One of all-time best Kentucky Wildcats remembered for quick hands, betting scandal
By Jim Warren
Ralph Beard, who played on the University of Kentucky’s first two NCAA championship teams and became a member of UK’s Fabulous Five only to see his basketball career ruined in a 1950s college basketball betting scandal, died early Thursday.
Mr. Beard, who recently had suffered from several illnesses, including a muscle disorder that made movement difficult, died at his Louisville home, his son Scott said. He was 79.
Mr. Beard, a speedy 5-foot-10 guard from Louisville, was noted both for his basketball skills and an aggressive style on the court. He played for Coach Adolph Rupp at Kentucky in 1946-49. As a skinny freshman, Mr. Beard sank a foul shot to help Kentucky win the 1946 National Invitational Tournament, UK’s first win in a national basketball event.
Mr. Beard then led UK to NCAA championships in 1948 and 1949. He also was a member of the 1948 U.S. Olympic basketball team — basically composed of UK’s starting five — which won the gold medal in London, England. Mr. Beard received All-America honors in 1947, 1948 and 1949 and to this day remains UK’s only three-time, consensus first-team All-American. Many viewed him as the best guard in basketball during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
But Mr. Beard’s involvement in the college basketball point-shaving scandal, which broke in 1951, tarnished his image and cut short a promising professional basketball career. He admitted taking money from gamblers but maintained all his life that he never did anything to affect the outcome of games. Still, he was haunted throughout his life by what might have been. He never played basketball again.
“Basketball was my life,” he said in a 2002 interview. “It’s what I lived for.”
Despite the lingering pain, Mr. Beard put his life back together, became a successful businessman in Louisville and built a strong marriage. In later years, he became respected and admired across the state. He was inducted into the University of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985 but never realized his dream of becoming a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Yesterday, many who knew or played with Mr. Beard called him a winner, on and off the basketball court.
“He was one of my heroes, just from the way he lived his life,” said nationally known sportswriter Dave Kindred, who interviewed Mr. Beard many times. “It is to the Naismith Hall of Fame’s shame that they never considered judging the man by his entire life, rather than by a mistake he made when he was 20 years old.”
Former UK Athletics Director C.M. Newton, who invited Beard back to UK in the 1980s, said, “I don’t think there’s any question that Ralph, in the era in which he played, was the best guard in either college or pro basketball.”
Said former UK teammate Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones: “He was the best guard I ever saw. He was so fast that, if you got past him, he could beat you before you got to the basket. He could shoot the two-hand set shot; he could shoot the one-hand shot going to the basket; and he was a good defensive player”.
“I’m going to miss him,” Jones said. “We had a lot of good times together.”
Former UK Coach Joe B. Hall said that, even in today’s game, Mr. Beard would be a star.
“The game hasn’t passed by Ralph Beard’s style of play,” Hall said. “He was so aggressive and competitive that even playing the way he played in the 1940s he would be an All-American today.”
Longtime UK basketball equipment manager Bill Keightley agreed.
“The game has changed a lot, but if Ralph Beard were playing today he probably would be the outstanding player in the country,” Keightley said. “They talk about quickness and reflexes, but I’ve never seen anyone with the quickness and reflexes he had.”
Keightley said Mr. Beard frequently visited UK basketball practices when he was in Lexington and would amaze young players with the quick hands he still possessed, even in his 70s.
UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart issued a statement calling Mr. Beard’s passing a “tremendous loss for the Wildcat family.”
“Ralph was without question one of the greatest to ever wear the Kentucky uniform. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Ralph’s family and loved ones.”
Mr. Beard was born Dec. 2, 1927, in Hardinsburg in Breckinridge County. He was a four-sport star — basketball, baseball, football and track — at Louisville Male High School, leading the Male Bulldogs to the state basketball title in 1945.
Mr. Beard actually came to UK planning to play football, but switched to basketball after an injury in his first game. It was a wise decision.
Kentucky then was entering its Golden Age of basketball, with budding young stars such as Jones and Mr. Beard, plus a stable of talented older players just returning from military service in World War II. Over the next few years, UK won almost every basketball game it played, enjoying such dominance that Mr. Beard once said Kentucky’s practices were more competitive than most of its games.
In 1948, Mr. Beard, Jones and UK teammates Alex Groza, Kenny Rollins and Cliff Barker were crowned the “Fabulous Five,” a name still renowned in college basketball history.
Jones noted that in four years playing together he and Mr. Beard won 130 or 140 games. Indeed, if not for a narrow loss in the 1947 NIT, they would have won national championships in all four years.
After Mr. Beard’s UK career ended, he joined an NBA expansion team, the Indianapolis Olympians, in which he was a part owner. He was immediately successful as a player, and was voted to the all-NBA team in 1951. Months later, however, Mr. Beard and Groza were arrested and, along with former UK teammate Dale Barnstable, implicated in the betting scandal.
Mr. Beard ultimately received a suspended sentence, but the NBA forever banned him from professional basketball and forced him to sell his share of the Indianapolis Olympians. When he tried to enter minor league baseball, a judge threatened to throw him in jail.
“It was like taking his life away from him, the game meant so much to him,” Kindred said yesterday. “Kentucky forgave him, they had him back to Rupp Arena. He became great friends with Bob Knight. The great shame is that he never forgave himself.”
Nevertheless, Kindred called Mr. Beard’s life a triumphant one.
“In the end, he’s a triumph, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Kindred said. “He made a young kid’s mistake, and he paid for it in ways none of us will ever know. But he made a great life, had a great son, a great wife, Betty, and was a greatly respected man. I have no qualms at all in calling him a great Kentuckian.”
In addition to his son, Scott, and daughter-in-law, Tina Beard, Mr. Beard is survived by Betty Beard, his wife of 52 years.
Funeral services are scheduled for Monday at the Pearson-Ratterman Funeral Home in Louisville. Visitation at the funeral home will be on Sunday.