Lucas: Living History
KANSAS CITY--"This is it," says Lennie Rosenbluth as the van rounds the corner. He points out the window at a brick building on the corner of 12th and Baltimore Street. "That's where we stayed."
He is pointing at the former site of the Muehlebach Hotel, which was built in 1915 and is now a Marriott. On this Thursday afternoon, while the current Tar Heels are practicing about half a mile down the road at the Sprint Center, the Carolina legend is about to walk through history.
Snow is falling persistently as the van makes a right turn and pulls up outside Municipal Auditorium. The LED sign outside reads "Welcome back Lennie Rosenbluth 1957 NCAA national champion."
Rosenbluth has been relatively quiet for most of the trip. But now, as he sees the sign, he grins. This really is it. Almost exactly 56 years ago, on March 23, 1957, Rosenbluth and his Carolina teammates walked into this building and changed the course of Tar Heel basketball history forever.
On that night, they beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain. On that night, a young Air Force assistant coach named Dean Smith met UNC head coach Frank McGuire, paving the way for Smith to come to Chapel Hill as an assistant. And on that night, the Tar Heels became one of the nation's elite basketball programs.
You can almost feel the history peeling off the marble walls in the lobby. This arena was built in 1936, and it looks and feels like it. It doesn't smell musty, exactly, but it smells like it's got some years on it, a nostalgic aroma you recognize as soon as you walk in. Without a doubt, something happened here. The section and concession areas are marked with a brushed aluminum that wouldn't look out of place on the set of Hoosiers.
As Rosenbluth walks onto the floor, which he says appears to be the original floor he played on, he looks up and spots a vintage clock. There are no tenths of a second on this clock. This one has a white background with black hands that count down the seconds in a game.
"That clock turned red when it was in the final minute," Rosenbluth says. It's the kind of detail that hasn't been dimmed by 56 years, and it's clear as he looks around that he sees and hears this place differently than the rest of us. We see a dark wood floor and burgundy seats climbing upwards in three tiers. We see the 2013 version of Municipal Auditorium.
Lennie, meanwhile, can still see the 1957 version. And he hears it, too.
"There were Kansas people everywhere," Rosenbluth says. He points up in a far corner, near a sign that says Section 216. "We had a few Carolina fans sitting up there."
He turns just slightly to take in a little more of the court. Right now, he is standing almost exactly where Tommy Kearns jumped center against Chamberlain to open the game, a ploy McGuire hoped would get in the big man's head (and, by many accounts, it did).
Roy Williams talks about "cold chills." This is one of those moments. Right here, on this spot, is the site of one of Carolina's most important games, and standing here is one of Carolina's most important players from that team. It's obvious he is reliving it as he stands there.
"It got so quiet in here at the end," he says as he surveys the empty arena. "It was as quiet at the end of that game as it is in here right now. Within ten minutes after the game, it was empty."
It is noticeably dark, especially by the standards of the nearby Sprint Center, where strobe lights flash during every game. There are no strobes here. In fact, there are a couple missing light fixtures. One of the most enduring images from the grainy film of that 1957 championship game is Kearns tossing the ball in the air to celebrate Carolina's win. If you threw a ball in the air right now, it would likely carom off the low-hanging floodlights that try (and largely fail) to light the dark wood on the court.
"It was darker in here when we played," Rosenbluth says.
When Rosenbluth and his teammates captured their national championship in this building, they briefly celebrated on the court. Then...nothing. No postgame television or radio interviews. Very few players even called their parents. The team simply walked, in uniform, through the rainy night back up the hill from Municipal to the Muehlebach.
They had just won a game we would still be talking and writing about 56 years later. In many ways, they had just changed the direction of the Carolina athletic department and, to a certain extent, the University itself.
They gathered in one room at the hotel to pick up their meal money. "Each player," Rosenbluth says, "got three dollars."
It didn't really matter, because nothing in downtown Kansas City was still open. Most of the players would return to their rooms. Elsewhere in the hotel, in a suite, Smith spent the night on a rollaway bed in McGuire's living room.
Things had changed.