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Big Blue Blues: Cats Down, But Far From Out

Kentucky gets hit with what was effectively the death penalty.

Ed Head and Bill Spivey Battling at the Net

(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 6: Cats Down, But Far From Out

After two straight national championships Coach Rupp faced a rebuilding year of sorts.

For most teams, UK’s 25-4 record of 1949-50 would be cause for celebration. But a 56-43 loss to Tennessee and three defeats in 10 days put a damper on the season.

The Cats avenged the Tennessee loss by beating the Vols 95-58 in the finals of the SEC tournament in Nashville.

UK went to the NIT, where they suffered their most embarrassing loss ever, to City College of New York (CCNY) 89-50.

But the biggest plus from the 1949-50 season was the emergence of Bill Spivey, Rupp’s first 7-footer. Rupp got the services of Spivey almost by default just as he got his great guard Bobby Watson, who was turned down by schools such as Alabama and Vanderbilt.

“When we first looked at Spivey, we, too, were not interested in giving him a scholarship,” said Rupp. “He was big, but he was scrawny as could be. I told him we couldn’t use him. He stopped at every school in the SEC. I think he weighed about 165 pounds. And he came in and he begged and he begged. And I said, there’s only one thing you can do to play basketball – you’ve got to get your weight up to 200 pounds.

“Harry and I arranged to get him a job at William's Drug Store. Owen Williams tried to get him built up, feeding him a lot of milk shakes and stuff. While I was off to the Olympics, Coach Lancaster kept sending me reports . . . Spivey now at 175 . . . Spivey now at 183 . . . Spivey now at 193 . . .Spivey now at 200. I sent him back a cable, saying, I know he can eat, but can he play?’ Well, we found out that he could really play, all right.”

Spivey was the star of the 1949-50 team, but he was going to get a lot of talented help for the 1950-51 team as Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey joined the team. The team roared to a 32-2 record (including a 97-61 revenge win over Chicago Loyola).

The Wildcats were upset 61-57 by Vanderbilt in the SEC final, but they were really rolling in the NCAA, smacking a great Louisville team 79-68, beating St. John's 59-43, edging a tough Illinois team 76-74 and Kansas State 68-58, giving Rupp his third NCAA title in four years.

Several former UK stars, including Groza and Beard joined a new NBA pro team, called the Indianapolis Olympians. Groza and Beard were among the top 10 players in the league and felt they had escaped their point-shaving problems.

But their point-shaving problems caught up with them again.

Kentucky was still atop the college basketball world in 1951-52, rolling to a 29-3 record and barely missing out on another NCAA crown.

The Wildcats had a lot of talent returning and were favorites to win the 1952-53 crown.

But then the point-shaving scandal raised its ugly head, capturing UK in the process.

Junius Kellogg, star of the Manhattan Jaspers, told New York City investigators he had accepted $1,000 to throw a game.

Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan’s office conducted a broad investigation and found 33 players were implicated in 86 games, all in the New York City area. New York schools involved included Manhattan, Long Island University, New York University and CCNY.

Several players were arrested, including College Player of the Year Sherman White, who averaged 27.7 points per game for Long Island University.

When the point-shaving story broke in New York, a Lexington sportswriter asked Rupp if he thought any of his players could be involved in point-shaving.

“Those gamblers couldn’t touch my boys with a 10-foot pole,” said Rupp.

Later, Rupp met with Lancaster.

“Harry, this New York stuff is pretty damn horrible. I never saw any evidence or indications that some of our guys might be trying to affect the score. Did you?”

“The only games where I think there could have been any kind of possibility was the Loyola and CCNY games. Times are tough, and I can see how gamblers could buy a few players for a few thousand dollars. Especially, those boys who had tough home situations,” said Lancaster.

On Oct. 20, 1951, Hogan ordered the arrest of Beard, Groza and Barnstable for accepting bribes to shave points in their NIT game against Loyola of Chicago at Madison Square Garden.

All three Wildcats confessed to taking money to control the score of the game.

“We took some money, but we never did anything to cause us to lose a game,” said Beard. “I would rather have died first.”

Manhattan General Sessions Court Judge Saul Streit in Mat 1952 handed out suspended sentences to Groza, Beard and Barnstable on their guilty plea to a lesser charge of conspiracy, rather than the more serious charge of taking a bribe and placed them on indefinite probation and barred them from all sports for three years. NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff also suspended the trio, and the Indianapolis Olympians pro team folded.

Judge Streit presided over the entire cases involving each school. He was especially tough on the ex-LIU star White, handing him a 12-month jail sentence. White served eight months and 24 days.

Additionally, he and all the other players were banned for life from playing in the NBA.

Judge Streit had the duty of sentencing 14 players, all who had pleaded guilty. He sentenced five players to prison for five months to three years. He freed nine on probation, including the three UK players.

Later, Bill Spivey was suspected of being involved in point-shaving at UK, and at the school’s suggestion, took himself out of the UK team lineup for 1952 while he tried to clear his name. He had averaged 19.4 points per game for the 1950-51 team.

The investigation dragged on through the entire 1951-52 season.

Two unrevealed teammates told officials Spivey had been involved in point-shaving. Spivey denied everything, but did say a gambler had approached him twice about point-shaving, and he had turned them down each time. He said he never took any money or shaved points. But Spivey was expelled from school in March 1952 and never played another game for UK.

Spivey was arrested in June 1952, and his trial lasted for 13 days before a jury hung on a 9-3 vote for acquittal and a mistrial was declared. A grand jury eventually dropped all charges against Spivey.

NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff banned Spivey from signing with any NBA team, and Spivey sued him for blacklisting, asking $800,000 in damages. The lawsuit dragged on and Spivey finally accepted the NBA’s agreement to settle for $10,000 in damages.

Former UK Coach Joe Hall said, “Most people feel he would have been one of the top five centers in NBA history had he had the chance to mature in the NBA.”

The SEC voted to suspend UK from all SEC competition for 1952-53 so UK lined up more than a dozen non-SEC games, but the NCAA banned those, claiming there had been additional UK violations, including Coach Rupp giving players money in the 1950-51 season, In effect, UK had received the “death penalty”.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we would have won the NCAA championship in 1952-53 had we been allowed to play,” said Rupp.

After the dust settled, the former UK point-shavers admitted they had been taken in by the gamblers.

“Those guys were smooth talkers,” Dale Barnstable later told an author. “They should have been salesmen. They took us out to dinner, and before you knew it, we were right in the middle of it. They said we didn’t have to dump the games. They said nobody would get hurt except other gamblers. They said everyone was doing it. They said what was wrong with winning a game by as many points as we could.”

Those investigating the point-shaving scandal were very complimentary about Beard, Groza and Barnstable being honest and cooperative in their case, asking the court to consider clemency for all three.

Judge Streit appeared to be not very knowledgeable about college sports and especially criticized Coach Rupp, saying he had endangered the health of his players and condoned rules violations.

UK officials and state government leaders told Judge Streit they had confidence in Coach Rupp and Lancaster and would manage their own program without his input.

Salvatore (Tori) Sollazzo of New York City was the mastermind of the point-shaving scheme and served 12 years in prison and was fined $1.2 million for tax evasion.

Kentucky’s punishment by the SEC and NCAA was broadly criticized by newspapers across the country, claiming the school was treated too harshly and unfairly.

UK President Donovan and his staff took full blame for Coach Rupp awarding players money (from fans) after the Sugar Bowl basketball tournaments, equating it to the approved plans offering football players money at bowl games.

“Coach Rupp did not knowingly violate our athletic rules or ethics. If I thought otherwise I would have dismissed him.”

Coach Adolph Rupp won 876 games and five national championships in 41 years at UK, He passed away on Dec, 10, 1977, at age 76 and is buried in the Lexington Cemetery. A metal basketball tops his grave monument.

Ralph Beard passed away Nov. 29, at age 80 in Louisville.

Alex Groza passed away Jan. 21, 1995, at age 69 in San Diego.

Dale Barnstable passed away Jan, 26, 2019, at age 93 in Louisville.

Bill Spivey passed away May 8, 1995, at age 66 in Costa Rica.