(Editor's Note: Ron Elliott, who wrote this article, is a Kentucky author of several books, including Sinister Influences: Kentucky's Fabulous Five & The Point-Shaving Scandal of 1951. He lives in Nelson County.)
By Ron Elliott
If the last several games are any indication, this year’s Wildcats are beginning to round into championship form. The fact that 5-9 point guard Tyler Ulis’ outstanding play is a major factor in their emergence has web pages and sports columns abuzz, touting the Chicago product as UK’s best player ever who stands under 6-foot tall.
As statistics are meaningless as concerns players of different eras, we won’t go there, but allow me to introduce Mr. Ralph Beard (pictured).
Beard came to UK in the fall of 1945 as a 5-10, 170-pound 17-year-old freshman after leading Louisville’s Male High School to the state basketball championship the previous spring.
An all-around athlete, Beard lettered not only in basketball, but in track and football and attracted major league baseball attention as an infielder. Outstanding in all those sports, blessed with speed and quickness, basketball was his game. That summer, he joined future UK teammate Wallace (Wah Wah) Jones to lead the Kentucky boys to their first victory in the Kentucky-Indiana All Star game.
As a result of the World War, freshmen, who normally played a separate schedule, were eligible for the varsity for the 1945-46 season. Beard and Jones joined a veteran crew at UK. That team posted a regular season record of 20-2 on the way to the SEC title with Beard being named to the All-SEC squad. Rumor had it that when Beard took off on the fast break, you could smell rubber burn in old Alumni Gym.
In those days, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) played annually in New York’s Madison Square Garden was considered more prestigious than the NCAA tournament, so Adolph Rupp’s Cats went to the Big Apple in March 1946, where they won the championship handily with Beard scoring the winning free throw to beat Rhode Island. The team’s defensive stopper, Beard held the Rams’ star to eight points.
With several players returning from military service, the 1946-47 Wildcats went 27-2, winning the SEC title, as usual. All five players named to the All-SEC team that year, including Jones and Beard, were UK players. Competing in the NIT once again, the Cats were narrowly defeated in the championship game by Utah. Beard was a consensus All-American, being named to several squads.
The Lexington campus was abuzz in the fall of 1947 as the Wildcats were loaded and figured to go far into the post season. The starting lineup featured the clever and crafty Alex Groza at center, rugged rebounders Wah Jones and Cliff Barker at forward and Beard (pictured, No. 12 sitting next to Rupp) and floor general Kenny Rollins at guard. That group – the Fabulous Five – rolled to a 27-2 regular season record, wrapping up their fifth straight SEC title. Rollins and Jones joined Beard on the All-SEC team. This time, Coach Rupp opted for the NCAA Tournament, an eight-team affair being held in “the Garden.” Cruising past everybody, the Wildcats bagged their first NCAA title. Ralph Beard was again named a consensus All-American.
The International Olympic Games, which had been suspended for the war, were resumed in 1948. In an elaborate playoff system, the champions of various divisions were pitted against each other to determine America’s representatives. A team consisting of six players from the Phillips Oilers, an AAU squad, and six UK players went to London and brought home the Olympic Gold Medal.
In a development John Calipari can only joke about, with everybody except Rollins returning, the 1948-49 squad figure to be something to see. And they were: they breezed through the regular season winning 27 of the 28 games and capturing the SEC crown. Ralph Beard and Alex Groza were named to the All-SEC team. Shockingly knocked out in the first round of the NIT, these Cats won the NCAA Tournament, giving them back-to-back national championships. Ralph Beard, once again was named to several All-America teams.
So is Ulis, who is certainly a great player, the greatest? Asked to name UK’s greatest team, Ralph Beard said, “All you can do is dominate your era. Past that, it’s just speculation.”
As soon as Ulis makes all conference four times, leads his team to three national championships and an Olympic gold medal, and is named a consensus All-American three times, he’ll be in the conversation with Ralph Beard.
Photo: University of Kentucky general photographic prints, 2001ua025, Special Collections & Digital Programs, University of Kentucky