The story of Ralph Beard
Scandal branded him, but his charm won people back
Posted: Friday November 30, 2007 11:54AM; Updated: Friday November 30, 2007 11:54AM
One thing you have to know about Ralph Beard is that he was cheap -- and proud of it. He said he never got over what it was like to grow up poor in the Great Depression. "Podnuh," he would say, in his stuttering way, "you just don't know what it's like to be worried about where your next meal is coming from."
His buddies loved to tease Ralph about frugality, and Beard -- who died Wednesday night only days short of his 80th birthday -- laughed as hard as anybody. Everybody has a Ralph story. One of mine is the time I drove him to Bloomington, Ind., to meet Bobby Knight. Ralph brought along a brown paper sack with a couple of homemade sandwiches because he saw no reason to splurge at a pricey joint like McDonald's.
Knight had asked me to bring Ralph to an Indiana game. A basketball historian, he had listened to UK's games on 50,000-watt Louisville station WHAS when he was a kid growing up in Orrville, Ohio. He knew all about Beard. He knew that Adolph Rupp had once called Beard "the best player I've ever coached."
Before the game, Knight brought us into the locker room so he could introduce Ralph to his players. "Boys," Knight said, "this is Ralph Beard. He was the Michael Jordan of his time." Ralph ducked his head bashfully and the players looked at him a bit skeptically. Ralph was only 5-foot-10, short by today's standards, and at the time he was well into his senior years.
But Knight got it right. In his time, Ralph was the playmaker and floor leader of the UK teams that won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1948 and '49. Known as the "Fabulous Five," they revolutionized college hoops with their blazing fast-break, a far cry from the ball-control style that had been in vogue.
The team's leading scorer was Alex Groza, short for a center at 6-7 but possessed of a great hook shot and moves to the hoop. The forwards were 6-4 Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones, a fierce rebounder, and 6-3 Cliff Barker, who had learned to do tricks with the ball while being confined in a German POW camp in World War II. The other guard was 6-2 Kenny Rollins, a standout defender and complementary player.
But Beard was the straw that stirred the drink. He was lightning-quick with the ball and tenacious on defense, but his signature quality was his burning desire to win.
Beard liked to tell the story about the time Rupp gave him a defensive assignment for the next night's game and told him he expected Ralph to strangle the guy.
That night, Beard woke up in the middle of the night, clutching his pillow and saying, "Gotcha, Burl, you SOB." That was Ralph. Basketball literally was his life. Which is why everyone was so shocked to learn that he had been involved in the sordid point-shaving scandal that rocked college basketball in 1951.
At the time the scandal broke, Beard was an all-NBA guard for the Indianapolis Olympians, a team built around UK stars from the late 1950s. He and Groza were arrested as they left Chicago Stadium. They were the biggest names in a net that caught more than 30 college players, mostly from the Midwest.
Nobody claimed to be more shocked than Rupp, who had bragged, "They (the fixers) couldn't touch my boys with a 10-foot pole." He was right. They didn't need a long pole because they were right there in the UK locker room, mingling with the players after games.
The middle man between the fixers and the players was Nick "The Greek" Englisis, a New York City guy who had come to UK on a football scholarship. When it turned out he wasn't good enough to play for Bear Bryant, Englisis latched on to the basketball team, serving for a time as manager.
Another fixture around UK basketball was Ed Curd, who ran the biggest bookie joint in Lexington and one of the biggest in the Midwest. In fact, when the Kefauver commission investigating organized crime asked New York mob boss Frankie Costello who booked his basketball bets, Costello said, "My little buddy, Ed Curd, from Lexington, Kentucky."
Beard admitted he took money. But he also insisted that he never did anything to affect the outcome of a basketball game. I believed him then and always will. He was too much of a competitor to cheat. But he also was too poor to turn down a $100 bill when it was stuck in his pocket after a game.
The players' punishment was a lifetime ban from organized sports. To some, it was no big deal. To Beard, however, it was the death penalty. They might as well have put him in front of a firing squad and gotten it over with. He simply couldn't imagine life without basketball.