15 Alex Groza

Name
Position
Center
Class
Senior
Hometown (Last School)
Martins Ferry, OH (High)
Ht
6'7"
Wt
220
Seasons
1944-45, 1946-47, 1947-48, 1948-49
Birthday
October 7, 1926

Obituary – FABULOUS FIVE’S ALEX GROZA DIES, Lexington Herald-Leader (January 22, 1995) by Jennifer Hewlett and Kit Wagar

Alex Groza, the captain and star center on the University of Kentucky’s 1948 Fabulous Five national basketball champions, died yesterday of lung cancer, his family said.

Mr. Groza, who lived in San Diego, was 68.

His death is the first among the five players who, in a single year, swept the tournament and won Olympic gold medals in basketball. Behind Mr. Groza’s dominating inside play and sweeping right hook, won back-to-back national championships in 1948 and 1949.

“He was one of the great talents at UK,” said Russell Rice, a former UK sports information director and author of several books about the basketball program. “He had very graceful moves and was the feeder in (Coach Adolph) Rupp’s offense. If they had tracked assists and rebounds in those days, he would have ranked high in both.”

A three-time at UK and a two-time all-star in the National Basketball Association, Mr. Groza still ranks seventh on UK’s all-time scoring list with 1,744 points.

In Mr. Groza’s four years at UK, the Wildcats won 112 and lost only eight. His jersey, No. 15, was later retired.

His records, however, were tarnished and his NBA career was ended by a point-shaving scandal that erupted in 1951. Mr. Groza and two other former UK players admitted taking $2,000 to shave points during a National Invitational Tournament game in 1949, Mr. Groza’s last season.

Mr. Groza and other NBA players who were accused were banned from the league for life. The scandal also cost Mr. Groza his share of the NBA team that he partly owned and pushed him out of basketball for eight years.

But from 1947 to 1951, Mr. Groza’s performance on the court made him the darling of basketball fans nationwide.

In 1949 Mr. Groza became the third UK star to be named Helms Foundation Basketball Player of the Year. And in a 1950 Associated Press nationwide poll of sportswriters to pick the leading athletes of the half-century, he was one of the five top-rated basketball players.

The 6-foot-7 Mr. Groza was the top scorer and the most valuable player of the NCAA tournament in both 1948 and 1949. In his final game, he scored 25 points to lead UK to a 46-36 victory over A&M.

The 1947-48 UK starting team, nicknamed the Fabulous Five, featured Ralph Beard, Kenny Rollins, Cliff Barker and Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, in addition to Mr. Groza. After giving UK its first of five NCAA titles, the Fabulous Five were selected for the U.S. Olympic team and came home with gold medals.

“The biggest part of my life has been being a member of that team,” Mr. Groza said in a 1983 interview. “Something you can’t replace, something that doesn’t cost a nickel.”

He said in later years that more people asked him first whether he was the brother of Lou Groza, one-time place-kicker for the Cleveland Browns (he was) than if he was a member of the Fabulous Five.

After leaving UK, Mr. Groza was the first-round draft pick of the old Indianapolis Olympians. He made the All-NBA team in the 1949-50 and 1950-51 seasons.

Point-shaving scandal

But at the beginning of his third season with the Olympians, Mr. Groza and several others who had played basketball at UK and other schools were implicated in a point-shaving scandal that rocked college basketball.

In fall 1951, Mr. Groza, Beard and former UK player Dale Barnstable were taken into custody. They admitted accepting $2,000 to shave points in a 1949 NIT game against Loyola University. The UK Wildcats were 10-point favorites going into the game, but lost 67-56. Soon other former UK players were implicated in the scandal.

Although the players who admitted guilt received suspended sentences in court, they received much harsher punishment from the NBA. The point-shaving scandal cost the implicated players their professional basketball careers.

NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff ruled that all those implicated would be barred from the league for life.

Rupp, who had bragged publicly that gamblers “couldn’t get to our boys with a 10-foot pole,” was so angry and hurt that he went years without speaking to the ex-Wildcats who had been involved.

The scandal would affect Mr. Groza and the other players for years. Mr. Groza was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame many years later — in 1992 — but he was never inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Came from Ohio

Mr. Groza came to UK from Martins Ferry (Ohio) High School, where he twice made all-state and scored a state-record 628 points as a senior in 1944. He was honorary captain of the All-Ohio high school team and had hoped to play for University, where his brother was a star player. But OSU wasn’t interested, and UK was the only school to offer him a scholarship.

He played nine basketball games at UK before getting drafted into the Army in 1945.

One of Mr. Groza’s notable performances on the basketball court came Jan. 1, 1945, when UK was playing Long Island University. UK was 15 points behind in the final 10 minutes. A spark from little-used Kentucky sub Buddy Parker and 16 second-half points from Mr. Groza helped the Wildcats roar back to win in 62-52 in overtime.

When Mr. Groza entered the Army a short time later, Rupp was asked why he would miss one player so much.

“You don’t replace a Caruso with a barbershop singer,” Rupp replied.

Mr. Groza spent his military career working in a hospital and playing basketball, earning all-service honors with the Fort Hood, , team.

When he returned to UK for the 1947 season, he was 2 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier. Rupp was ecstatic.

In the 1948 season, UK’s Fabulous Five and their teammates won 36 of 39 games. In the 1948 NCAA tournament, the UK Wildcats defeated Holy Cross, the defending national champion, 60-52 in a semifinal round. The Wildcats went on to defeat Baylor University 58-42 to win the title in Madison Square Garden. Mr. Groza averaged 18 points in three tournament games.

He played in all 39 games of the season, sharing a record with Rollins for most games in a season. Mr. Groza also reached the 1,000-point mark in 1948 as a junior. He was the second Wildcat, after Beard, to hit the 1,000-point mark. Beard reached the 1,000-point mark earlier that year, but Groza soon surpassed him.

Mr. Groza’s record for career scoring at UK stood until Cotton Nash overtook him in 1964.

Key to success

Rice, the author, said Mr. Groza was the key to the Fabulous Five’s success. The year spent in the Army, Rice said, gave him experiences and maturity that younger players lacked.

Later in 1948, the Fabulous Five were selected to join the Phillips Oilers, an industrial league team, and other top college players to represent the United States in the Olympics in London. The U.S. team swept past eight opponents and defeated France 65-21 to win the gold medal. Mr. Groza scored 11 points in that game.

Mr. Groza was captain of the 1948-49 UK squad, which had a record of 32-2. Although Rollins graduated after the 1948 season, the four other members of the Fabulous Five returned to help UK maintain its dominance in basketball.

Mr. Groza averaged 27.3 points in the 1949 NCAA tournament. He scored 25 points to help the Wildcats defeat Oklahoma A&M in the final game.

Mr. Groza was named to All-Southeastern Conference teams in 1948 and 1949. He was named to All-SEC tournament teams in 1947, 1948 and 1949, and shared most valuable player honors with Barker in the 1948 tournament. Mr. Groza also was regional most valuable player in 1948 and 1949.

In 1949, Mr. Groza, Barker, Beard, Jones and former teammate Joe Holland formed the Indianapolis Olympians of the NBA. It was the only time in the history of professional basketball that five players from one school joined a professional team together and the only time the players themselves owned the team.

With Mr. Groza scoring 1,496 points, second only to George Mikan, who scored 1,865, the Olympians won their division in 1949-50. Mr. Groza finished second in scoring to Mikan again the following year, but the Olympians did not make the playoffs. He led the league in field goal percentage.

After the point-shaving scandal, NBA Commissioner Podoloff forced Mr. Groza and Beard to sell their shares in the Olympians for a fraction of the real worth.

On to coaching

Mr. Groza went back to Kentucky and got a job at General Electric in . He returned to his hometown of Martin’s Ferry in 1956 and ran his mother’s tavern.

But he still wanted to get back into basketball. His chance came in 1959, when he became coach of the Bellarmine College Knights.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to get back into basketball,” he said in a 1972 interview. “After all, it’s all I really know. It’s my life.”

The Louisville team had never won a basketball championship. But in 1963, under Mr. Groza’s leadership, the Knights won the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament and season title, and Mr. Groza was named KIAC coach of the year. The Knights also gained berths in their NCAA division while he was coach.

“Bellarmine was the beginning of a new life for me. I’ll always be grateful to those people,” said Mr. Groza, who coached the Knights until 1966.

He left Bellarmine for a job in industry, but still was active in basketball, serving as a scout for the old Oakland Oaks of the old American Basketball Association. He later got back into basketball full time as business manager, then assistant to the president, of the ABA Kentucky Colonels.

He became general manager of the ABA San Diego Conquistadors in 1972. When the franchise folded, he became general manager of a professional volleyball team in San Diego for a season.

He joined Reynolds Metals in 1977 and traveled around the country as Pacific Coast manager of Reynolds’ chemical division.

Mr. Groza is survived by wife, Jean, and four children, Alex, Lisa, Leslie and Lee.

His body will be cremated and his ashes interred at Fort Rosecrans Cemetery in San Diego. Services are pending.

HIGHLIGHTS

Starred on the only Kentucky team to win back-to-back national championships, scoring 14 points in UK’s 58-42 win over Baylor in the 1948 title game in New York and scoring 25 points to help the Wildcats beat Oklahoma 46-36 in Seattle in the 1949 title game.

In 1948 and 1949, he was selected to the All-NCAA Tournament team and chosen Player of the Tournament. He was a unanimous pick as Player of the Tournament in 1949.

Won an Olympic gold medal in 1948, the year he and the other members of UK’s national championship team, known as the Fabulous Five, formed part of Team USA. The United States defeated France 64-21 at London’s Wembley Stadium to win the gold medal.

An All-America selection three times (1947, 1948 and 1949), and was a consensus pick in 1949.

His jersey is one of 26 Kentucky has retired.

Selected to the All-Southeastern Conference team twice (1948 and 1949).

In Groza’s four seasons, the Cats lost only one Southeastern Conference game. UK won four conference tournament championships and Groza was named to the All SEC Tournament squad three times (1947, 1948, 1949). He was named SEC Tournament MVP in 1948.

Ranks seventh on Kentucky’s all-time scoring list with 1,744 career points. He led UK in scoring average in 1947 (10.6 points per game), 1948 (12.5 ppg) and 1949 (20.5 ppg).

Holds UK records for most games played in a season (39) and most consecutive games started (110).

Was drafted in the first round of the NBA draft in 1949 by Indianapolis.

Served as a general manager and coach of the Kentucky Colonels and general manager of the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA.