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The Daily Tar Heel

An evening with North Carolina's oldest living basketball alumnus

During the 1950s, Bob Gersten was instrumental in bringing New York basketball players to North Carolina to play for former Tar Heel coach Frank McGuire.

During the 1950s, Bob Gersten was instrumental in bringing New York basketball players to North Carolina to play for former Tar Heel coach Frank McGuire.

His family — all four children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren — gathered in the Peebles room of the George Watts Hill Alumni Center.

Rich murals from 1947 adorned the panels on the walls of the cozy room, depicting monuments of Chapel Hill’s campus. To his right were the landmark residence halls, Old East and Old West, but neither could hold a candle to him — the oldest living UNC basketball and baseball alum.

Bob Gersten looked back at Libbie, his wife of 70 years, as Frank Sinatra graciously gave way to the soft clatter of silverware on china, unfolded a well-worn stack of papers and began to speak.

The family was in town to celebrate the 70th wedding anniversary of the nonagenarians — Bob is 94, two years older than his bride.

Earlier that day, they ventured to the Carolina Basketball Museum, less than a mile from the spot where, in 1942, the couple went on their first date in the shadow of the Bell Tower.

There, under a picture of Dean Smith and Michael Jordan, rests a photo of Bob.

“We thought this has to be a mistake,” Bob’s daughter, Jackie said, laughing. “Here are these legends, and then our father.”

That evening, as they stood around the murals of the Peebles room, the Gerstens volleyed back and forth with story after story of Bob.

“Has he told you about…”

“What about when…”

“Did he ever mention…”

They each have a slightly different spin depending on who’s telling them, an embellishment here or a new character there, but all are told with the same admiration and adoration Bob stimulates in all who meet him.

Nobody, however, can tell them quite like Bob, who injects himself into the circle to set things straight once again.

“Did I tell you about…”

Driving Mr. Gersten

There isn’t much Bob has given up as the years have piled on — willing or otherwise — but, last year, at the ripe age of 93, driving made that short list.

In the fall, acting on a recommendation, Bob’s son, Richard, called William Thorpe.

“Hey, how would you like to drive my dad?” Richard said. “He goes and plays tennis and golf every day. And he’s 93.”

“I said, ‘93! He’s playing tennis and golf? I’ve never heard of anything like that,’” Thorpe said. “I said, ‘You sure?’”

Very sure. Every day, for a year now, Thorpe picks up Bob to take him to Finley Golf Course, or the tennis court or if it’s raining, the movies.

“I’m half his age, but I have a hard time keeping up with him,” Thorpe said.

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As with anyone who’s had a 10-minute conversation with Bob — and it’s impossible to have a shorter conversation with Bob — Thorpe is teeming with stories to share.

Following the release of the Wainstein report, Bob wrote a letter to Chancellor Carol Folt, offering to help the University in any possible way she could use him. He hadn’t heard back in a couple of days, but he was going to give them time. They were very busy, he said.

“Most people in the class of ’42 or ’52 or ’62, they just say, ‘I used to go to the University, but I’m living my life now,’” Thorpe said. “He’s still committed to the University 70-plus years after graduating … and he wants to help.”

Thorpe has been in the transportation business since the late ’90s, but when he got the call from Richard, he was somewhat worried. What could they have in common?

He soon realized how trivial those fears had been. In 94 years, Bob Gersten has never met a stranger, and maybe, they had a little more in common than Thorpe thought. Thorpe is wise beyond his years and quick to divulge a prudent observation. Just like Bob, he loves to tell a story, and recently, many of them come from his time with his new friend.

“In Bob, you don’t see no bitterness, you don’t see no anger, no hostility,” Thorpe said. “Most people when they get older, you find a lot of that. You find a lot of bitterness — maybe they didn’t accomplish what they wanted to in life — and they get conservative and close-minded and they don’t open themselves up to people. If you sit there and let him, and have the time, he’ll sit there and talk to you for five, six, seven, eight hours. He’s open like that for everybody.

“If I live another 50-so years, I’ll never meet someone quite like Bob. He’s just a rare-type human being.”

Coach Gersten

After a stint with the Army Air Forces in World War II, Bob found himself drawn back to home. So there he went, landing a coaching job at his alma mater, Long Beach High School.

Bob had kept in touch with Chapel Hill in the years since his departure, and this new job offered new opportunities for his relationship with Tar Heel basketball to flourish. North Carolina’s coach at the time, Frank McGuire, like Bob, hailed from New York and cared deeply about his roots.

Thanks to the help of Bob and two other scouts in the New York area, McGuire started the “underground railroad” — a system funneling top-ranked high school players from New York to UNC.

In 1957, UNC’s roster sported eight Tar Heels from New York and two more from New Jersey. Their Bronx-born star, Lennie Rosenbluth, led UNC to a 32-0 record and a triple-overtime victory over Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas Jayhawks to bring the first NCAA title back to Chapel Hill.

The following year, however, Rosenbluth was gone to the NBA and McGuire was back in New York looking for more players who wanted a ticket to Chapel Hill. He came to Bob, looking for prospects. 

Bob had just the guy for him — a 5-foot-9 guard who played for Bob at Long Beach. Larry Brown.

As it happened, McGuire was in town to recruit another New Yorker and Brown’s rival from Oceanside High, Art Heyman. Long Beach and Oceanside were playing, and McGuire was in the stands.

Heyman scored 29 points.

Brown had 45.

After the game, there was a party at the Gersten’s house. Bob gloated, telling McGuire he wasn’t lying when he said he had the best guard in New York. McGuire offered Brown a scholarship on the spot. Though they had been bitter rivals on the court, Heyman idolized Brown, and the two planned to team up for an unstoppable twosome at North Carolina. They shook hands with McGuire and Bob. They were going to Carolina.

Heyman’s stepfather had a few hesitations, however.

“He asked McGuire questions about academics and school and what classes would Art take and will he get a good education,” said Art Chansky, a longtime friend of the Gersten’s and author of Blue Blood, the premier book on the UNC-Duke rivalry.

“McGuire didn’t want any of that shit. McGuire was this Godfather figure. When you sent your children to play for him — when you sent your boys to play for Frank McGuire — you never asked any questions, because Frank was going to take care of them, no matter what happened. Bill Heyman didn’t like the answers he got from McGuire and McGuire got pissed off.”

Duke’s head coach Vic Bubas heard of the rift growing between McGuire and Heyman’s stepfather and swooped in. By the next day, Heyman was a Blue Devil.

When the two met on the court for the first time freshman year, a brawl broke out and Heyman was hospitalized.

The next year, on February 4, 1961, Heyman tackled Brown in the waning seconds of a game in Duke Indoor Stadium. The stands emptied.

“The Duke-Carolina rivalry switched from football to basketball on that night,” Chansky said. “It was a football rivalry, no question. But in ’61, it changed. And Bob Gersten was involved with those two guys who changed it.”

‘The Tar Heel tosser’

Photo by Henry Gargan.

Bob possessed many distinctions in his career at UNC. He was the president of the Monogram Club, captain of the basketball team and recipient of the Patterson Medal, the top award for career athletic achievement awarded at the University.

But for one day in 1941, his most important distinction was that he was Jewish.

“We were invited to play in the NCAA semifinals, it was out in Madison, Wisconsin because it was moved from Madison Square Garden because (of fear that) the Germans were about to bomb New York,” he said. “They moved the whole thing to Madison.”

One of Bob’s teammates that year, and one of the eight players to have his number retired by UNC, was George Glamack. 

Glamack was a star 6-foot-5 center who led North Carolina to a Southern Conference championship and the NCAA tournament, but most importantly, Bob says, his picture had been in the paper more than 80 times that year.

When the Tar Heels made it to Wisconsin, they grabbed the nearest Madison Times, eager to see Glamack. But, for the first time that season, the paper held a picture of a different player. Above the picture was the cutline: ‘Tarheel Tosser - Bobby Gersten, Star Forward of the University of North Carolina Basketball Team.’

“I didn’t find out why until about 30 years later in a swimming pool in Florida,” Bob said.

He met a former Wisconsin football player in that hotel pool who was still involved with Wisconsin athletics.

“Well maybe you could explain this crazy thing that happened,” Bob said.“I know exactly what happened,” the man replied. “The sports editor, Sol Spector, wanted a Jewish boy, and you were the only one on the four teams, so we picked you.”

Doing it his way

A hush had fallen over the Peebles room and his family stopped picking at their sal ads and listened attentively as Bob prepared to read from his handwritten notes, without glasses or contacts, of course. He’s never needed those.

Bob Gersten has never been at a loss for words, but this time, he chooses to outsource to the man whose spotlight he stole earlier in the evening. Sinatra’s words have never sounded so apt.

“To think I did all that, And may I say — not in a shy way, ‘No, oh no not me, I did it my way.’”