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June 24, 2012
Remembering a true champ
Time can blur our view of the past, skewing our appreciation for what once great athletes accomplished.
Pete Brennan, member of the 1957 national championship North Carolina Tar Heels, the 1958 ACC player of the year and a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Brennan recently died of cancer.
Tar Heel fans should forever remember this gentleman for all he did as a Carolina basketball player and as a distinguished alumnus.
In recent years, I had the privilege to interview him on a couple of occasions, and he was a gentleman.
He relived his memories with a soft smile and with grace.
"It's almost a bigger honor for my children and my grandchildren," Brennan said as he was about to be inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame a few years back. "What I can't believe is that after 50 years, we're still being honored. It just doesn't seem right. It would seem that would have ended a long time ago. I guess the '57 team struck a chord in the people of North Carolina's hearts.
"[UNC Coach] Roy Williams honored us with the '82 team. The ACC honored us down in Tampa [at the league tournament]. And I'm being honored in Raleigh."
He earned and deserved the honors. But the irony is that it took those honors years later to awaken many people to what he did.
It has been that way from the outset.
The Tar Heels won back-to-back triple-overtime games at the 1957 Final Four to win the championship, but without Brennan's jumper to force the second overtime against Michigan State in the semifinals, the dream would have died that night.
Nevertheless, teammate Lennie Rosenbluth overshadowed Brennan from the outset because Rosenbluth was the leading scorer in school history until Phil Ford came along in the 1970s and Rosenbluth was the national player of the year, '57 ACC player of the year and the brightest star on the team that went 32-0.
Yet Brennan was every bit as important. When Rosenbluth graduated in 1957, Brennan had one more year to prove it.
Not only did he become the ACC player of the year, he was named a first-team All-American. His statistics are one of his living testaments to his greatest on the court.
A 6-foot-6 forward, Brennan averaged 23.7 points and 11.7 rebounds his senior year. He is 12th on the school's career rebounding list, and he accomplished that feat in three years because freshmen were ineligible when he played.
Many of those ahead of him played four seasons.
His 10.5 rebounds for a career remains the third best in school history. He averaged double figures in scoring 16.4 points and 10.5 rebounds for his career.
Brennan was a native New Yorker, son of immigrants. So there were times when it all seemed somewhat overwhelming to him.
"I'm a first generation American," Brennan said, "born to immigrants. Thanksgiving of my first year at Carolina, I'm one of 10 kids, and I was homesick.
"After thanksgiving, I came back and made the comparisons and said, 'How the hell can I be homesick?' From that point on, I was in heaven, Blue Heaven.
"People ask where you went to school and I say, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill," Brennan said. "People say, 'Did you play ball?' And I say, 'Yeah, I played basketball.' That is a very proud thing to say, and also the ACC."
Unfortunately, we have now lost Brennan to this world, but the memory of his smile and his accomplishments in helping to create one of the greatest traditions in college basketball will live forever.
"When I look back on my life, you think maybe I shouldn't have done this or shouldn't have done that," Brennan said. "But I've never doubted coming to the University of North Carolina. It was the right decision for me then. If I was coming today and knew what I know, it would be exactly where I could be coming."