In 1951, I walked into the restaurant where my Indiana high school basketball banquet was being held. I was greeted by a very tall man whom I recognized instantly as one of the superstars of the era: Alex Groza, formerly of the University of Kentucky's winning teams of the postwar 1940s and then a star in the still-infant National Basketball Association.
With Ralph Beard and Dale Barnstable, among others, Kentucky squads coached by Adolph Rupp squads had not only won the NCAA title but also the then-important National Invitational Tournament, which today is the consolation prize for not making it to the NCAA's "Big Dance." They had rolled over the competition to turn Madison Square Garden into a madhouse. Then they had gone on to win the 1948 Olympic gold medal and to form the Indianapolis Olympians, competing against the likes of the Minneapolis Lakers, now the Los Angles Lakers, and that team's reigning king of the fledgling National Basketball Association, George Mikan.
There was nothing unusual about the banquet, filled with awards, not very good food and inspirational talk about the game. That was delivered mainly by the 6-foot-7-inch Groza, who was second only to Mikan in NBA scoring. He gave one of those patented "what basketball did for me" speeches full of the integrity angle and the building of men, etc. (Groza's brother was Lou "The Toe" Groza, a Hall of Fame NFL kicker and tackle.)
Later, much to our shock and amazement, we found out that Groza, Beard and several of their teammates had cheated, taking money to shave points so the gamblers could clean up on the spread in an NIT game. They had been indicted by New York prosecutor Frank Hogan and were facing jail time.
The Olympian franchise collapsed in the wake of the scandal. In the end, Groza, Barnstable and Beard -- certainly one of the best guards at that time -- were suspended for life from the NBA. They were given suspended sentences.
I recalled this the other day while filling out my selections for the 75th anniversary of the NCAA tournament and noticing a story in the Washington Post that named the best players in every decade since the tournament's 1939 inception. For the 1940 to 1950 period, the pick was none other than Alex Groza, despite the fact that he had betrayed the spirit of the tournament, disillusioning thousands of youngsters in the Indiana and Kentucky region and disgracing himself and his university. Rupp is still an icon, despite creating an atmosphere where this could occur.
As the result of these scandals, the National Invitational became a losers' tournament. The game, one can only hope, has become respectable again, much like baseball after the White Sox scandal of 1919. It took the NCAA a long while before bringing some equity to the celebration by opening the tournament beyond only the winners of a conference and a handful of independents, some of whom had far worse records than the second, third and fourth teams in the major college leagues who'd been excluded. Now we have a country utterly enthralled once again by March Madness, basketball played as the game I love was devised. Too bad it's disparaged by sports network commentators who focus mainly on the professional game and its trivia, both of which I find uninteresting. Only eight or so of its 30 teams play at a truly professional level. The Washington Wizards franchise has been a disgrace to its fans for decades, for instance. The NBA is financed by billionaires and played by multimillionaires for an audience that often has trouble buying food, let alone the high-priced tickets. But I digress.
Groza and some of his teammates sold out themselves and rightfully were denied the rewards they otherwise most assuredly would have received. No one should honor them now. It was a tragedy that every young athlete and fan needs to remember as we head into March Madness -- still a great event -- in this milestone year.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)