Commentary

To remember Beard for scandal is to remember the wrong things

Updated: November 30, 2007, 9:06 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

There is a hole in the Basketball Hall of Fame. A hole where Ralph Beard should be.

Many who saw Beard lead the Kentucky Wildcats to two national championships, earn a 1948 Olympic gold medal and start as a rookie in the first NBA All-Star Game say he was the greatest guard in the world at the time -- a world that included Bob Cousy, among others.

[+] EnlargeRalph Beard
AP PhotoRalph Beard, playing for Kentucky in 1949.
"He has a sharp eye for the basket, but his greatest assets are his tremendous speed and limitless stamina," The Sporting News once wrote about Beard. "… He simply runs his opponents to exhaustion. Defensively, he has no equal. He hawks his man into helplessness and surrender."

"He was one of the top 10 players I ever saw play the game," former teammate C.M. Newton, who has seen basketball on every level for five decades, told The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.

But you will not find Ralph Beard memorialized in Springfield, Mass. He's not there, thanks to $700 and a moment of weakness that seemed to haunt him for the rest of his otherwise graceful and gracious life.

That life ended Thursday in Louisville, when Beard's heart gave out after 79 years. He was one of the nicest men I ever met, but he worried about what the world thought of him. He always was concerned that the lasting image people had of him was his moment of scandal.

In 1949, Beard and two Kentucky teammates, Alex Groza and Dale Barnstable, took money from gamblers to fix games. The players originally tried to win by more than the spread, but later agreed to try to hold the score under the spread in two games. One of those was an upset loss in the NIT to Loyola.

Beard never denied taking the money. He always denied dumping any games.

He scored 15 of Kentucky's 56 points in that infamous game against Loyola, four more than his season average. He described himself as "too proud of who I was" to tank.

In today's world, Beard would have lawyered up within 15 minutes of his 1951 arrest on point-shaving charges. He would have done what Pete Rose and Barry Bonds and so many other celebrity athletes have done: lied, denied, stonewalled, searched for loopholes. He would have blamed everyone but himself and ultimately been rewarded with a second chance -- or several second chances.

Ralph Beard did none of those things. He admitted guilt and accepted blame.

And there was no second chance. That's at least a small tragedy.

The judge in the case gave Beard a suspended sentence. The NBA was far less kind, banning Beard and Groza for life and forcing them to sell their ownership shares of the team they played for, the Indianapolis Olympians, for one-tenth their worth.

After two seasons in the NBA, Beard never played organized basketball again. A former minor league baseball player, he was banned from professional baseball as well.

An all-star career was cut short just after takeoff. Even worse for Beard, an all-consuming passion suddenly was bereft of an outlet.

He was driven from an early age to excel at sports, and that inner fire led him from his Louisville home to Lexington to play for Adolph Rupp. After being held scoreless for the first time in his career as a freshman at Kentucky, a disconsolate Beard went sobbing into his mother's room at 5 a.m. and said, according to The Sporting News, "Mom, I wish I was dead."

The question is how such a prideful competitor could accept money for doing any less than his best. Beard, who grew up poor in a single-parent household, said he was dazzled by the thought of $700 and what it could do for his mother. But when asked to throw a game, he couldn't go through with it.

Still, he admitted the crime, and there are no videotapes to scrutinize for exonerating evidence. Beard became a pariah in a sport he lived to play.

Beard's life turned for the worse, and he wound up getting divorced. But he pulled himself together after meeting the woman who would become his second wife, Bettye. He got a job selling pharmaceuticals, rose up through the company and raised three children.

Slowly, the shame attached to his name receded. And everyone who met Beard was won over by his personality. If he had any enemies, nobody seems to know them.

Kentucky fans warmly remembered him as the first true star in program history. Others embraced him as well -- he was so likable that even natural rivals took him in. Beard could be found at Indiana games as a guest of Bob Knight, or at Louisville football games as a guest of athletic director Tom Jurich.

I first met Beard at a sweltering Louisville football practice years ago. He was trim and spry, with a firmly enthusiastic handshake. Someone introduced him as the greatest guard who ever played -- Ralph was flattered but quickly denied it.

He was much more comfortable talking about the sports news of the day than about his own glory days. It took some work to get him to reminisce about making the winning free throws in the 1946 NIT as a freshman, or winning an Olympic gold medal. Mostly, Ralph just wanted friendly conversation, not slaps on the back.

"If you knew Ralph Beard, you didn't want to shake his hand," Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich wrote Friday, "you wanted to hug him."

When I worked at that newspaper, Bozich and I selected the all-time basketball team for the state of Kentucky in 1999. We chose Louisville's Darrell Griffith and Beard for the cover photograph for the special section.

You would have thought we'd named Beard mayor. He was so happy and so humbled. And, it was obvious, so relieved.

Someone remembered him for more than the mistake a poor teenager made nearly 60 years ago. Someone remembered him as the brilliant basketball player he was.

Maybe one day the Hall of Fame can make that remembrance, as well. It's just too bad Ralph Beard wouldn't be alive to see it.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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