At 97, former Long Beach High School baseball and basketball coach Bobby Gersten remains a renaissance man.
He coached future Hall of Fame basketball coach Larry Brown at Long Beach High, was a college teammate of future Yankee George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss at North Carolina and provided educational guidance to future comedy star Billy Crystal.
A former athlete, Gersten has remained active through the years.
He’s had to cut back after taking a tumble on the tennis court a few weeks ago, but until then, he was playing the sport four days a week, working out daily at the gym and taking walks regularly near his senior community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, not far from the University of North Carolina campus where he played baseball and basketball from 1938-42.
“The doctor, my friends and the kids said no more tennis,’’ Gersten said this past week over a speakerphone to enhance his hearing.
He now uses a walker. “But I never miss a day at the gym and I walk every day,’’ he said. “Not a little, but a lot.’’
Gersten sometimes misses his years on Long Island. “Long Beach was a jewel,’’ he said. “That beautiful ocean. All kinds of activities. It had everything.’’
He said his last year as the high school basketball coach was his most memorable. The 1958-59 team produced Brown, the only coach to win college and NBA championships. The rival team was Oceanside, with future Knick Art Heyman, who would become the first overall pick in the 1963 NBA Draft.
Gersten said he tried to steer them both to play for Frank McGuire, Gersten’s former basketball coach at North Carolina.
“Art Heyman shook hands with Frank and [Heyman and Brown] said, “I’m coming to Carolina,’ ’’ Gersten said. But Heyman backed off on his letter of intent for North Carolina and selected Duke. The 5-9 Brown and 6-5 Heyman renewed their high school rivalry to the point of brawling in a 1961 game. Heyman was suspended for the remainder of the ACC season.
Gersten left Long Beach High to become a dean at then- newly opened Nassau Community College in 1959. In 1970, he helped a former Long Beach High student who was late for enrollment. That person was Crystal.
In 2010, Gersten attended the 100th anniversary of North Carolina basketball.
“There were a lot of stars representing Carolina basketball,’’ said former UNC athletic director Richard Baddour, who had a 45-year association with the university. “He got one of the loudest cheers when he was introduced. He was so energetic. The crowd was tremendously responsive and appreciative of him. He stood with a lot of champions like Michael Jordan and James Worthy. He’s just so well respected, well thought of, well spoken. He has for his whole lifetime represented UNC in such a classy way.’’
In 2013, Gersten moved to Chapel Hill, where he was happily reunited with a friend from Long Island whom he hadn’t seen since 1980. Stan Friedland, 86, an author who lived in Syosset and East Meadow and worked in the Great Neck school district, just happened to move into the same housing complex as Gersten.
The two met in the 1940s in Long Beach when they were playing for rival teams. Friedland, who was much younger and played for a team of orphans, said Gersten, then out of college, befriended him. He currently is completing a book titled “Bobby G, A Life Worth Celebrating” as a tribute to his friend.
Another of Gersten’s friends, William Thorpe, 50, drives Gersten to his activities. Together they have formed UNC Walk for Health, which emphasizes physical fitness.
“They said that there’s this old guy and he plays tennis and golf every day and needs a driver,’’ Thorpe said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Well, if he’s 93, this won’t be long, a couple of weeks.’ From that point on, I come to find out that he predates Dean Smith and Frank McGuire. He goes way back to the ’30s and ’40s and is still here.
“I wanted to promote physical fitness and health and the importance of exercise at any age. I said, ‘Bobby, you’d be the perfect ambassador for what I’m trying to do.’ He’s effervescent, he’s gregarious and every person that he meets is his friend. That’s what drew me to him. I’m from this lower socioeconomic background, Bobby’s from an upper-class background. He’s a different generation, different culture, different age, different color, but we find that we have more in common than we have in conflict.’’
Gersten said his secret to long life is activity. “From the time I was 6, I played every day,’’ he said. “Sometimes it was just me and the ball. Most times I ran to school and I ran back home. It all has to do with being active.’’