They buried Ralph Beard the other day and news of the event brought back a flood of memories, not an unusual occurrence when one begins to enter the springtime of his senescence. It was at once a nostalgic, still vivid recollection tinted with the sadness of brilliant talent and career wasted for reasons that were never clear.
I am writing about it now because it still contains among the most dramatic lessons available for today’s young men and women who aspire to greatness on the playing fields and in the athletic halls. But it also is a statement about the obligation that those who do excel in these arenas have to hundreds of thousands of youngsters who buy jerseys and shoes and jackets and caps and posters bearing the names of their favorite, astronomically-paid super stars.
I was a junior in high school in the early spring of 1951 when a tall, young man drove the 26 miles or so from downtown Indianapolis to be the featured speaker at our basketball banquet. Alex Groza was the 6 foot 7 inch center for the Indianapolis Olympians and teammate of Beard. He was a burgeoning star in the new National Basketball Association. It was thrilling for young players to meet this celebrated Kentucky athlete who had led his high school, university, U.S. Olympic team, and now professional franchise to the top of his sport. The depth of our enthusiasm for him and his teammates could be seen in the fact we were willing to set aside all normal prejudices in that regional crucible of Indiana vs. Kentucky basketball.
Be true to the game, he told us that night. It would benefit us the rest of our lives whether or not we possessed the talent, which few of us did, to continue it past the high school level. He received a standing ovation that night and we later flocked to the arena where he battled for supremacy under the basket with the great George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers. For the previous two years Mikan led the league in scoring and Groza was second, although he had a higher shooting percentage.
A few weeks later we were shocked by the news that Groza, and several of his teammates had been indicted by the New York District Attorney, Frank Hogan, for having taken bribes to shave points while playing for the University of Kentucky where they had won back-to-back national championships and the National Invitational Tournament, then as important or more so than the NCAA tourney. Among those indicted was Beard, the brilliant guard for Kentucky and the Olympians.
Disillusionment comes in degrees and on a scale of one to 10 this was an 11 for most of us. It was the largest sports scandal since eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. Ultimately seven schools would be involved in this debacle centering on games at Madison Square Garden where the NIT was played. Our heroes had feet of clay that left a lasting footprint. The NIT was severely damaged and the local team, the Olympians, was finished, leaving the capital city without a professional franchise in a basketball nutty state.
While Groza and Beard never went to prison, they and a number of other players, including one of the first African American stars, Sherman White of Long Island University, were forever banned from the game they loved. Kentucky, coached by the controversial Adolph Rupp, was fortunate that its national titles weren’t taken away. Rupp’s alleged associations with known gamblers and his ruthless coaching style were blamed rightly or wrongly for creating an atmosphere that led to the mistakes of his players, mainly boys with enormous talent from economically deprived backgrounds.
Groza, whose brother, Lou, was a longtime star of the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns, died in 1995. Beard maintained forever that he never shaved points nor did anything else illegal to influence a game. Like Buck Weaver, third baseman of the aforementioned “Black Sox,” he tried every year to have his name cleared and his eligibility for hall of fame honors restored. It never happened.
The smiling face of Beard in his uniform stared out of the picture above his obituary. It was full of youthful enthusiasm and even innocence belying what was to come. The tiny amounts of money he and the rest received wouldn’t pay for much more than dinner now and would be found laughable by today’s multi-multi-millionaire athletes. Their cheating is in the form of steroids and bad behavior after hours. But their lack of understanding about the obligation of role models is the same.