“I want to be remembered as someone who loved basketball more than life, and that I played as hard as I could in every basketball game I ever played.” – Ralph Beard
Ralph Beard was not only a great athlete, he was an extraordinary athlete, must faster and much quicker than ordinary human beings. He was wound much tighter than any other person I have ever known.
“I asked my dad (Ralph Beard Sr.) why (my halfbrother) Frank (a professional golf star) could play golf better than I could.” His father answered: “If I asked you to pass the salt, you would knock everything off the table getting to it. If I asked Frank, he would very methodically and gingerly pick up the shaker and delicately hand it to me.”
During a visit in his home two weeks before he died on Nov. 29, Ralph and I recited all of his athletic accomplishments. “Of all of your honors – state, national and international – which meant the most?”
Ralph quickly responded: “The Olympic Games Gold Medal. That’s for our country.”
• All-State basketball player and the star of a state championship team at Louisville Male.
• All-American basketball player at the University of Kentucky.
• Olympic Games Gold Medal winner.
• An integral part of three national championship teams at UK (two NCAA and one NIT when it was as big as the NCAA).
• At UK he teamed with Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones of Harlan High, Kenny Rollins of Wickliffe High, Alex Groza of Ohio, and Cliff Barker of Indiana to form coach Adolph Rupp’s Fabulous Five.
• His first year in the National Basketball Association, he made second team All-NBA. The next year he and Groza both made first team, two of the five greatest players in the world from UK!
• He played on Male’s state championship teams in basketball, baseball, track and football. I asked him if there was ever a day while he was at Male that he wasn’t playing or practicing.
His answer: “Podge, if there was I can’t remember it.” (Podge was his nickname for just about everyone he knew.)
Fresh out of high school, he started for Kentucky’s football team in its first game, against Ole Miss at Memphis. Now let George Blanda, legendary quarterback at UK and in the National Football League, take up the story. In the Commonwealth Stadium pressbox, Blanda spotted Beard and said, “Ralph Beard! In the first game in 1945 I handed off to you against Ole Miss in old Crump Stadium in Memphis and Ole Miss broke your shoulder.”
“Ole Miss broke both of my shoulders!” said Beard.
While he was recuperating in his Louisville home, Beard was approached by a University of Louisville official who tried to get him to play for the Cardinals.
He made a trip to Lexington and told Rupp that he was thinking about transferring to U of L.
“Well,” drawled Rupp, “if you go to that &*** Normal school, I can assure you that we won’t cancel our schedule.”
“Oh no, coach, I’m staying!”
Beard’s fairy-tale world exploded after his second year in the NBA when he and Groza were arrested for being part of the gambling scandals of the late 1940s and early ’50s. A UK football player was in cahoots with gamblers and he got to the basketball players.
“I took a total of $600 to shave points, but I never did. I will swear to that on my mother’s grave.”
Anyone who ever has known Beard – and who saw him play all-out all of the time – can believe him.
Harry Lancaster, Rupp’s longtime assistant, said, “Adolph always said that Lee Huber (from St. Xavier) was the best guard he ever had until Ralph came along.”
Joe B. Hall, who succeeded Rupp at UK, said, “Ralph Beard is still the standard by which all UK guards are judged.”
Rick Pitino, who coached an NCAA championship team at UK, said that he asked a group of oldtimers at Madison Square Garden if any of the players from the 1940s and ’50s could play now. “They said that Ralph Beard could play now because of his quickness and speed.”
Rupp swore that you could smell rubber burning when Beard started a move.
Beard was proud that he was on the first cover of Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t the present SI, but an earlier magazine that the current SI copied and replaced.
Ralph was 80 on Dec. 2.
John Brewer, a former UK player, said, “Ralph Beard was the most honest man I’ve ever known.”
Ted Phillips, a Beard friend, called from Fort Myers, Fla., to say, “Ralph was the most humble superstar I’ve ever known.”