I don't think anybody was thinking of a national championship going into the season even though we had a good record (18-5) the previous year. We played NYU in December of '56, and my wife and I went to New York for game along with another couple. I don't remember much about the game except that it was in old Madison Square Garden, and that we won 64-59. Oh yes, I do remember one incident from the game that was both amusing and embarrassing. For the life of me I can't remember who it was but one of the Carolina players got confused while trying to enter the game and tried to report in to the public address announcer. What made it so entertaining was that the fans could clearly see what was happening and were killing themselves laughing. That must have been the longest few feet ever traveled when the player had to leave the announcer's table and go over to the scorer. It must have been doubly embarrassing since the player was from New York City and undoubtedly had many friends in the stands. I can safely say he was from New York City since all of the starters were from NYC.
The NYU win made it 7-0 but still no talk of a National Championship and certainly no unbeaten season. The first real scare came at Maryland where we won 65-61 in double overtime. That game made it 18-0 and we did start to think at this point that something really special might happen. Each game brought on new anxieties and I started a ritual that my family frowned on. I would buy a bottle of cheap wine ($.89, I think) and consume it as I listened to old Ray Reeve describe the game on the radio. Some of my friends would sometimes drop by while the game was on and we'd have to send somebody out to get us a second bottle. Name of Wine was Red Rose or something like that. After the Maryland game we had a squeaker with Duke (2 points) and two close games with Wake. The second game with Duke at Cameron was not close.
So we go into the ACC Tournament in Raleigh at 25-0 knowing that if we didn't win the tournament, the season would be over -- no NCAA and no NIT. Opening game against Clemson was not close but the second game was against Wake who had come close to beating us twice before during that season. We had won by 3 and by 5. The game was tight the whole way with us usually behind or ahead by 1 until the last minute when Lenny Rosenbluth hit probably the most controversial shot in ACC history. We were behind by 1 point and it was from near the free throw line. What made it so controversial was that Wendell Carr attempted to block the shot and all Wake fans thought Rosenbluth had charged. Instead, the refs called a foul on Carr and Rosenbluth made the free throw for a 61-59 UNC win. The championship game was against South Carolina and they had the nation's leading scorer in Grady Wallace. They came within 4 points of beating us earlier in the season and we were concerned. As it turned out there was no need for worry as we beat SC 95-75. A couple of years after the game I had the pleasure of going out one night and drinking beer and talking hoops with Wallace. It as a lot more enjoyable for me than it was for Wallace, I'm sure.
Enough for now. I'll finish the march to the championship in the near future.
The first game in the NCAA playoffs was in Madison Square Garden against Yale, and it wasn't much of a test -- final score 90-74. I don't even remember if it was televised. Most people felt at the time that the Ivy League was a mismatch for anybody from the ACC but we learned better in '79 when Pennsylvania upset us in Reynolds Coliseum on "Black Sunday".
The next game was in Philadelphia at the Palestra against Canisius, and several of my friends, all of whom were in the School of Pharmacy, and I decided to go to Philadelphia for the game(s). Money was not in large supply for an Air Force veteran with a family but they convinced me that their "buddies" at the Philadelphia School of Pharmacy would look out for us once we got there. I found out several things about the PSP later that would have been nice to know before we made the trip. The so-called "buddies" was based on the fact that my friends considered anyone in a School of Pharmacy anywhere their "buddies" and not one in our group actually knew anyone at PSP. The other thing I learned was that in the early days of basketball, PSP had some very good teams. They had no basketball team in 1957. The pharmacy students were gracious hosts and let us sleep in their fraternity house, on the floor I think, but I just can't remember.
The big issue of the day was whether they were going to let Canisius bring their big bass drum into the Palestra. Canisius used the drum as the focal point for their cheering and the NCAA officials were concerned that it might cause some disruption among the fans. Sort of like they won't let the "Blues Brothers" on the floor during playoff games. They finally decided not to let them bring the drum into the arena and it was probably a wise decision. I like to think that all UNC students and fans are perfect gentlemen and ladies but it simply isn't so. That's another topic we can deal with later. Suffice to say the odds there would have been trouble would have increased considerably if the drum had been allowed in. We won 87-75, and that set up the Eastern Final game the following night against Syracuse. Again we won 67-58. After the game we all went to a diner in the Palestra area and celebrated. No drinking and no drugs that I knew of. Just hollering and "raising hell".
My friends elected me cheerleader and I remember shouting "Gimme a
C" in the diner and the entire place shouting in response "C" and
so on until we had spelled "Carolina". The manager came over and told
me that if I didn't
stop they were going to call the police. They were bluffing, or so I thought.
My new friends at PSP told me later that the police were called quite often for
student disturbances in the area and they had been concerned when the manager
issued his warning. I don't know why in the world they didn't inform me of that
at the time.
Next was Kansas City but that will have to wait until later.
After the euphoria had waned from the Syracuse win, it was time to discuss practical matters. On the way back to Raleigh (all of my pharmacy buddies and I lived in Raleigh and commuted to Chapel Hill daily) there was much discussion about whether we should try to go to Kansas City for the finals. Everyone bailed out on going for various reasons but one other person and myself. I finally withdrew, and I will remember the words I used to justify not going until I die. I said to my friend, "Carolina has gone as far as it is going to go; so, let's stay here and watch it on T.V. I have often wondered if my friend was disappointed that I decided not to go, or whether he was relieved that I backed out so he could save face in front of his friends by saying that he would have gone if somebody would have gone with him. I'll never know the answer to that question.
Our first game was against Michigan State, a good team, but not one that struck fear into our hearts like Kansas did with Wilt Chamberlain. One point that I have failed to make is that the college basketball world was mortified over Chamberlain and the effect he could have on a game. He was viewed as unstoppable, and even though we were undefeated, we knew that in order to win the National Championship, we would have to defeat Kansas and Chamberlain, and quite frankly, I don't think any of us thought that we or anyone else could do it. I've often thought of Chamberlain as being like a dark cloud over everyone, and any enthusiasm for winning it all was certainly muted as long as he was there no matter who you were.
Back to Michigan State... Other than the fact that it was a triple overtime game, I recall two things about the game. One was Pete Brennan driving the length of the floor and hitting a basket when we really needed a basket to keep us in the game. It was sort of like the Danny Ainge and Tyrone(?) Edney shot several yeas ago when there was no substitute for a basket without delay. It was like Brennan was possessed. He didn't look to pass the ball, and he dribbled the entire length of the court to make the shot.
What made Brennan's shot different from the two mentioned above was that Brennan was a front line player and not a speedy dribbler, while Ainge and Edney were point guards and very good dribblers. The second thing I remember was that near the end of one of the overtimes, a Mich. State player fired the ball from midcourt as the clock ran out. Having seen many of the heaves come no where near the basket I commented to my friends who were watching the game with me that the ball wouldn't hit the backboard. The heave went in and for a second you could have heard a pin drop. We thought we had just seen all our dreams disappear with one lucky shot that couldn't be duplicated in a million years. It was similar to the Jeff Capel shot in the Duke game several years ago except the Michigan State shot would have won it, and Capel's shot tied the score.
You know, of course, that the shot didn't count because after much consultation it was ruled that the shot came after the period had expired. My friends teased me about my statement that the ball wouldn't hit the backboard for years after the season was over.
This brings us to the final game an I will be sharing my recollections on that game at a later date.
You know from what I have written previously that I had made the decision not to go to Kansas City for the finals because I felt the Heels had gone as "far as they could go", but I will admit that I was starting to have second thoughts after we defeated Michigan State and we were going to play in the championship game.
I, and all of my friends, still felt like it was hopeless against Wilt and Kansas, but we also felt that we were now a part of history. You must keep in mind that the state of North Carolina had never experienced this sort of national attention in basketball before and we absolutely loved it. Believe it or not most of the Duke, State and Wake fans were pulling for us, something that I doubt could ever happen again. We have all become so competitive in basketball and there just seems to be more negative feelings towards "sister institutions" than there used to be. An extension of what is going on in society in general, no doubt.
One of my Wake Forest friends worked at a funeral home while attending WF and he told me the story of how he and another employee almost dropped a dead body on the floor while removing it from a home as they were trying to sneak a look at the final game on the television set. I never will forget the sight of Tommy Kearns, our 5'10" point guard, jumping center with Wilt. We didn't get the tap but most of us felt like it unnerved the big fellow.
We maintained a slight lead throughout most of the first half, and even though I can't remember the exact score at half time, it was clear that we were "in the game". Rosenbluth fouled out with right much time left; so, we tried to prepare ourselves for the worst. Unbelievably, we hung with the Jayhawks until the Quigg free throws and steal at the end which have been so carefully chronicled that I won't repeat them here. I do remember what Tommy Kearns said when he was asked why he threw the ball high in the air as the game ended. " I don't know", he said. " I saw Hot Rod Hundley do it one time". A fitting finish to the impossible dream.
We were so excited we didn't know what to do. Should we go to Chapel Hill? Remember, I lived in Raleigh then and there really wasn't a Carolina hangout in Raleigh at that time. We finally decided to stay in Raleigh, and we probably consumed more alcohol that night than we should have but at least we didn't drive after partying well into the morning.
One other side note. I have read that Wilt was so distraught after the game that he walked back to the hotel where his team was staying in the rain with his uniform still on. What a sight that must have been to someone who didn't know what had just transpired, to see the giant walking down the street in a pouring rain still in uniform.
Word had gotten out that everyone was going to meet the team the following day at the Raleigh Durham Airport. We decided to go and most of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill must have decided to do the same thing because the plane bearing the team had to circle the field a couple of times while terminal employees tried to get the fans behind the fence and away from where the plane would taxi. The team disembarked all except Coach McGuire and Lenny Rosenbluth who had gone straight to New York to be on the "Ed Sullivan Show" that night.
I still run into people to this day who were at the airport then including my current wife whom I was not to meet until years later. It took weeks for the enthusiasm to die down but eventually trips to the beach, graduation, summer jobs and the routine of daily life gradually replaced our reaching the mountaintop, going unbeaten and maybe most of all slaying the giant, Wilt the Stilt.
I feel fortunate to have experienced that season and, for me, there can never be another one like it.