Remembering the Dixie Classic

“It was late, close to midnight, one December night in 1956.”

These are the opening lines of “The Classic: How Everett Case and His Tournament Brought Big-Time Basketball to the South,” Bethany Bradsher’s book about The Dixie Classic, which will be featured on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend.

She continues, “A thirteen-year-old boy named Tim Nicholls had feasted all day at the hulking arena called the William Neal Reynolds Coliseum—feasted on hot dogs, on barbecue served up in the Reynolds basement, and most of all on basketball.

“Nicholls was worn out, but it was the good kind of tired that comes from overdosing on something you love. As a Christmas present, he had received a coveted book of tickets for the Dixie Basketball Classic, so he had spent his day in Raleigh on the North Carolina State University campus watching four games featuring his favorite team, North Carolina, the host team, N. C. State, local favorites Duke and Wake Forest, and visiting squads Iowa, West Virginia, Utah, and DePaul.

“Nicholls had one of the best seats in the house for much of the action—he had befriended the woman who played the coliseum organ, and she let him sit on the bench when she wasn’t entertaining the crowd during time-outs or between periods. The teams from the North Carolina colleges, known as the Big Four, had dominated that day in the Classic’s opening round. They all easily dispatched their out-of-state opponents, and the next afternoon Tim would come back to see his Tar Heels take on Duke.”

These words took me back 60 years when my father gave me a memorable Christmas present. We drove from Davidson to Raleigh for the Dixie Classic’s opening round, a daylong, four-game marathon of “big time” basketball. It was more than the games for me. I was with my dad, by ourselves, in the crowd, talking about the players and the teams, as colleagues.

Whenever folks my age start talking about basketball, there is likely to be a story or two about Dixie Classic tickets in their Christmas stockings.

The late Pete Brennan, talking about the unbeaten 1956-57 national championship Carolina basketball team, never forgot to mention that team’s victory over Wake Forest in the Dixie Classic’s championship game.

These wonderful memories are disappearing. Those of us who were kids in those days from 1949 through 1960 are fading away. So Bradsher’s history of the Classic is a gift to us.

At a time when we are struggling to deal with the fallout from the puzzling and passionate relationship between big time sports and universities, an understanding of the powerful hold the Dixie Classic had on North Carolina sports fans and university partisans is an important key.

Bradsher tells of the glory days. The crowds. The close games. The humiliation of the nation’s top teams, none of which ever won the tournament.

But she also tells the tale of the tragic and scandalous demise of the tournament.  Point shaving by players under the direction of seedy petty criminals threatened to destroy the reputations of the universities that Dixie Class fans loved, the same universities that were beloved treasures for every North Carolinian.
UNC President William Friday and the chancellors of Carolina and N.C. State did not hesitate. They shut down the Classic.

Their audacious, decisive action angered a generation of Dixie Classic fans and put their jobs in jeopardy.
But, by sending a clear signal that athletics did not control the universities’ agendas, they solidified their institutions’ educational reputations and set an example that should inspire and guide the leaders of today.

Recalling Incalculable Joy

For most dedicated Tar Heel fans, thoughts of the 1957 season are never very far from our minds. Easy to recall this week with the passing of handsome Pete Brennan, the small forward on the team and one of the “Four Catholics” recruited by Frank McGuire to join Lennie Rosenbluth and give UNC a truly legendary story to share forever.

It should not be too hard to find a good handful of kids like me who could tell where they were on that incredible March weekend in 1957 when most of us were watching our first TV basketball games, piped in special by C. D. Chesley to North Carolina stations, so we could all live the miracle.  Where they were, who they watched it with, what it was like, what do they remember most about the game, whether they did anything special to celebrate. 

I lived in Kings Mountain, west of Charlotte, and was a senior in high school, knowing that I was coming to Chapel Hill to go to school that fall.  We had a small TV, maybe 12 or 14 inches, but a block down the street, Peggy Black’s parents had gotten a 21-inch set and we couldn’t imagine anything that big.  They invited the neighborhood.  The Final Four — a name that had not been invented then — was played on Friday and Saturday night. 

We were to play Michigan State on Friday night, and we all went to the Blacks to see it.  About as many people as could be crammed into their little family room huddled around the TV and hung on every shot.   We had never experienced anything like the excitement.  I didn’t know much about Michigan State’s “Jumpin’ Johnny” Green, but we got an eyeful on Friday after Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain had easily defeated two-time defending national champion San Francisco in the first game (that one wasn’t on TV, but the announcers told us about it). 

And there is no way today to recapture the first-in-our-lifetimes triple overtime!  The tension was just unbearable, beyond my capacity to explain it.  And somehow, our Tar Heels held on to win in the third overtime, thanks to Pete saving the game with his famous length-of-the-court drive and tying basket as the horn sounded. 

At that time, I was working at WKMT, the radio station in Kings Mountain, and worked every Saturday and Sunday.  We were supposed to be just disc jockeys, but on the air on that Saturday, I just had to talk about it and, for maybe the first time ever on the station, we let people call the station to talk about what they thought about it: How did we win on Friday night, and did anyone think we could beat Kansas and Wilt The Stilt? 

People wanted to talk.  It was a small town, and the audience on the weekends was probably pretty small, but both phone lines lit up, and I let people talk.  Mostly what I remember was that the manager of the station got pretty mad at me, because that was not the format, and I got behind on the commercials. It was live talk radio. I was so far ahead of my time; I really thought I was going to get fired. 

But, it dominated everything.  We counted the hours to the championship. Back to Peggy’s house to watch. 

To stay on the same court as Wilt The Stilt seemed impossible.  He was already a legend at the time.  When Frank McGuire had little Tommy Kearns jump center, we all jumped with delight, hugging, laughing at how cool that was, how McGuire was the smartest coach in the world, and when Carolina jumped to an early lead, I think it was about as exciting as if, maybe, some girl you liked had smiled back at you for the first time.  We giggled with delight as only kids can. 

But, the lead evaporated and, in the closing minutes of regulation, we lost Lennie to fouls.  He was our savior, our star.  It was worse than anything Indiana Jones would ever face. 

There was, of course, another triple overtime.  And, of course, when we won, we went nuts.  All of us had to drive downtown to the Silver Villa, where the kids gathered for hamburgers and teenagers made out in the parking lot.  The parking lot was jammed, and it was like the whole town came out.  Horns blared.  We stayed out too late.  Nobody cared. 

It was magic. And thanks to Pete and the unbeaten boys of ’57, we have memories of incalculable joy that will stay with us until we, too, have breathed our last.

God bless you, Pete.  Enjoy it up there where it’s all Carolina blue.

Shot of His Life

Time waits for no one, not even Pete Brennan the strappingly handsome second-banana on the undefeated 1957 UNC national championship team.

Brennan has been a folk hero in North Carolina since the shot of his life saved the NCAA semifinals against Michigan State, allowing the Tar Heels to go on and whip Kansas the next night to complete what is still the most cherished sports story in the history of a state that has had so many.

Pete Brennan

But today, the shot of his life for Brennan is what he calls a “miracle drug” named Lupron, which he is taking to slow down and contain the prostate cancer that has spread to a nearby bone mass. Brennan, 6-7 and 220 pounds in his playing days, is in tough shape at UNC Hospitals as he also fights to recover from severe Diverticulitis that has caused leakage and requires heavy-duty antibiotics.

Brennan has been back in Chapel Hill for the last few years after having some major ups and downs in business and his personal life. He stays in touch with other surviving members of the Carolina dream team, particularly All-Everything forward Lennie Rosenbluth who also settled here after losing his first wife and getting married again to the former Diane Stabler.

The young Brennan was a tough guy, a former Marine who still looked roughish and invincible into his 50s and 60s. He never flaunted it, but when asked loved to talk about taking that rebound off a missed Michigan State free throw and driving the length of the court to tie the game as the horn sounded. The Tar Heels won in triple overtime and survived three more extra periods 24 hours later to beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in Kansas City.

He was one of Frank McGuire’s “Four Catholics” recruited from New York City to join Rosenbluth and turn a good team into a great one. Chapel Hill did not have a Catholic church at the time, so Mass was held every Sunday in a building on campus because that’s what McGuire had promised the parents of Brennan, Bob Cunningham, Tommy Kearns and Joe Quigg. Eventually, McGuire and Billy Carmichael Jr. (the other prominent Catholic in town) raised the money to build St. Thomas More.

Brennan, 75, loved shuffling into WCHL to do “Pete’s Picks” on the local pre-game show, and his winning percentage of around 85 might have been even higher had he used his head over his heart on the rare occasion when the Tar Heels were not favored to win. But he could never pick against the team that, in his mind, was always undefeated.

When Chapelboro launched a special section called “Drive to a Championship,” Brennan and Rosenbluth contributed a Wednesday column that traced their magical season and paralleled it to the 2012 Tar Heels who were also a favorite to win it all. Unlike the 1957 team, which kept its five starters healthy, injuries killed Carolina’s chances at the end.

Brennan could not work on the final installment of the series, which described how the ’57 Heels lost Rosenbluth to fouls late in regulation but still somehow held off Chamberlain and the Jayhawks to win, 54-53. That’s when Pete’s friends started worrying about him because he never missed a radio show or deadline. Calls to Brennan went to voicemail, which said his message box was full. Even Rosenbluth could not reach him.

Too sick to leave his apartment and too proud to call for help, Brennan stayed home for nearly two months except for doctor appointments. They were treating his painful stomach ache but also diagnosed the prostate cancer. It seemed like a death sentence for Brennan until his type of cancer matched up with those that had responded well to a shot of Lupron every three months. So Brennan could actually leave the hospital next week to rehab and try to regain some of the 40 pounds he has lost.

Last week, he had about 30 visitors to his hospital room – Rosenbluth, Quigg and his wife Carol, his four daughters who live from Atlanta to up-state New York and some of the people who love the big guy. “I never knew I had so many friends,” Brennan said this week between long naps.

His doctor concurred that if they can get the Diverticulitis under control so the punctures in his stomach can heal, Pete has a chance to keep playing.

“A priest I know came by to see me,” Brennan said, his blue eyes still twinkling, “and asked me if I wanted him to give me Last Rites.

“I told him, not yet. I’m not ready.”

Best of BobLee

This week brings a new section to Chapelboro on Carolina Basketball called Drive To The Championship, which we all hope the Tar Heels will do between now and April 2 in New Orleans (Thursday night’s second half at Virginia Tech sure restored some lost faith!).

The section features a second-day game analysis by yours truly, photos, a video highlight box and an aggregation of links to what’s being written about UNC hoops by columnists and bloggers in other publications and websites near and far.

But the best part of the “Drive” is the collection of daily blogs by some notable locals who contribute pieces on a specific day of the week, such as Phil Ford, Freddie Kiger, Pete Brennan and Lennie Rosenbluth, the infamous BobLee, ex-Carolina baseball player Dave Kirk, UNC Sports Information Emeritus Rick Brewer, an inside view from the riser section by the Carolina Fever group, and a ‘by the numbers‘ blog by stats guru Adrian Atkinson.

All of it should make the “Drive” a must-stop in your daily web browsing. Different styles, viewpoints, opinions and memories of Tar Heel basketball. Certainly, the most novel will be a weekly post by BobLee, whose own blog has developed a cult-like following of thousands who read, chortle and respond to his hilarious look at life and his alma mater.

Here’s an excerpt from his “Rim Shots” that he publishes Thursdays and a sampling of what he will bring to Chapelboro on the “Drive.” BobLee has nicknames for just about everybody (some you will recognize, others you will learn) while dabbling from message board fanatics he calls “board monkeys” to his favorite (audio) books to just about everything at Carolina. And dear old NCU has given him lots of fodder the last few years.

BobLee doesn’t much care for the going-away bash thrown for re-assigned former Athletic Director Dick Baddour a couple of weeks ago. . .

“Doogie, Whyyyyyyy?”

You all know Holden Thorp is “my guy”. I have supported him 110% in firing The Butch(er) of Kenan on both Why and When. It is a lonely position but one I am comfortable with. But always shooting straight with YOU is #1 with me.

Last week during the Baddourian Farewell Farce, Holden got caught up in the pomposity and pure sham. Before anyone could stifle him, the too benevolent Chancellor named The Leadership Academy after the departing bureaucrat.

Sure. The “Just Call Me Dickie” Leadership Academy @ The Phyllis George’s SugarDaddy’s Giant End Zone Place is more feel-good fluff than substance. That lessens the hoot factor somewhat. This sets a frightening precedent that should scare the bejeebers out of Tar Heels everywhere… and further delight ABCers around the world. Upcoming dedications in the Carolina pipeline?

  • The McAdoo/Wiley Tutorial Center
  • The Marvin Austin Tweet-atorium
  • The Butch Davis College of No Knowledge
  • The Uncle Julius’ Go-To Place For Easy A’s
  • The John Blake Agent Agency
  • The BOTBob Winston BCS or Bust Inn
  • The Don Stallings Fired Coaches Suite|
    and, of course …
  • The Ol’ Roy Asylum For The Terminally Goofy

“The Roy GAFFES”

…….. Whether one believes PR guy Steve Kirschner or not…. Ol’ Roy’s latest “stepped in it again” further crowds the list of The Ol’ Roy Top Five GAFFES.

JayHawk sticker…. Presbyterian guy….. BB gun….. Coke can…. Freakin…. Tallahassee Scramble….. I’m staying….. (the next one)….. (the ones after the next one)…..

Howsabout designating a section of “the rafters” to commemorate Roy’s GAFFES?
Have ya noticed that every Roy GAFFE generates an immediate Pavlovian response from ABCers, especially the Brickyard Bunch – They should simply laugh at him for his never-ending pratfalls, but noooo; they get all indignant. Which is almost as funny as Roy.

Roy is Carolina’s “Crazy Cuzzin Eddie”. Like it or not, he IS family and gets invited to Thanksgiving Dinner. But maybe it’s time we started hiding the good china.

Normally a Roy GAFFE brings out the hard-core Tru-Blues to defend “our boy Roy” but this time the hard-core Tru-Blues are in stunned silence over the 33 point MASSACRE. General Custer loved his mother. Who cares?

Of course, all the columns in the “Drive” won’t be as acerbic. Former All-American Ford will analyze from a player, coach and fan’s perspective. Kiger contributes his Scenes From the Press Table, where he sits for about a hundred ACC basketball games a season. Brennan and Rosenbluth (the rocks of the undefeated 1957 NCAA champs) will compare their Refuse To Lose mentality to the current Tar Heels. Kirk, though a diamond Heel in Chapel Hill, has been blogging about basketball for years from the frozen tundra of a Chicago winter. And Brewer will recount some memorable games, of which he’s seen more than any three men alive.

Look for the “Drive” on Monday. I promise you quite a ride.