Ralph Beard; Scheme Clouded Hoops Career
Saturday, December 1, 2007
Ralph Beard, one of the finest basketball players of his generation whose career ended in disgrace when he was arrested in 1951 for taking part in a gambling scheme, died Nov. 29 of congestive heart failure and other ailments at his home in Louisville. He was 79.
Mr. Beard led the University of Kentucky Wildcats, under Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp, to NCAA championships in 1948 and 1949 and was a three-time all-American guard. During his four years at Kentucky, his team had a record of 130 wins and 10 losses.
In the National Basketball Association, Mr. Beard was a first-team all-pro guard and started in the league's first All-Star Game. He was preparing for his third season as a player and part owner of the Indianapolis Olympians when he and a teammate, former Kentucky star Alex Groza, were arrested Oct. 20, 1951. They and another ex-Kentucky player, Dale Barnstable, were charged with accepting money to lose a game, or at least not to meet the "point spread" set by gamblers, in 1949.
Mr. Beard never played basketball again. Over time, he became something of a tragic figure as writers and fans mused about the potential that was never realized.
"Ralph Beard is as near to perfection as a player can get," Rupp said.
The 6-foot-7 Groza was Kentucky's leading scorer, but Mr. Beard was the team leader and driving force. Mr. Beard, who was 5-10, was short for basketball, even in the 1940s. But his speed, tenacity and defensive alertness were unmatched, and he had an uncanny ability to slash through taller players to the basket.
Bobby Knight, a coach at Indiana and Texas Tech universities, was 9 when he watched Mr. Beard play in 1949. He later described him as "the best basketball player I ever saw."
Mr. Beard's only rival as a guard was Bob Cousy, who starred at Holy Cross College and with the Boston Celtics and is considered the NBA's finest guard of the 1950s. Many observers said Mr. Beard was a better player.
"Lightning fast," Cousy said in 2002. "In my judgment, he would have been a Hall of Famer."
When Kentucky met Cousy's Holy Cross team in the 1948 National Invitation Tournament, Holy Cross was the defending national champion. Mr. Beard scored 13 points to Cousy's 5 as Kentucky won, 60-52.
The 1947-48 Kentucky squad, dubbed the Fabulous Five, had a record of 36-3 and won the NCAA championship -- the first in the school's storied basketball history -- and the NIT. The 36 wins remained a collegiate record until Duke won 37 in 1986.
Mr. Beard, Groza and other Kentucky players led the U.S. team to an Olympic gold medal in 1948, then repeated as NCAA champions in 1949.
But 12 days before their NCAA championship victory over Oklahoma A&M in March 1949, Kentucky met Loyola of Chicago in the NIT in New York. The sluggish Wildcats inexplicably lost the game, 67-56, but Mr. Beard led his team with 15 points.
It was later learned that a Kentucky student with connections to mobsters had bribed Mr. Beard, Groza and Barnstable to "shave points" to keep the score within the gamblers' point spread. Mr. Beard and Barnstable accepted $500 each, and Groza took $1,000. Prosecutors also revealed that, earlier in the season, Mr. Beard had twice taken payments of $100 to help Kentucky exceed the point spread.
The prosecution was swift; the punishment, severe. Groza, who died in 1995 and was the brother of Hall of Fame football player Lou Groza, and Mr. Beard were banned from the NBA for life. When Mr. Beard, then 23, tried to turn to baseball, he was barred from that sport as well.
He did not touch a basketball for 15 years.
"If taking $700 was wrong, then I was guilty," he said in 1995. "But I was totally innocent of influencing games. I never had two dimes to rub together. My mother cleaned six apartments so we could have one to live in. I took the money, and that was it."
Milton M. "Ralph" Beard was born Dec. 2, 1927, in Hardinsburg, Ky., and was 7 when his father left the family. He and his mother moved to Louisville, where she worked at three menial jobs.
Mr. Beard excelled at any athletic endeavor and was the first four-sport letterman -- in football, basketball, baseball and track -- at Louisville Male High School. He led his school to state championships in baseball and basketball and won the 880-yard run at the state track meet. He was originally recruited to play football at Kentucky.
After his 1951 banishment from basketball, Mr. Beard became a pharmaceutical salesman and corporate vice president. His only involvement with basketball came in the 1970s, when he was a scout for the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association.
Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Bettye Beard; three children; and six grandchildren.
In later years, Mr. Beard occasionally attended basketball workouts at Kentucky and often spoke to college athletes about the dangers of gambling.
"Basketball was my life," he said in 1997. "If I can save one person from the hell I've gone through . . . I'll do it. I'll pay for it until the day the dirt from the spade hits the coffin. I blew it all for $700."