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Big Blue Blues: Here Come the Gamblers

After having great success, Kentucky faces a new kind of threat.

Kentucky Wildcats Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images

(This story is one of six serialized highlights from the Ken Mink book “Big Blue Blues: The Inside Story of Kentucky’s Involvement in the Point-Shaving Scandal of the 1940s-50s.” The complete book is on sale on the Internet through Amazon Books, Smashwords Books and Barnes and Noble. Mink is a former Herald-Leader sportswriter who spent many hours with the late UK basketball Coach Adolph Rupp and other coaches and journalists researching data for the book. He is a native of Vicco, near Hazard, in Perry County.)

Chapter 4: After Great UK Success, Here Come the Gamblers

Following Kentucky’s college basketball domination of the 1945-46, 1946-47 and 1947-48 era Coach Rupp found himself with several thousand dollars left over from the Olympics exhibition games with the Phillips Oilers and UK fan donations to help pay for the team sending extra players to the Olympics.

Coach Rupp met with Coach Lancaster to talk about what to do with the leftover funds.

“Harry, the fans sent this in for the boys, and I think it should go to the boys,” Rupp said.

“I agree, Coach, but I don’t know how we can do it legally, within the rules, I mean,” said Lancaster.

“Why don’t we just dole it out throughout the season, giving the boys $20 here and there, and maybe $50 if they had played well?” said Rupp.

“Well, — a lot of the guys — like Beak and Beard – could sure use the dough, with their family situations and all,” said Lancaster.

“Let’s do it that way, then,” said Rupp. “But I will check with (UK) President (Herman) Donovan to make sure its legal before we do it.”

Donovan gave Rupp and Lancaster the OK to distribute the money to the players. Donovan compared UK’s trip to the Sugar Bowl hoops tournament in New Orleans like a football trip to a bowl game, where football players were given extra spending money. UK basketball players received up to $50 each spending money – a decision that would come back to haunt UK.

As the season progressed several players, including Beard and Groza, found themselves handed $20 bills by Rupp and Lancaster from the leftover Olympics cash. As the 1948-49 season progressed, college basketball betting became a million dollar business, with UK games regularly featured.

UK did not have strong security for its players and gamblers managed to make their way into the locker room, often approaching UK players.

After a home game against Arkansas, Beard found himself shaking hands with Nick (the Greek) Englisis, a New York guy who came to UK to play football but soon found Coach Bryant had upgraded the football talent and he had lost his scholarship and became a UK assistant basketball team

“Great game, Ralph,” said Englisis, handing Beard a $20 bill.

“What the hell is this all about?” said a puzzled Beard.

“Just a little token of gratitude from Ed Curd and the boys downtown,” said Englisis.

“Gratitide for w-w-what?” said Beard.

“Well, you guys more than upheld the point spread and Ed and his friends made quite a few bucks on the game,” said Englisis.

Beard was still puzzled. “Thanks, I guess, b-b-but I still don’t understand.”

“Just relax and enjoy it. Buy yourself sump’n nice,” said Englisis, moving away to Groza’s locker, shaking his hand and giving him a 20-dollar bill.

“Hey, thanks, Greek,” said Groza. “You hit a winner at the race track?”

Englisis game Groza the same spiel and moved over to Barnstable’s locker, where he did the same thing.

After Englisis left Beard, Groza and Barnstable huddled quietly near Beard’s locker.

“Looks like we made some people happy, huh, guys,” said Groza.

“Yeah, without even trying,” said Barnstable. ‘Guess there’s nothing wrong if somebody wants to give us money for no reason. And Coach Rupp and Coach Lancaster have rewarded us with a little money from time to time, so I guess we ought to just relax and enjoy it.”

“Still, I don’t think w-w-we ought to be talking about this with the other fellows, since we don’t k-k-know if Greek gave them some money, too,” said Beard.

“Yeah, you’re right, Ralph, no point in getting things stirred up,” said Groza.

After handing out $20 and $50 bills to Beard, Groza and Barnstable as the 1948-49 season progressed, Curd and Englisis approached the trio about making even more money.

The gamblers met with the trio in the dining room of the Phoenix Hotel in downtown Lexington in January of 1949.

“You boys have been real good at beating the point spread,” said Curd. “Dinner is on me. . . dessert, too.”

The players took advantage as they all ordered steak.

Curd got down to business.

“Boys, you may not know, but I work with some big-time gamblers out of New York City, including Frankie Costello. These guys use me to make basketball bets for them. You guys have been good at winning games over the point spread. Now, we are asking that you not beat the point spread – but win for what the point spread calls for. For example, if you are favored to win by 12, you win by 11 or less.”

“So, you are asking that we don’t run away from teams” said Groza.

“Exactly. We stand to win more money by you winning under the point spread than by going over the spread,” said Englisis.

“We are not asking you to throw games,” said Curd. “I know you guys would never do that. We are just asking that you control the winning margin.”

“B-b-but wouldn’t that hurt some of our fans who bet on us to beat t-t-teams more than the point spread,” said Beard.

“Maybe a few,’ said Curd. “But the big-time betting is done in the larger cities, particularly New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. I don’t think we have many big betters in Lexington, Louisville or the rest of the state. Besides, we don’t want you to hold down the score for every game – just a few here and there. I’m a friend of Coach Rupp . . . I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to him or you guys.”

“So, what kind of money are we talking about – I mean for us,” said Groza.

Anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand – each,”

“Are you talking to any other UK players, Wah Wah in particular,” said Groza.

“No,” said Curd. “I think you three are enough to control things. And we feel Wah Wah would just not be cooperative.”

“I think we n-n-need to talk about this among ourselves,” said Beard.

“I agree,” said Groza. “Give us a day or two and we will let you know what we decide.”

The next day the trio met at their dorm.

“I don’t know what you guys think,” said Beard. “But I d-d-don’t want to do anything that would hurt UK fans. They have been very loyal to us and I don’t want to do anything that would cost them m-m-money. I don’t mind so much getting money for winning games over the point spread. That is just getting paid to play good ball. But it’s a d-d-different deal trying to hold the score under the point spread. That means that sometimes we would have to deliberately play bad and I don’t l-l-like that at all. I have too much pride to deliberately screw up.”

“I agree,” said Groza. “But it’s like Mr, Curd said, we are talking about a small amount of betting money by UK fans – and it would involve only a few games. It’s not like we were actually throwing games. We would still win and that’s the main thing.”

“No real harm the way I see it,” said Barnstable. “It’s not like we’re doing something illegal. People who bet are the ones breaking the law. The only ones who stand a chance of getting hurt are the gamblers.”

“And I guess it’s not so bad,” said Groza. “Coach Rupp has been giving us some money, too, for playing good.”

The trio agreed to hold the score under the spread in some games and on Feb. 8, 1949, the players agreed to hold the final score under the point spread against Tennessee. UK was favored to win by 18 points, but won 71-56, three points under the point spread. Groza scored 34 in that game.

After one home game, Coach Rupp saw Curd in the UK dressing room, talking to some of his players.

“What’s that guy doing in here?” Rupp said to Lancaster. “Get him outta here – I don’t want bookies in our locker room!”

“I let him in when Beak told me that Curd told him he was a friend of yours,” said Lancaster.

“He’s no friend of mine,” said Rupp. “I have seen him a few times at parties, and he made a donation to our Shriner’s Foundation fund drive, but you know how I feel about gamblers. Make sure he does not get in here again.”

Rupp had been adamantly opposed to the idea of gambling on sports events and had criticized newspapers for printing point spread information.

The players had each received about $700 from Curd as the 1948-49 season progressed.

Beard kept visiting his mother often and kept giving her all the money he received from the point-shaving.

His mother became suspicious on one of Ralph’s visits.

“I don’t understand how you can get this much money, Ralph. You are not stealing it, are you? You know I would never stand for that! I would rather starve to death than steal from another person!”

“No, m-m-mom I am not stealing it. I am earning it.”

“How are you earning it . . . do you have a job at school?”

“Yeah, sort of. I help manage the basketball team – y’know, just help take care of little things.”

“Well, just make sure you stay out of trouble. I raised you to be an honest boy and I want you to stay that way.”

Beard swallowed hard when confronted by his mom’s statement.

He, too, detested the idea of helping gamblers make money by using the players, but times were hard and he felt being able to help his mother overrode his concerns.

The team’s only loss heading into the NIT was a 42-40 upset loss to St. Louis, a game the players felt they could win 99 of 100 times. But there was no point-shaving in that game, just an improbable loss.

Before leaving for New York to face Loyola of Chicago in the NIT Curd met with the UK trio at the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington.

“Boys, since this game is going to be played in New York City, Costello is going to be laying down some big money,” said Curd. “We need your help. You are 11-point favorites. We are going to give each of you $2,000 if you hold the game down to no more than 10 points. We are laying a lot of dough on you winning by 10 or less.”

Groza whistled. “Wow, two grand. That’s our biggest payday ever!”

“Yeah, but we don’t want to make it look too obvious,” said Barnstable. “The best way to keep the score down is to play poor defense.”

“Damn! I really hate doing this,” said Beard. “I don’t think I can force myself to deliberately screw up. It’s just not in my nature. If we get too far ahead you guys will just have to bring the score back down.”

“Well, if we only have a few minutes left and we need to cut the score back down, you just kinda stay out of the offense, Ralph, and kinda ease up on defense,” said Barnstable.

But Loyola was not a top 20 team, the tournament’s lowest seed (16th) and the Cats were very much overconfident.

The game got underway the afternoon of March 14 before 12,592 fans at Madison Square Garden.

The teams played evenly for the first 32 minutes.

But the game was tightly called by the refs and UK had three starters (Groza, Jones and Hirsh on the bench with five fouls. UK played the final four-plus minutes shorthanded and Loyola scored the last 9 points and pulled away to win a big upset 67-56.

Rupp brought the team back to Lexington right after the game to get ready for their NCAA Tournament opener at Madison Square Garden against 14th-ranked Villanova.

NEXT: Wildcats Turn Down Lucrative Gambling Offer