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.”