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.