The national championship Tar Heels, winners of 32 straight games and survivors of six overtimes in a span of 26 hours, were coming home.
Now 70 years old, largely retired from his dentistry practice in Fayetteville and grandfather to five, Dr. Joseph Francis Quigg still cannot quite believe what happened when he and his teammates came down the steps from the aircraft. He remembers, "The people just swarmed the ramp and lifted us up.…My feet didn't touch the ground from the time I left the plane until I got into a car."
For many years, Quigg reflected on the frenzy of that early Sunday afternoon at Raleigh-Durham, trying to understand the fans' behavior in the context of a time when college basketball attracted nowhere near the media and popular attention it owns now.
He has concluded, "I think it was because we had been on live television on both Friday and Saturday. The fans had just gone through two nights of triple overtime along with us. I think the combination of being on television and surviving the overtimes must have made us seem larger than life."
Joe Quigg III grew up in south Brooklyn at Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, on the fourth floor of a brownstone owned by his grandmother. She lived on the ground floor. Joe was the oldest of three children and his father made maybe $40 a week as a bank teller. As far as Joe is concerned, it was plenty in a family full of love and discipline.
He got started in basketball because Metropolitan New York Irish boys of the time who could shoot, run or rebound were expected to play for the parish high school team. For Quigg, that meant a scholarship to St. Francis Prep where he averaged 25 points in his senior year on the way to a Catholic city title.
The young center was also being recruited by former St. John's coach Frank McGuire, who had come to Chapel Hill in 1952 to rescue the then-White Phantoms from the ravages of Everett Case and the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Between 1947 and 1951, N.C. State won 15 consecutive games over Carolina, including embarrassments of 39, 24, 31, 26 and 40 points.
Quigg recalls, "The only thing I knew about Carolina was Frank McGuire. I knew about N.C. State because I had seen pictures of Dick Dickey in a magazine. The only time you actually heard anything about basketball was on Movietone News."
Because he graduated high school mid-year in Brooklyn, Quigg arrived in Chapel Hill on a Sunday in January of 1954 and played in his first freshman game for the Tar Babies on the following Tuesday. He reflected, "I moved into Cobb Dormitory where I lived for the next four and a half years. It was right next door to the Monogram Club where we had our meals."
He fondly remembers the small UNC campus, a place where "everybody seemed to know everyone else." Its only shortcoming from his perspective was a paucity of girls, due to the relegation of most women to junior admission. Quigg says, "That's why we loved the nurses and physical therapists so much,"
In 1956, the fabled New York City package of Quigg, Pete Brennan, Tommy Kearns, Lennie Rosenbluth and the late Bob Cunningham lettered on an 18-5, co-conference championship team that also featured senior captain Jerry Vayda.
The season ended with a horrendous 77-56 loss to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament in Raleigh and a stinging tongue lashing in the Reynolds Coliseum locker room. "We were very good that year," Quigg recalled in his family's large and comfortable den, "and that loss really felt awful. McGuire really got on us. Here it was March and you can't play again until December. We knew we had to do things better the next time."
The man his teammates call Bobby Cunningham died in June at Hilton Head, S.C., a victim of multiple myeloma at 70 years. Four other members of the team pre-deceased Cunningham: Roy Searcy, Jim Kelly, Ken Rosemond and Gehrmann Holland.
Records are obscure, but Cunningham probably led the 1957 team in assists and came close in minutes played. He just figured out ways to win, content with his 7.2 points per game, most scored with Cunningham's strange-looking, one-and-a-half-hand jumper. The best examples of his value were 6.6 rebounds per game from his backcourt position and his obsessive, fearless defense.
He was also the team's top needler and lightning rod. McGuire rode him hard in practice and assistant coach Buck Freeman was even worse. Cunningham would bide his time until Freeman threw everybody out of practice and Cunningham could head back to the Sigma Nu house.
"Bobby was the kind of guy who didn't worry about looking out for himself," said Quigg. "Sure, we all took a backseat to Lennie, but that was especially true of Bobby." He added, "And yet, there were three games that season when we probably would have been better off if we had left Lennie on the bus, and those were Bobby's best three games."
Cunningham may have saved his best for the 11th hour on the big stage when the Tar Heels defeated Michigan State in the national semifinals, 74-70. Cunningham ran end to end throughout most of the 55 minutes, guarding every Spartan he could get in front of and scoring 19 points.
According to Quigg, Frank McGuire said late in his life, "The Michigan State performance by Bobby Cunningham was the best game, both offensively and defensively, ever played by anyone I coached."
North Carolina was 16-0 when the Heels traveled to Maryland on February 5 and found themselves down five points with 90 seconds left. Quigg noted, "When you could hold the ball all you wanted, that was a big lead late."
The Terrapins missed a key free throw. Must-make baskets by Kearns and Cunningham eventually led to a 65-61 win in double overtime. Quigg remembered, "It was a turning point. We came home on the train to Raleigh (at the old Seaboard station off Peace Street) and there were about 40 people waiting for us. Hey, this was getting good."
On the Tar Heels rolled in their classy uniforms with high, satin socks, taking pre-game lay-ups with a blue and white basketball to "Sweet Georgia Brown," always dressed out on the road in blue blazers with a UNC breast pocket patch, gray slacks and matching rep ties.
Quigg explained, "All of those things were McGuire's way of helping us psychologically. He wanted us to look the part and he thought it gave us a little advantage."
North Carolina needed all the help it could get against Wake Forest, losers to the '57 Heels by eight, three, five and two points, the last defeat coming in the ACC semifinals when Rosenbluth took a pass from (whom else?) Cunningham, arched in a 14-foot hook shot and completed a three-point play.
The play set off nearly 50 years of grumbling by Demon Deacon fans who think Rosenbluth put a shoulder into Wendell Carr and should have been called for charging. Quigg: "No way. I looked at that tape after Bobby's funeral and a charge on Lennie would have been a bad call. The tie goes to the guy with the ball."
Kansas City seemed a million miles from Woollen Gym, where the Tar Heels had played only eight games, one more than their win total in Reynolds Coliseum. Carolina arrived at the 10,000-capacity Municipal Auditorium after beating Yale, Canisius and Syracuse in the early rounds.
The semi-final victory over the Spartans would be punctuated by Cunningham's performance and a floor-length individual rebound, 70-foot dribble and off-balance jump shot by Brennan with two seconds left that got the Heels through the first overtime.
Quigg had fouled out and was agonizing on the bench. He remembers, "What Pete did on that play was unbelievable. He wanted to do it himself, even with Lennie on the court. That was the attitude we all had."
On Saturday, the Tar Heels had to deal with Wilt Chamberlain and the gloomy idea that The Stilt might own the night. Carolina eliminated that anxiety by quickly capitalizing on an unintended gift from Kansas coach Dick Harp.
Quigg recounted, "They opened the game with a box and one on Lennie and that really opened the court for the rest of us. Pete and I hit some shots from the perimeter and I think we went ahead 18-5 or something like that. We knew then we could beat them."
In the end, history and now the legacy of the 1957 team came down to one play. Carolina had built a 52-48 spread with maybe two minutes left, but the Jayhawks nudged into a 53-52 lead with 25 seconds remaining. Soon down to 10 seconds, Quigg drove into Chamberlain's defense and was fouled from behind by Maurice King as he put up a shot.
"I really don't know why I felt so calm, but I did," Quigg confided. "Maybe it was because I had two shots coming, but I honestly had all the confidence in the world that I would make them."
Six seconds were left and McGuire chose to take a time-out, setting the Carolina in-bounds defense "after Joe makes his foul shots."
Quigg, a 72 percent free throw shooter on the year, took them with an unorthodox two-hand push from chin level. They hardly brushed iron, if at all. He can now say lightly a half century later, "Smooth as silk, if I do say so myself."
Setting up at half-court, as the rules of the day dictated, Kansas predictably tried to get the ball to Chamberlain. Quigg slapped it to Kearns, who underhanded it maybe 40 feet straight up. Damn, they had done it.
There were inadequate locker rooms in the Auditorium and the two teams soon walked in uniforms through a steady drizzle to their nearby hotel rooms. Quigg recalls little beyond exhaustion and a phone call or two to the East Coast. He said, "I remember a few of us going to someone's room and sort of sitting in a corner. I don't even know if we had a beer."
They slept fitfully for a few hours, arising early for a flight that would stop twice on its way back to North Carolina. None of the Tar Heels could have imagined what would be waiting at Raleigh-Durham that afternoon, or how much defeating Kansas would mean for the rest of their lives.
A rising senior--in addition to Cunningham, Kearns and Brennan--Joe Quigg never played real basketball again after making his historic free throws. He suffered a terribly deranged knee during the first full scrimmage prior to the 1957-58 season. Carolina's 37-game win streak came to an end several weeks later at the hands of West Virginia.
A first-round draft pick by the Knickerbockers, Quigg was given a $1,500 signing bonus and $7,500 for a season that his shattered knee never allowed him to have. He came back to Chapel Hill, was an unpaid assistant to rookie head coach Dean Smith and finished 2-0 as a coach when he took the Tar Babies to an out-of-state tournament.
Deciding on dental school, in his third year he met Carol Moser of Fayetteville, a UNC undergraduate. They married in 1962 and spent three army years in Stuttgart, Germany before coming to Fayetteville, where Quigg began his dental practice.
There they have been since, in the same rambling old-brick home since 1974 in Fayetteville's Evans Lake area. Eldest child Shannan lives in Charlotte with her triplet sons and husband; Joseph IV's family in Fayetteville includes daughter Cayleigh and 5-year-old Joseph V.
Joe IV is a 1988 graduate of the University, where he followed an excellent high school basketball career with strong junior varsity play. His little boy had better start working on his drop step, SAT warm-ups, or both.
Although almost all the 1957 starters built strong ties to the state, only Quigg settled permanently in North Carolina. Forty years of barbecue, pine trees, red clay and season tickets in Chapel Hill for both major sports. He has long been a huge fan.
"I admire Roy Williams's offensive tempo and I respect his coaching combination of being close to players and at the same time being tough with them," Quigg observed.
Noting that someone in the media had recently asked Williams how he was going to keep this year's team happy with so many quality players available, Quigg said, "I loved it when Roy said it was the players' job to keep him happy."
You would expect Quigg to have a special interest in UNC's young center and his break-out freshman year. "Tyler Hansbrough is just so relentless," said Quigg, "and with the help he should get on the baseline this year, I think you are going to see that little 15-footer of his more often."
He added, "Centers in my day were taught to never put the ball on the floor but Tyler does it so well that it often creates an advantage for him. I liked the way he had such great Duke games against a talent like Shelden Williams."
Quigg lives a full life in his semi-retirement, cruising along with a 10-12 handicap at Highland Country Club, tending to the scores of azaleas on his heavily-wooded lot or happily juggling the grandchildren. Very rarely do more than a few weeks go by without someone reminding the Quiggs of what happened in Kansas City.
Joe said, "It never becomes tiresome and you can't believe how many people still talk about it. For years, I got calls in the middle of the night asking me if my teammate was Billy or Bobby Cunningham. I've enjoyed it all."
Carol: "I know of a couple whose wedding was the afternoon of the Kansas game. She says they didn't consummate their marriage that night. Another story goes that a woman delivered a baby and asked about the Carolina score before finding out whether she had a boy or girl."
From a perspective of 50 years, Quigg believes his basketball career was a gift, everything added up. After all, it bathed him in glory, led him to Carol and a family, made him a lifelong North Carolinian and helped provide the discipline that produced a sterling professional career.
But it also revealed the narrow margin for error built into life, how good fortune ebbs and flows, how little is ever for certain. How one day you are a healthy national champion, the next you have one good knee. Quigg knows all of us, to one degree or another, are hostages to fate.
Quigg smiled and said, "The big joke around here is that if I'd missed those free throws, I would have ended up practicing dentistry somewhere in New York City."
The resume of Alfred Hamilton (email@example.com), a 1965 UNC graduate, includes Managing Editor of the Greensboro Record, major contributor to the 1982 championship book March To The Top, co-writer of the annual Carolina Court yearbook and columnist for the GoHeels.com website. He is now a General Partner in the marketing communications firm of Hoyt-Hamilton LLC in Raleigh, N.C.