In this interview we speak with legendary basketball star and OAAA Honorary Co-Chair, Lennie Rosenbluth, who shares his personal story and helps shed light on how he manages to stay active, even with osteoarthritis (OA).
Basketball has been a significant part of your life. Can you tell us about your rather unusual path to basketball fame?
When I was 13 years old, my dad took me to a game in Madison Square Garden. It was City College of New York vs. New York University, and there as a friendly rivalry and excitement that resembles UNC vs. Duke games today. It was the first basketball game I’d ever seen and I thought, “Hey, that looks great, I might like that.” The next day in gym class I picked up a basketball for the first time and had no idea what to do with it. I dribbled the ball with two hands and my shooting was ridiculous. I tried out for my 7th, 8th, and 9th grade teams and didn’t make it. So I went to the park every afternoon trying to figure out what to do. Believe it or not, I didn’t make my 10th grade or 11thgrade teams, either, but I loved the game so I didn’t get discouraged. Finally, I was called to play in the second half of my junior year, but in my senior year, there was a coach’s strike so I started playing with former college and professional players around New York City instead. In fact, I only played in six to eight high school games before playing in college.
So with almost no formal coaching or traditional game playing, you ended up at UNC and lead the team to winning a National Championship in 1957. That’s very impressive!
In my senior year of high school, I was able to get into Madison Square Garden through the players entrance but I didn’t have a seat. A friend of mine was friends with [former UNC coach] Frank McGuire and saw me walking around looking for a seat. He pulled me over to sit next to him in McGuire’s seat. So I met McGuire that day as well as Coach Buck Freeman [McGuire’s assistant coach]. It was an incredibly lucky break and as a result of that meeting I eventually wound up having a chance to play at UNC.
The first time I really had any significant formal coaching was at Carolina with Coach McGuire. All I knew how to do was to get the ball and go for the score. I was very fortunate that Coach McGuire let me play how I had learned to play. I’m very grateful. I also was very lucky to have tremendous teammates who believed in me. They were the greatest teammates anybody could have.
You played professionally for a period of time and then became a coach. Was that an easy transition for you?
I went into the NBA but it was not a good experience for me. It just wasn’t my game. Also, at that time, the average NBA salary was $5,000 per year so it wasn’t what it is today. After 2 years, I wasn’t having fun anymore so I left the game and never looked back.
I went on to coach high school basketball and I knew I’d found my niche. I coached the way McGuire coached, and the kids were great. I just told them to practice, practice, practice, but also to have fun. It’s a game. If you lose, you lose, no big deal. The game has gotten much more competitive over the years but I think having the right outlook and keeping things in perspective remains essential.
You have maintained close ties with the UNC Basketball program. How do you think basketball has changed from when you were a player?
Kids today are much stronger, better developed, and so much quicker than we were. Their athleticism is unbelievable, especially at the collegiate level.
Proper training is vital for any sport to improve players’ physical condition and skills, but also to prevent injury. We know that injury prevention is a key factor in preventing osteoarthritis. How has physical training and conditioning evolved since you played?
We didn’t train like they do today. We mainly just ran to get in shape, and weight training wasn’t encouraged. Before practice or a game we just warmed up a bit then we played. We certainly weren’t thinking about injury or protecting joints. Many players paid for it later in life. Training is entirely different now.
Do you think that due to improved training techniques we are seeing fewer injuries now?
Believe it or not, even though training has improved greatly, there are probably more injuries overall today because the game is so competitive. Players are finely tuned and they train well but in my personal opinion, injuries are more severe and tend to last longer. That said, I think coaches are also more aware of the health risks now and do a good job of not sending injured players back into the game until they are cleared by their doctor.
Although you were lucky not to have significant injuries from sports, nonetheless, you have osteoarthritis. What has your experience with osteoarthritis been like, and how does it impact your life?
Osteoarthritis affects my knees, and in my case I would say it’s from wear and tear. I played on concrete courts for many years until I got to college, which is very unforgiving. Fortunately, I don’t need a knee replacement. About every three months my knees start to hurt enough that I need cortisone shots, and that does help reduce the pain. Standing for long periods of time and bending over to pick things up are hard on my knees. I avoid walking up stairs, too, because I know my limitations and have learned to modify my activities.
My wife and I have remained very active. We have an energetic Labradoodle that keeps us moving every day. We also travel a lot, largely in order to watch games. We went to the Maui Invitational college basketball tournament three years ago. This year, we were in Houston for the NCAA Championship, and you wouldn’t believe how steep the steps are in the Houston arena! We visit New York City and go to shows and walk around. We see our grandchildren in Florida. As long as we’re able to go, we go.
Any words of advice for those who are also living with osteoarthritis?
It’s important to find ways to still do what you enjoy, and stay as active as possible. You should also make sure your doctor is aware of your physical activities. The worst thing you can do is to be inactive, so even if it hurts a little, keep being active. Don’t ever let arthritis get you down and continue to find ways to have fun! Because in life, as with basketball, having a positive attitude and making sure you have fun makes a tremendous difference.