. Whether they had a little 12-inch TV or if they were listening on the radio.”
Joe Quigg tried to get Lennie Rosenbluth to move to Chapel Hill for years. Everyone he knew was in North Carolina, Quigg would say, why not come back?
What finally got Lennie back to North Carolina had nothing to do with his friend’s urgings and everything to do with life. In early 2009, Lennie’s first wife Pat Rosenbluth was diagnosed with cancer. After about a year of failed treatment in Coral Gables, Florida, where the two were retired teachers, Lennie rented a house in Chapel Hill and returned to his college home in early 2010 to get his wife the help she needed.
The move was a homecoming for both of them. Pat was a Carolina girl from Mt. Airy, N.C. She attended the University of North Carolina the same time as Lennie, but was a year older. The two hit it off his sophomore year and immediately began dating. She was a Tri Delt and a member of the beauty court (not that that matters, Lennie says) but more importantly, she was one of the guys. The two loved having fun together and shortly after the national championship, they got married.
Being back in Chapel Hill would be nice, in a sense, but the move was temporary in Lennie’s eyes. He believed Pat would get treatment at Carolina’s Lineberger Cancer Center for five or six months, get better and they’d move back to Florida. Life would return to normal. Unfortunately, shortly after they moved it became clear Pat wasn’t going to get better. A tough two or three months into treatment, Lennie reached out to an old friend who was a doctor to help him cut through the technical jargon from doctors and find out how bad things actually were.
“He more or less told me what was happening,” Lennie says. “It was inevitable. They couldn’t do anything. It was just a question of time.”
During this period Lennie leaned heavily on his former teammates, who were scattered throughout the area. Joe Quigg was a dentist in Fayetteville. Danny Lotz lived in Raleigh. Pete Brennan lived in Chapel Hill.
His former teammates ate meals with him. They came to the hospital to visit his wife. They supported him. When Pat died in July, they all told him to stay in Chapel Hill where he had a strong support system. He did.
After 50 years, people and relationships change. The responsibilities you have as a young man aren’t the same once you’ve bought a house and had kids, but the bond between these men remained strong and has matured as they have.
“They remember exactly where they were or what they were doing or how they knew about the game."
Quigg has a theory that the group had no choice but to stay close. A lot of athletes grow apart because of the natural progression of things. They stop seeing each other as much and the fact they once played basketball together matters less and less. This group hasn’t had that problem. What they did in ’57 was so noteworthy that they have an event to attend just about every year. Another chance to rehash old stories and trade new ones.
Quigg says at every ceremony he tells Lennie, "This is the last one." The last hurrah for the team. “They’re going to forget about us,” Quigg says. But not too long after each reunion, they’re notified there will be another soon enough. Another chance to catch up.
“The remarkable thing is you play with somebody for two years and you remain buddies and friends,” Lennie says. “We’re more like brothers now. We’re not even teammates. That lasted just a few years. We care about each other.”
Dianne Rosenbluth is tired. There was a football game on Saturday, a basketball game the following afternoon—a Rosenbluth double-header—and she’s too beat to go out to dinner like they often do. Instead she’s decided to do what you do when your husband is retired and you don’t want to go out. You make pancakes.
“Sure, anything,” Lennie says with a laugh. “You make it and I’ll eat it.’”
Right now, Lennie and Dianne’s schedule is what the UNC athletic department says it is. When the schedules come out, they sit down and plot a course of action. If there’s a home game for basketball or football, they’re there. If there’s a baseball game, they’ll try to make it to that. If any large gaps pop up, that’s when they start planning their own trips.
While Lennie has spent most of his adult life going to games, Dianne didn’t have the chance unless someone gave her tickets. Now she’s not just going but she’s in the lower level, an adjustment she’s been happy to make. Watching a basketball game with a former player and coach like Lennie is different, Dianne says. It’s not just screaming and cheering, it’s strategy. Lennie sees all the moving screens. He knows when and why a play goes awry. He still dissects the game the way he did as a coach at Coral Gables High.
“I never missed a game but I didn’t watch it quite the same way because Lennie—like every good player and coach—is still coaching,” Dianne says. “I’m trying to keep up.”
Lennie has his favorites on each year’s team. For example, this year he loves Joel James’s potential and how he always has a smile on his face. He praises Kennedy Meeks’s size and hands. He thinks the ceiling is the limit for James Michael McAdoo, if he could just settle down. He is impressed by Marcus Paige’s poise and maturity.
Basketball is far different than when he played, Lennie says. Skill-wise, he thinks he could compete with the best of today’s game. But the size and athleticism is just too different to make a fair comparison. These kids have muscles on muscles, he quips.
“It’s a completely different time really,” Rosenbluth says. “Today, I’d be a backcourt man.”
When the team hits the road, Lennie and Dianne have their non-sports fun. They’ve gone to musicals like Jersey Boys and Cats at the DPAC in Durham. They plan to see The Book of Mormon soon. They go on cruises and travel all over. Wherever they want. It’s a beautiful thing.
“We’ve been to the beach. We’ve been up to the mountains during the summer when it gets really hot,” Lennie says. “We try to go away for two weeks every month. We try to go somewhere.”
In fact, it’s the sense of adventure and optimism that makes the two work so well together. They wake up every day thinking, “This is going to be a great day” and then they try to make that happen until they go to sleep.
Lennie first met Dianne in October 2010 when a mutual friend thought they might hit it off. Their first date was lunch at Cafe Carolina in Meadowmont. Dianne remembers Lennie being introspective and a little shy during lunch but says the two opened up after they both admitted to Googling each other before the date to do some research.
Once they really started talking, they realized just how much their circles overlapped. Dianne, like Lennie’s first wife, was a Tri Delt and on the beauty court (not that that matters) so they knew a lot of the same people. She was also friends with the family that formerly owned The Goody Shop, one of Lennie’s old Franklin Street hangouts (left of where Walgreens is currently, if Lennie remembers correctly).
“The same people I knew in Chapel Hill, she knew,” Rosenbluth said. “It was just amazing.”
They played off each other well, too. Dianne was outgoing and personable. Lennie was more reserved and measured with his words. Dianne says she’s more likely to say something. Lennie is more likely to say something meaningful. It was a nice yin and yang. They also had a deep love for Chapel Hill and the university, which meant a lot to them.
“It’s a great life. If you have to be anywhere Chapel Hill is the place to be.”
“Pretty soon, we thought, ‘Hmm this is a good thing,’” Dianne says.
One night before going to the basketball radio show at Top of the Hill, Lennie casually said, “You know, we should get married.” Dianne said yes and when they arrived at Top of the Hill, the first person they told was former Carolina basketball announcer Woody Durham, an old friend of both Dianne and Lennie.
“It’s a little bit of a tale of how people can find each other,” Dianne says. “Even if they’re later in life.”
Though Lennie returned to Chapel Hill under trying circumstances, he’s found happiness and a renewed energy in his old stomping grounds. He’s surrounded by people who care about him, including his old teammates who he still talks to every few weeks. He sees familiar places. He laughs a lot. There’s plenty to do and sports to watch. He even gets recognized every now and then.
“It’s just a great place to be,” Lennie says. “I’ll go to Sutton’s Drug Store. It’s like I’m back in school in the ‘50s because it doesn’t change. The stores have changed but it hasn’t changed,”
Be clear, this isn’t a story of an old athlete who is wistful of his glory days. Not even close. Lennie has had his own successes after college. He had two kids and lived a fulfilling life. It’s just that when you reach a certain age your memories become an active participant in your day to day. Almost an old friend, providing context for the past and serving as a jumping point for your next step.
Lennie grew up in New York and moved to Florida as an adult, meaning he spent just four years in Chapel Hill. His ever-lingering accent would tell on him if he were ever to try to claim native status but there’s little doubt that Chapel Hill is home for him. He moved to Chapel Hill as a teenager. The people fell in love with him and he them. The memories he had from college are the basis for his life now and what he does every day is the next step in that story.
Lennie is actually quite mindful to leave his playing days in the past. He says the basketball office is fantastic to him. He and his teammates are always included in all the ceremonies and celebrations. When he walks into the basketball office not only is he welcomed by the staff but his picture is on the wall. Even though he never played for Dean Smith, he is still made to feel a part of the Carolina family.
But even though he’s close to the program, Lennie tries to remain just a fan, nothing more. He loves watching the current team play but avoids talking to the current players unless there’s a reason to do so. He jokes about how ridiculous it would’ve been for McGuire to have brought the 1900 Carolina team around when he played and he tries to keep that in mind. He doesn’t want to be some old guy reliving his playing days. His memories are great but he’s living the life he wants now.
“We are voices from the past and our accomplishments, what we did is in the record books, it’ll always be there,” Lennie says. “I’m certainly one of the proudest guys to have my jersey retired and up in the rafters. That’s the neatest thing and I’m certainly proud. You see all these people on the screen saying ‘I’m proud to be a Tar Heel.’ Well, believe me, I’m the proudest to be a Tar Heel.”