The history of basketball at the University of Kentucky is filled with national championships, conference titles, coaching records, all-American players and perhaps the most devout fans in the country.
And sadly, a point-shaving scandal as well.
Kentucky’s involvement in the 1940s-50s college basketball point-shaving scandals has been well-documented. The Wildcat players involved received some harsh punishment, and the school itself suffered greatly.
But when one looks at the entire picture of Kentucky’s involvement in the scandal a fuller, clearer more definitive story evolves – one that reveals there was minimal participation by Kentucky players and the punishment handed down for these players and the school arguably seemed excessive. The axiom that the punishment should fit the crime does not seem to have been applied.
In doing research for my book “Big Blue Blues: The Inside Story of Kentucky’s Involvement in the Point-Shaving Scandal of the 1940s-50s,” I talked to numerous former UK players, journalists and player relatives. But the gist of my information came from the many hours I spent with the late, great UK basketball coach Adolph Rupp and his assistant, Harry Lancaster, when I covered UK athletics for the Lexington Herald- Leader newspaper in the early 1960s. I spent numerous hours with Rupp and Lancaster at daily UK hoops practices and in social gatherings away from the court. Coach Rupp, in particular, was constantly regaling me with stories of people, players and incidents involving his 41-year tenure at UK. Many of those stories revolved around the point-shaving scandal.
This is a six-part serialization of the book that was inspired by true incidents using personal experiences, public domain data, news reports, etc.
When one looks at the entire picture of Kentucky’s involvement in the scandal a fuller, clearer more definitive story evolves – one that reveals there was minimal involvement by Kentucky players and the punishment handed down for these players and the school arguably seemed excessive. The axiom that the punishment should fit the crime does not seem to have been applied.
With that in mind, let’s begin!
Chapter 1: Stars Arise from Humble Beginnings
Ralph Beard had survived the horrible American Great Depressions of 1929 and 1937, but the economic hardships of those years weighed heavily on him when at the fuzzy-cheeked age of 17 he enrolled at the University of Kentucky on a basketball scholarship in August 1945.
Beard had been too young for the military draft, but World War II had just ended and a lot of athletes were returning to colleges after serving in the U. S. military.
Kentucky was one such team, with several players returning to the Wildcats after finishing their tour of duty.
Beard was assigned to a room in the somewhat austere UK athletic dormitory on Washington Street and arrived there carrying a paper bag with a bologna sandwich inside.
He had learned to be frugal, growing up in a home with a mother who had to work long hours cleaning houses to feed and clothe
him and his sister and little brother, Moorman. He also had another younger brother, Frank (who later became a star professional golfer). His parents were divorced and Ralph and his brother, Moorman (“Monie”), lived with their mother while Frank lived with his dad.
As a 10-year-old he had a shoeshine box and walked the streets of Louisville, shining shoes for a nickel.
“Sometimes on weekends I would make a couple of dollars,” he said. “I would take the money home and give it to my mother.”
“Podnah, most people don’t know what it’s like to wonder where their next meal is going to come from,” Beard told his freshman dorm roommate Ralph (Wah Wah) Jones.
“Oh, I know alright,” said Jones. “There were many kids in our area who never even knew where their next pair of shoes was going to come from. Some of us had to wear cutout cardboard in our shoes when we got holes in them.”
Beard and Jones were perfect complements. Jones had grown up in the little Eastern Kentucky coal mining town of Harlan and – like Beard – was a multi-sport star in high school.
Jones was considered one of the top high school players in the country, scoring 2,398 points in his four years of high school play.
In high school Beard had made all-state as a junior and a senior and was considered by many as perhaps the fastest player in the state. He was an outstanding football and baseball player, as well.
Jones had led his Harlan High Green Hornets to the Kentucky state high school basketball championship in 1944 and Beard had led his Male High Bulldogs to the same title in 1945.
The two had known of each other from their starring roles on their high school basketball, football and baseball teams. Each held a love for their state university and great respect for its legendary coach and decided to cast their lots with Kentucky.
And now they were thrown together, two players destined to become athletic legends.
They both had tremendous athletic hearts and both were driven to succeed in their quest to overcome their impoverished upbringings.
But they differed greatly in physical appearance. Beard was 5-10 and 175 pounds while Jones was 6-4 and 205 pounds. Beard also had a minor stuttering problem.
Beard spent countless hours practicing basketball. His hoops coach at Male High had even instructed the gym janitor to give Beard a key to the gym so he could practice any time he wished. The dynamic Beard could sometimes be found dribbling and shooting away until the wee hours of the morning.
“Are you here to play basketball, football and baseball, like me?” said Jones, lying down on his bed and stretching his arms over his head.
“Oh, yeah, I’m g-g-gonna give ‘em all a shot. But I like basketball the best,” said Beard, tossing his bag onto his bunk bed. “Would you like h-h-half of my sandwich?”
“Nah, thanks, though. Coach Shively (UK athletic director and interim football coach Bernie Shively) has talked to Coach Rupp (UK basketball coach Adolph Rupp) and they agreed to let me try both football and basketball,” said Jones. “They both agreed baseball would be no problem, either.”
“Yeah, they told me the s-s-same thing,” said Beard. “There’s another guy here, John Chambers, who is on all three teams, but they say he is better at baseball than anything.”
“Yeah, he tried them all last season, but he was a bust at basketball. He dropped that. But he was very good at football and baseball – he was the team quarterback in football and a pitcher in baseball. They say he has major league baseball talent.”
“So, whatta ya think of Coach (Adolph) Rupp,” said Beard. “I know he is a great c-c-coach and all but I hear he is sort of a bastard. I met him just once before I signed and he was friendly enough then.”
“Some of the guys who have come back to school from the Army told me Coach Rupp is much tougher than any of the drill sergeants they had. They said you just gotta get used to him, don’t let him get under your skin,” said Jones.
Among the UK basketballers who served in the Army and returned to UK were Cliff Barker, Ken Rollins, Jack Parkinson and Joe Holland.
Barker had left Kentucky after his freshman year to serve in the Army Air Force. He became a gunner in a B-17 bomber. His plane was shot down and he bailed out over Germany and was held as a prisoner of war for 16 months. He found a volleyball in his prisoner of war camp and spent hours working on his ball handling and passing. When he returned to school he used his skills to become the team’s most effective dribbler and passer.
Neither Jones nor Beard got off to great starts in their Kentucky careers.
Beard scored only two points in his debut game (against Fort Knox) and it took Jones seven games before he broke into double figures.
Next: Beard on the Verge of Leaving UK