A great yet bittersweet story (please read if you have the time)
December 05, 2007
A requiem for Ralph
Posted by Mark Montieth
Funeral services for Ralph Beard were conducted on Monday in Lousiville. Appropriately, it played to a standing room only audience.
Beard, who would have turned 80 on Sunday, was a beloved figure to all who met him, an open, honest, humble and fun-loving man who gave no hints of once having been a superstar athlete.
More impressively than that, he swallowed what would have been justified bitterness over a great injustice. His anxierty always bubbled beneath the surface, but he took the hit and kept going, never attempting to make anyone else suffer for his pain.
Beard was one of those rare people whom everyone liked. Absolutely everyone. You didn't have to know him long before he called you Pah’ds, short for “pardner.” He sometimes ended telephone conversations with a quick “yeah, boy” instead of “goodbye.” He was always fired up, always ready to go. To know him, even in his later years, it was easy to see he had once been a great athlete.
Beard’s story was well-chronicled after his death last week, which at least served the purpose of allowing more people to get to know him. As briefly as possible, it went like this.
He was a multi-sport high school athlete in Lousville, an outstanding football and basketball player and the state’s half-mile champion in track and field. He led the first Kentucky team that beat Indiana in the annual all-star series sponsored by the Indianapolis Star, in 1945. He attended Kentucky on a football scholarship, but an injury ended his freshman season early and propelled him toward his true love, basketball.
He went on to become a three-time All-American at UK and the co-star of two NCAA championship teams. That group was sent over to London to represent the U.S. in the 1948 Olympics and returned with a gold medal.
By then the team's popularity was so immense that the National Basketball League, which was locked in power struggle with the rival Basketball Association of America, made an unprecedented offer to the five UK starters. They could start a franchise in either Indianapolis, Louisville or Cincinnati if they joined the NBL, and they would own the franchise.
They chose Indianapolis because of the fan interest and Butler Fieldhouse. To help capitalize on their fame, they called themselves the Olympians. The rest was history, for better and worse.
With the two leagues merged into the NBA before their first season, they won their division, occasionally filling the fieldhouse. They lost in the second round of the playoffs, but captured the hearts of the fans and turned a tidy profit.
Their record slipped the second season, but Beard and Alex Groza were first-team all-league selections and played in the NBA's first All-Star game. Groza was the second-leading scorer in the league, behind George Mikan. Beard probably was its best guard. I’ve got box scores of the Olympians’ games with Boston that make a strong argument for his superiority over Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, and I’ve talked with enough players from that era who believe that Beard was at the very least Cousy’s equal. He was quicker, stronger, hungrier, a better defender and had more ways to score. Cousy probably was a superior passer and ballhandler.
Imagine, then, the extreme shock and disappointment for fans when, shortly before the start of the Olympians’ third season, Beard and Groza were banned for having taking money (no more than $700) from a fellow UK alum, Nick Englesis, while in New York for the NIT during their college careers. The details of that are event are complicated, but it turned out to be basketball’s version of the Black Sox scandal. The story received front-page banner headlines in the Indianapolis newspapers (three of them at the time) as well as editorial comment. One story told of a young boy calling the newspaper office, sobbing, asking if it was true _ a say-it-ain’t-so-Joe moment that no doubt was repeated numerous times throughout the city.
The gist of the news coverage at the time was level-headed and perceptive, recognizing that Beard and Groza had largely been victimized by a corrupt system. College players in that era, especially at Kentucky, often received cash handouts from boosters. Ten dollars here, twenty dollars there. NCAA rules at the time were less clear on the subject, and players were never suspended for it.
Beard usually sent his money to his mother, a single parent (his father abandoned the family when he was six) who ran a boarding house and cleaned homes for a living. He always swore on her life, his children’s eyes, everything a man would swear on, that while he took money he never did anything to purposely influence the point spread for the benefit of gamblers.
Beard and Groza, however, became pawns in a game they couldn’t win. With gambling interests encroaching further and further into college basketball, New York District Attorney Frank Hogan, a man with political aspirations, needed to make an example of someone. Beard and Groza were big-name athletes playing in a far-off Midwestern city, and therefore safe targets. Most people I’ve talked with who also played in that era say that other players, including some now in the Hall of Fame, were at least as guilty as Beard and Groza. But they were spared.
Beard not only was banned from the NBA, he was barred from baseball. He had played for Evansville’s minor league team in the summers, and might have been good enough to play Major League ball if he had been allowed to focus on it.
He lost his first marriage and admitted later to contemplating suicide. But a woman named Bettye almost literally saved his life. Together, they successfully raised a family. Beard put together a career in pharmaceutical sales and worked part-time as a scout for the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA as well.
It’s a shame that the ABA hadn’t come along about 10 years earlier. Then Beard could have proved his talent and cleared his name, as Roger Brown, Connie Hawkins and Doug Moe did after they had been banned by the NBA for a similarly vague association with gamblers. Those three won out-of-court settlements with the NBA. Hawkins went on to play in it, and Moe still coaches in it. Beard and Groza never got a second chance.
So why write all of this on a Pacers blog? Because there would be no Pacers franchise without the story of Beard and Groza. The Olympians survived for a couple of years after they were banned, then folded under the burden of too many losses and empty seats. It would be 14 years before the Pacers brought professional basketball back to Indianapolis.
Beard and Groza deserved no more than a season’s suspension, such as NFL players Paul Hornung and Alex Karras got a decade later for betting on games. If justice had been properly served and they had been allowed to finish their careers, the Olympians franchise would still be playing in Indianapolis, a charter member of the NBA. With the territorial draft in effect from 1947-65, who knows what players of local interest might have played for them?
All I know is this: Ralph Beard took one of the worst sucker punches an athlete has ever taken, but went on to live a heroic life. Haunted, but heroic.
What a story. Ralph goes through all that, but is still able to lead a successful life and raise a successful family. This one is for Ralph. This story was posted on an Indystar.com Pacers blog.