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.