Bret “Bear” Bearup was one of the most charismatic UK basketball players ever to wear a Kentucky Wildcat jersey.
And it’s still hard to believe that Bear is gone.
I was at my hotel room in Louisville recently (Thursday, May 17) when I learned through social media on my smartphone that he had died suddenly at the age of only 56. Like the faithful fans from the Big Blue Nation, his UK teammates, his NBA friends and many other folks, including the news media, I was completely stunned. He was a friendly, funny and intelligent guy who had touched many people in all walks of life. He was an outgoing personality who didn’t know a stranger.
We first met at UK in 1980 when I was a graduate student working part time for The Cats’ Pause weekly magazine and he was a heralded freshman from Long Island in New York. Bearup was very approachable despite his celebrity status as a Parade and McDonald’s All-American. Since I was living in a coed dorm called Keeneland Hall which was close to the Wildcat Lodge where players stayed, we passed each other many times and talked. (Unfortunately, both residence halls on UK's north campus have been demolished.)
Also, we sometimes chatted briefly during a media session after the matchups at Rupp Arena. Later we stayed in touch by following each other on Facebook and Twitter. We often posted "likes" and wrote occasional comments.
Shortly after Bearup’s passing, two of my former bosses at The Cats’ Pause tweeted in memory of the former Wildcat.
Wrote Gene Abell, who later became sports editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader before retiring, “As a UK player, Bret Bearup was funny, intelligent, goofy, very likeable and more talented than most realized. Few prepsters from outside KY wanted to play for Big Blue as much as he did. That fascination may have made him a little starry-eyed and stymied his game. RIP big guy.”
In another tweet, Abell said, “If you barely knew Bret Bearup, you probably have a great story to tell. If you were around him often, you have a lot of memorable stories. He was that type of personality.”
Magazine founder Oscar Combs shared several memories, including photos, of Bearup on his Twitter account.
Wrote Combs, “JUST HEARTBROKEN. One of my all-time UK basketball favorites who became a lifelong friend, Bret Bearup has died. I’ll tweet more later. So, so sad. He was my buddy.”
Ex-UK player Tom Heitz is celebrating the life of Bearup by sharing stories on Facebook, including one on Waffle House.
Heitz said, “I won’t mourn the passing of my Kentucky Basketball brother, Bret Bearup. I will celebrate his life in style as only Skytz can do. He would do the same for me.”
Even a Duke Blue Devils website had a nice tribute about the personable Bearup, who once seriously considered Duke before coming to Lexington.
During his early years at UK, Bearup often saw action around 10 or 15 minutes per game, playing behind the likes of twin towers Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin. By the time he was a senior during the 1984-85 campaign, Bearup, a 6-9 center, became a starter, averaging 6.3 points and earning Academic All-SEC honors, for the 18-13 Wildcats. In an early season loss to coach Bobby Knight and his Indiana Hoosiers, Bearup had career-highs 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Kentucky All-American Kenny Walker was the star of that surprising 1984-85 squad which finished strong with two NCAA tournament victories as a No. 12 seed before losing to star Chris Mullin and St. John’s in Denver.
As it turned out, it was the very last game at Kentucky for Bearup as well as coach Joe B. Hall. And the Bear got two degrees from UK -- business administration in 1985 and law in 1990. He was admitted to the Kentucky Bar in 1990 and later became a successful financial advisor to several NBA players.
Several years after his playing career ended, Bearup and I got together in an exclusive interview for my first UK basketball book, which was eventually titled, “Crazy About the Cats: From Rupp to Pitino” and published in 1991. It was a remarkable interview and I think he enjoyed it. He was very frank in the interview, revealing comments about a couple of controversies that made some UK officials squirm.
“Bret’s never shied away from controversy,” said ex-Wildcat assistant coach Joe Dean Jr. in the book. “He’s a very interesting young man.”
It isn’t a surprise that UK boss Joe B. Hall and Bearup didn’t have a smooth coach/player relationship.
Bearup -- whose parents moved to London, Ky., so they can watch their three sons play college and high school hoops -- liked to joke around. But Hall and his coaching staff often didn’t like his silly stuff.
“Bret was a prankster,” said Dean Jr. “He liked to pull pranks and cut up. He was always involved in mischief and things. I think one time he went a little too far and coach Hall got after him.”
Said Bearup, who lived in Denver and Atlanta, “I was probably a little later maturing than most (of the other players) when I came down to Kentucky. It was probably one of the reasons coach Hall and I didn’t eye to eye all the time.
“I remember in my freshman year I got a dead chicken from a local horse farm. The dog had just killed it. I snatched the chicken from the dog and drove back into the Wildcat Lodge and put it under (teammate) Jim Master’s bed. He and Dicky Beal had the same room. That night we left for the Notre Dame game. We didn’t come back for two days. When we came back, they opened the door…. oh, did it stink to high heaven in there! They didn’t know what in the world it was and, meanwhile, one by one I had told the rest of my teammates and they had gone by and looked under the bed (to see if it was true).
“The thing about it was that the chicken kept making the rounds. I think what Master did was he taped the chicken’s feet to a clothes hanger and hung the dead chicken up in my closet. When I discovered that I had the dead chicken, I went around to the outside of Wildcat Lodge and I got a ladder and hung it outside at the top of their window ledge. I knew Dicky Beal used to get up in the morning and open the windows and get fresh air into the room. I know the next morning when he opened the blind, there was that dead chicken staring him right in the face!”
Was Hall ever embarrassed about Bearup’s silly pranks?
“I don’t know,” said Bearup, whose younger brother Todd came to UK as a sophomore walk-on member of coach Rick Pitino’s 1990-91 squad. “Coach Hall was hard to read. I’m not sure that he was embarrassed so much that he was trying to ride hard on us and make us grow up. I can’t tell you how many times he told me I needed to grow up. He was right. If I had come into UK when I was 22 years old instead of when I was 18, I’d been a first-string All-American in college, too.
“I came in at 18 and I was still young and immature and intimidated by the whole thing (UK’s basketball tradition). I really didn’t have the steel attitude that it takes to play for Joe Hall. I didn’t have that. I didn’t develop it until I graduated or grew up some more.”
Bearup also shared a childhood story that many people didn’t know about.
“I grew up being a baseball card collector, being a football card collector, basketball, you name it,” Bearup said in the book. “I was fanatic about it. I knew all of the statistics of everybody in all of the major sports. I grew up that way and just continued to be that way even after I became pretty good in basketball and was named to a lot of high school All-American teams and began to be recruited by the biggest powers in college basketball.
“I don’t have them (now) because my mom sold them (in a garage sale). They’d be worth thousands and tens of thousands of dollars today. I still get on her about that sometimes.”
He had kept all of his cards in shoe boxes, but his mom got rid of them while he was away from home as a freshman at Kentucky.
Bearup also had a compassion for books. He loved to read. He even helped his family, including three children, start a nonprofit organization where it provides books for homeless shelters and underprivileged children, and you can find it online at shelteringbooks.org for more details.
In conclusion, several days before his death, I contacted Bearup via a private message on Facebook, asking for a comment to be published in an upcoming book, which would be my fifth UK hoops book.
He read my message.
Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to reply.
RIP Bear. He will be missed by many.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Twitter Photo of Bearup