Catching Up With: Lennie Rosenbluth

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- “Use the backboard.”

When Tar Heels legend Lennie Rosenbluth isn’t whispering it to his wife in the Smith Center stands, he’s usually muttering it under his breath.

“I’m not criticizing -- these teams, these players, are great, and they play differently than we used to play,’’ said Rosenbluth, the former National Player of the Year who led the 1957 North Carolina team to a 32-0 record. “But today, I don’t think they know what the backboard, and the square in the middle, is for ... I think they think it’s just there to hold the TV camera, or something like that.

“Of course, they play above the rim now -- but when I was playing, your backboard was your best friend.”

That backboard was so friendly that it helped Rosenbluth -- 6-feet-5 big man -- become one of the greatest players in UNC history. The grandfather of six still holds multiple school records, including most points in a season (895), most 40-point games in a career (5) and highest scoring averages (28.0 in a season, 26.9 career), among others.

He finished with 2,045 points in three seasons, and was one of the first five Tar Heels to score 1,000; to put that into perspective, senior Tyler Zeller will try to become the 64th on Saturday.

Rosenbluth said he’s looking forward to seeing that, because it’s another reminder of how special the UNC program remains.

“It’s such an elite program, it’s done so well over the years, and it hardly ever stops,’’ Rosenbluth said. “…It’s great to be part of that.”

These days, he’s closer to it than ever.

In spring of 2010, Rosenbluth and his first wife, Pat -- who used to make the commute from Florida several times a year to watch UNC games in person -- moved back to Chapel Hill so she could be treated at Lineberger Cancer Center at UNC Hospitals. Pat passed away that summer, but Rosenbluth opted to stay, partially because so many of his former teammates -- including Pete Brennan and Joe Quigg “who now, are more like brothers” -- live in the area.

Rosenbluth, 78, later met his new wife, Dianne, here. They love to travel, but usually do it after the season, because they are fixtures at Tar Heels home games.

He gets a kick out of still being recognized when he’s out and about, or in the arena where his No. 10 jersey hangs retired in the rafters. He appreciates being back in the state where he made so many marks on the basketball court, and can cheer as another generation of Tar Heels try to make history, as well.

“It’s sometimes very hard when I watch, because I know what I would do, and they don’t do it, and it’s sort of frustrating,” Rosenbluth said.

Then he laughed.

“But it’s fun, too.”

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Twitter: @bylinerp.