Alex Groza, an All-American center for the championship Kentucky basketball teams of the late 1940s and a prominent figure in the game’s biggest betting scandal, died Saturday of cancer. He was 68.
Groza, younger brother of pro football Hall of Famer Lou Groza, was a dominant player in the post-World War II years when few men combined height and athletic ability.
At 6-foot-7, Groza parlayed size with quickness that, combined with the outside shooting of guard Ralph Beard, gave Kentucky a virtually unstoppable 1-2 punch. Led by the “Fabulous Five” - Groza, Beard, guard Kenny Rollins and forwards Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones and Cliff Barker - Kentucky was 34-3 and NIT runner-up in 1947, 36-3 and NCAA and Olympic champion in 1948, and 32-2 and repeat NCAA champion in 1949.
Groza finished with 1,744 points, which topped the Kentucky career list for 15 years after he left and still ranks seventh in school history.
Groza, Beard, Jones, Barker and teammates Joe Holland and Jack Parkinson took their highly successful act right into the NBA the next year, as the Indianapolis Olympians. Groza was second in scoring behind 7-footer George Mikan with a 23.4 average and led the league in shooting accuracy as Indianapolis won the regular-season Western Division title.
He was second to Mikan against in 1951 with a 21.7 average, but that proved to be the end of his basketball career.
Before the start of the 1952 season, Groza and Beard were caught up in the widening point-shaving scandal that was rocking college basketball. Groza, Beard and teammate Dale Barnstable admitted taking money from New York gamblers while at Kentucky, but each received a suspended sentance in return for cooperating with federal officials.
Groza said he and the others accepted money to shave points in a 1949 NIT game that Kentucky was favored to win. As it turned out, the Wildcats were beaten 67-56 by Loyola of Chicago, but the players insisted they didn’t throw the game.
The actions by the players led to an investigation of the Kentucky program. The NCAA placed Kentucky on probation and barred it from fielding a team in 1952-53 after determining that Kentucky had routinely paid meal money to players during road trips.
Adolph Rupp, the Kentucky coach, had said before the full extent of the scandals became known that gamblers couldn’t touch his players with a 10-foot pole. Rupp was held up for ridicule in many quarters when the reverse proved to be true and he held it personally against his players for years before reconciling with them late in his career.
His days as a player over, Groza managed to find a way to stay in basketball. He coached from 1959 to 1966 at Bellarmine College, a small school in Louisville, and later became general manager and coach of the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels and general manager of the San Diego Conquistadors.
After the team moved to Houston, Groza remained in San Diego, working as a sales manager for Reynolds International until his death.