GORDON WHITE: Tar Heels Hoping No. 7 Proves Lucky Again
Those who wear, dream of and swear by Carolina Blue know full well that if the year ends in the lucky number seven, such as this year of 2007, there is a good chance their beloved Tar Heels will make it to the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament or at least to the Elite Eight.
This No. 7 thing started in 1957 when a handful of young streetwise basketball players from New York City and its suburbs, who were hardened on concrete schoolyard hoops, rejuvenated a once proud basketball program at Chapel Hill and showed Tobacco Road that Broadway was able to produce a champion. These winning kids were recruited and coached by a truly Damon Runyon character, Frank McGuire, who was himself a wonderful New York Irishman through and through.
That 1956-57 undefeated North Carolina team (32-0), using five New York City kids and two from the suburbs, won the first of North Carolina's four NCAA championships in what may be the most remarkable Final Four team performance thus far in NCAA history.
Subsequent to that season, North Carolina has reached the Final Four 14 times, including the lucky seven appearances in 1967, 1977 and 1997. So maybe the Tar Heels are due again this year. The Tar Heels missed making the 1987 Final Four by a mere four points, losing to Syracuse, 79-75, in their Elite Eight game. The number seven just looks good for North Carolina.
Of course, all good Tar Heel fans hereabouts and across the nation know these facts. Or at least they should. But how many know that it took a New York City mob to straighten out a forlorn Tar Heel program half a century ago? Or maybe Tar Heel fans just do not want to admit it took kids from the Big Apple to put some sweet fruit in the Tar Heels' basketball fortunes.
For the record: Carolina has made it to the Final Four 16 times, sharing the record for such appearances with UCLA, which is officially given only 15 Final Four trips. The Bruins' 1980 runner-up finish to Louisville was wiped off the record books as part of an NCAA enforcement penalty. The Tar Heels' first Final Four came in 1946 when they lost in the championship game to coach Hank Iba's Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State).
Then came the 1957 championship followed by 11 North Carolina appearances in the Final Four under coach Dean Smith, 1967-1997. Since then the Tar Heels got to the Final Four in 1998 and 2000 and won the title in 2005 under coach Roy Williams for a record total of 16 showings in the big last weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Ben Carnevale, another young man from the Metropolitan New York area and a New York University graduate, coached North Carolina, 1944-1946. After producing the 1946 runner-up in the NCAA tourney, Carnevale left Chapel Hill for the Navy coaching job and North Carolina's basketball fortunes took a turn for the worse.
Then more New Yorkers came to the rescue. And who would have ever imagined a bunch of big city kids going south with Frank McGuire to lead the Tar Heels out of the woods?
Who knows, maybe Chapel Hill just always needs a boost from New Yorkers. I'm sure that theory goes down well with Tar Heel fans -- about as well as a root canal.
But who could ever forget Frank McGuire and those kids from the concrete and steel canyons of New York? They got through a tough regular season unbeaten, won the fourth Atlantic Coast Conference playoff to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament and then defeated Yale, Canisius and Syracuse to reach the Final Four in Kansas City with Michigan State, Kansas and the University of San Francisco. There were only 23 teams in the NCAA tournament field in 1957.
If ever a team had reason to give up from sheer exhaustion, it was those 1957 Final Four Tar Heels. They had to go to a third overtime before beating Michigan State, 74-70, on March 22.
Just one day after completing that victory, those tough, quick and not-very-tall New Yorkers from Chapel Hill went up against the most formidable foe in the history of the NCAA tournament to that point -- the 7-foot 3-inch Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas.
Back in 1957 there was no day off between semifinals and championship game as there has been since 1969.
Once again on the night of March 23, 1957, North Carolina was forced to a third overtime before coach Frank McGuire's team won the title by a single point, 54-53.
The leading hero of all those Carolina heroes was the 6-5 Lennie Rosenbluth, who scored 31 points against Michigan State and 20 points against Kansas.
McGuire used only seven players in that title game and only eight against Michigan State the previous night. This small group that could have easily run out of gas played 55 minutes of hard-fought, quick defense basketball two times in less than 24 hours.
The seven North Carolina players were Rosenbluth, Bob Young, Pete Brennan, Joe Quigg and Bob Cunningham of New York City plus Danny Lotz from Northport, Long Island, which is just east of the borough of Queens, and Tommy Kearns from Bergenfield, N.J., a suburb in northern New Jersey about 8 miles west of Manhattan. The eighth man who played momentarily in the victory over Michigan State was Roy Searcy from Draper, N. C.
Kearns, a mere 5 feet 11 inches, was sent out to jump against Chamberlain, the giant, opening each half of the title game. This was just a McGuire gimmick intended to catch Kansas off guard.
Bob Cunningham, who died last June, said years ago, "When I committed to Carolina, I hardly knew anything about New Jersey, much less North Carolina. The first time I saw a cow was when I was 9 years old. We spent our summers playing ball in The City. You never had any reason to leave New York. North Carolina was like another planet."
Rosenbluth said that when he first arrived in Chapel Hill in the fall of 1953, basketball was in such disregard that "you couldn't give tickets away." When he was a champion senior with his New York buddies, the Tar Heels were a sellout attraction at every home game in Woollen Gym.
Willard Mullin, the leading sports cartoonist of the last half of the 20th Century, depicted this New York-to-Chapel Hill basketball team with a famous drawing in the New York World-Telegram.
At the left of the cartoon Mullin drew seven basketball players dribbling balls down the steps of a New York City subway kiosk as if to catch the next train. Then to the right of the drawing these players were seen to emerge from underground on to the grassy Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina.
It was Frank McGuire who epitomized that Tar Heel championship of 1957. The total difference he brought about at Chapel Hill and the important role he played in Tar Heel basketball fortunes may sometimes be lost in the well-deserved adulation that is paid to Dean Smith. Both men were giants of the game.
Long before McGuire got to Chapel Hill he became a fixture in what was then a very vibrant New York City intercollegiate basketball scene where the biggest stage was Madison Square Garden.
A St. John's basketball player and team captain as an undergraduate, McGuire was always proud of one of his earliest moments in the spotlight that took place the night of Dec. 29, 1934, at Madison Square Garden. Ned Irish, who was president of the Garden, staged the first of what would be hundreds of college basketball doubleheaders at the "World's Most Famous Arena" that evening. The feature game pitted an undefeated New York University (19 straight victories) against a powerful Notre Dame team. But for openers, Ned Irish matched St. John's University, which was then located in downtown Brooklyn, against little Westminster College of Pennsylvania.
McGuire told the story this way: "I was captain of our St. John's team. As such I led the team onto the floor for warm-ups just prior to every game. We took the floor before Westminster that night at Madison Square Garden so therefore I was the first college basketball player to step onto the basketball court at Madison Square Garden. I will always remember the thrill."
But St. John's lost to Westminster, 37-33, before N.Y.U. remained unbeaten by "trouncing" Notre Dame, 25-18.
McGuire, who graduated from St. John's in 1936, coached basketball and taught history at Xavier Prep in New York City and served four years in the U.S. Navy during WW II, before coaching his alma mater, St. John's, 1947-1952.
One day when he was coaching St. John's, McGuire called Ned Irish at Madison Square Garden to ask for some tickets for a college doubleheader that included St. John's.
The Garden was then located on Eight Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets.
"I need 40 tickets," McGuire said. "Give me 20 tickets on the 48th Street side of the court and 20 tickets on the 49th Street side."
"No trouble," said Irish. "But, Coach McGuire, I can give you all 40 seats on the same side with no trouble."
"No, no," McGuire quickly said. "You see, 20 of the tickets are for friends of mine on the police force and 20 tickets are for some scoundrels I know."
Since McGuire's time there have been other New Yorkers such as Billy Cunningham, from Brooklyn, who added to North Carolina's excellent basketball history and, of course, there have even been North Carolinians playing rather well for the Tar Heels. There was a young fellow by the name of Michael Jordan, I believe, who came from North Carolina.
But Rosenbluth said during a recent 50th anniversary celebration of the 1957 team at Chapel Hill, "I like to say that Coach McGuire and the 1957 players are the ones who started Carolina back to dominance in basketball."
Whether or not North Carolina has another lucky seven ride to the Final Four this year, it will always be known that half a century ago some New Yorkers who were neither policemen nor scoundrels put North Carolina basketball back on the road to success that year of the lucky seven.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sport reporter for The New York Times. His e mail is email@example.com.
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