COACH: ADOLPH RUPP
ALL-AMERICAS: RALPH BEARD (G); ALEX GROZA (C)
DID YOU KNOW? KENTUCKY'S STARTERS REPRESENTED THE U.S. AT THE '48 OLYMPICS AND WON GOLD.
WALLACE JONES was a cinch to play basketball at Kentucky. Growing up, he and his friends used to make the drive all the way up Ivy Hill near his home in Harlan, Ky., to listen to the team's games on the radio because the reception from the Louisville station was better up there. His high school basketball team played in the state tournament at Alumni Gym every year (and won in 1944). Jones had even met with coach Adolph Rupp to talk about how he would fit into the program.
And yet, if his girlfriend's father hadn't made a phone call alerting the Kentucky football coaches that Jones was on his way back from a recruiting visit to Tennessee, the two-sport star might never have worn a Wildcats uniform. "They had a driver to take me to Lexington waiting at my house the next morning," recalls Jones, now 81 and living in Lexington. He would become the only athlete in Kentucky history to have both his basketball and football jerseys retired, and he would play for two of the greatest (and toughest) SEC coaches of all time, Rupp and Paul (Bear) Bryant.
Jones became a starter at forward in January of the 1947-48 season, and the lineup that would soon be called the Fabulous Five was finally complete. There was Ken Rollins, a guard in his second year as captain; junior Alex Groza, a center who had led the team in scoring the previous year; Cliff Barker, a 26-year-old forward who had served in the Army Air Corps and spent time as a prisoner of war; and Ralph Beard, a guard described in the Kentucky yearbook as "the perfect Wheaties ad, the All-American boy."
"We were a fast-break team," says Jones, who earned the nickname Wah Wah because his younger sister hadn't been able to pronounce his name. A one-point loss at Temple and a 64-55 loss in front of a rowdy crowd at Notre Dame were the only blemishes on the Wildcats' record going into the NCAA tournament, held in New York City. The Fabulous Five first beat the Columbia Lions 76-53 to set up a meeting with Holy Cross, the '47 NCAA champions, in the semis.
Thanks in part to an outstanding defensive effort from Rollins, who held future NBA great Bob Cousy to three points, the Wildcats beat the Crusaders 60-52 and went on to defeat Baylor 58-42 to win UK's first NCAA title. The team received a grand reception when it returned to Lexington: Thousands of fans lined Main Street cheering the national champions, who had only begun to build Kentucky's program.