By Adam Lucas
This weekend’s ACC Tournament won’t be Carolina’s first foray into Brooklyn. Sixty years ago, the Tar Heels had a very productive tie to the borough.
In the mid-1950s, the Tar Heel head coach was Frank McGuire, a purebred Brooklyn native who had attended and coached Xavier High School in Brooklyn. War was the only thing that got him out of the city, and his Navy duty during World War II took him to Chapel Hill for the V-5 training program. Almost a decade later, he remembered his time at Carolina fondly, and the school hired him as head coach in 1952, paying a reported salary of $12,000 per season.
Fans loved his coaching credentials but were less enamored of some of his other qualities. He was indisputably a Yankee in an era when Yankee still qualified as a bad word in some Southern circles. He favored a wardrobe by Brooklyn clothier Abe Stark, and he spoke with a New York rhythm—he didn’t speak of guards, centers, and forwards, but of “gads, centahs, and fo-wads.”
But something about him engendered trust in everyone he met. He had a cozy way of speaking directly to the people he was addressing. In one-on-one or small group conversation, he’d often repeat his audience’s name several times during the course of the conversation, and people walked away from talking to him feeling as though they’d made a new friend who really cared about them.
He was the new head coach of a school with limited basketball tradition—the crowning moments were a 1924 national title awarded retroactively by the Helms Foundation and a 1946 appearance in the NCAA title game—and without much prospect for improvement. Before the 1952-53 season, one preseason magazine ranked the Tar Heels 278th out of the top 600 NCAA men’s basketball teams.
McGuire thought it was simple: he was a New Yorker who had successfully been transplanted to North Carolina, so it should be easy to find players willing to make the same move. The Carolina roster for the 1957 championship team would include five players from the five boroughs of New York City, including two from Brooklyn (starters Pete Brennan and Joe Quigg), plus standout Lennie Rosenbluth, who listed his hometown as Queens but played frequently in Brooklyn. Four of the five starters in the title game were from New York City; the fifth, Tommy Kearns, was from Bergenfield, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River.
McGuire’s recruitment of the Brooklyn duo was simple. He knew how valuable the private school scholarships for high school had been to most of the families he was recruiting. He could offer them a similar advantage: the chance for their sons to continue to play a sport they loved while getting a quality education. Few basketball players in the 1950s were viewing basketball as a career. It was simply an extracurricular activity. At Carolina, an out-of-state scholarship was worth $1,250. With training table meals included, the value vaulted to $2,000 per year, and players also received $15 per month for laundry and dry cleaning.
But even the monetary advantages were secondary to the religious concerns.
“My parents were worried about me going down to the Protestant South,” Quigg says. “At that time, the Catholic population of North Carolina was miniscule, and they wanted to make sure there would be a church in Chapel Hill. There was a little church called St. Thomas More, and Coach McGuire promised my mother we would all go to church on Sunday.”
Those group church outings rarely happened in reality, but they were great selling points in the living rooms of concerned families. Quigg was an essential recruit. He was the exact opposite of Rosenbluth—whereas the public school kid was largely unknown in the lucrative talent pools of the New York Catholic leagues, Quigg was one of its best products. He’d led his squad to the city championship in his junior season and carried considerably sway with coaches and players in New York.
McGuire’s smooth delivery in the living rooms of recruits proved to be irresistible for the Quigg family. Due to a quirk in his academic calendar, he was eligible to enroll at UNC in January of 1954. That proved to be the key to unlocking New York for the University of North Carolina.
“Joe was the biggest recruit in the city,” says Bob Cunningham. “He was the biggest name, by far, in Catholic high school basketball. We had played against his teams at St. Francis a couple of times and they just crushed us. They had all these Italian guys from Brooklyn and they just whaled on us.
“Joe was about 6-foot-8 and he was like Mr. Macho. He was terrific. When he announced he was going to the University of North Carolina, I figured that was the start of a pretty good team. His announcement was what really convinced me to go there.”
“I did end up being kind of like the pied piper for the rest of the guys,” Quigg says. “I was down there six months before them, and I spent a lot of time telling them how nice it was. It was a big deal to them to hear that from me, because we had played against each other a lot in the city and they knew I was a New York guy.”
The class would eventually include Quigg, Cunningham, Brennan and Kearns. Rosenbluth arrived in Chapel Hill a year earlier, and by the time he was a senior, McGuire had turned the Tar Heels into a powerhouse. Carolina went 32-0 during the 1956-57 season, winning back to back triple overtime games in the Final Four—besting Michigan State and then Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas the next night—to win the program’s first NCAA championship.
One of the title’s most memorable moments also had its roots in Brooklyn. With the task of facing Chamberlain a daunting one, assistant coach Buck Freeman remembered a game he had seen at the Brooklyn YMCA. In that game, the head coach sent his shortest player out to jump center against the opponent’s tallest player. It created almost a carnival effect and appeared to rattle the taller player. Freeman mentioned the strategy to McGuire.
At the pregame meal, McGuire stared across the table at Kearns, his shortest player.
“Tommy, are you afraid of Chamberlain?” he asked.
He received exactly the reply he expected—“No, sir.”
McGuire barely waited for the words to leave Kearns’s mouth.
“Then you’re jumping center against him.”
Kearns lost the tip, but Carolina won the game, 54-53, on a pair of free throws by Quigg. “And overnight,” Kearns said, “we went from being kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn to being heroes.”