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 K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.