15 Alex Groza

Alex Groza
Alex Groza
Hometown (Last School)
Martins Ferry, OH (High)
1944-45, 1946-47, 1947-48, 1948-49
October 7, 1926

Alex Groza, nicknamed “The Beak” or “Big Al,” was born Alexander John Groza on October 7, 1926 to Mária Köteles and Alex Groza, Sr.  Groza grew up in Martins Ferry, Ohio and attended Martins Ferry High School. He was the brother of pro  Hall-of-Famer Lou Groza.  He was the star center on Kentucky's 1948 Fabulous Five national basketball champions.

Groza was a freshman on the Martins Ferry team that won the state title in 1941.  As a junior and senior, he led the Martins Ferry Purple Riders to two undefeated regular seasons and to the Ohio state tournament semi-finals both years, as Martins Ferry finished 24–1 in 1943 and 26–1 in 1944. In 1944, he scored 467 points in regular season play, including 41 in one game, 628 points total in 27 games (a new Ohio scoring record), for an average of 23.3 points per game, and was named as an honorary captain and as center on the 1944 All-Ohio first team in a poll of sports editors and coaches.  Adolph Rupp spoke at the Martins Ferry basketball banquet in May of 1944 and apparently did a good job of selling Groza on .  He had hoped to play for Ohio State University, where his brother was a star football player. But OSU wasn't interested, and UK was the only school to offer him a scholarship.

Four games into his freshman season at the age of 18, Adolph Rupp called Groza “one of the best pivot men” ever to perform in the southeastern conference.  But Groza almost passed up the season entirely. He had been examined and accepted for the Army a few days before UK's opener. He decided he would spend his remaining three weeks with his parents. “No,” his mother said. “You owe those people something. They took you when no one else would.”  He played ten undefeated basketball games on the freshman squad at UK before getting drafted into the Army in 1945.  Groza received notice on December 18, 1944, to report to his home in Martins Ferry on January 4, 1945, for induction into the U.S. Army.  He was granted an 11-day stay by the Martins Ferry selective service board.  On December 23, 1944, Groza scored 6 of Kentucky's 9 points in overtime to edge Ohio State, 53-48.  On December 30, 1944, in front of 9,000 fans, he scored a season-high 27 points, including the game-winning field goal in a 45-44 win over Temple.  On January 6, 1945, Groza paced the Cats to a 56-49 win over Ohio.  The loose-jointed Groza, brought the Wildcats from behind midway of the first half and tucked the ball through the netting time after time to total 25 points in his 30-minute appearance. He registered 18 markers in the first half alone and probably would have set a new all-time individual record for Alumni gym had he gone the distance.  It was Groza's heads-up rebounding and nonchalant tip-ins that pulled Kentucky into the lead at 13-12 with 10 minutes gone and built up a 30-22 advantage at intermission. A sell-out crowd of approximately 3,000 basketball fans gathered in Alumni Gymnasium Groza to watch him make his final court appearance for the duration against the well-regarded Michigan State Spartans.  The home folk gobbled up every available ducat in order to get one more glimpse of the star in action. The occasion was known as “Farewell-to-Groza Night” and several little added attractions were scheduled to make the affair as gala as possible.  Although Coach Rupp promised that spectators would see plenty of Groza, he announced that Kenton Campbell would draw the starting assignment at center.  “Campbell is the team's regular center now and he deserves to start,” Rupp said. “I also feel that ‘Dutch' needs the confidence which comes from starting games and we're going to see that he gets it.”  The Baron explained further that Groza had not been practicing with the Wildcats that week while Campbell did, and besides that Campbell has shown much improvement as well as determination to make up for the loss of Groza.  Groza had been back home in Martins Ferry working out with his old high school team.  The train carrying Groza from Martins Ferry back to Lexington was late and he didn't even get into the game until the middle of the first half.  At the halftime intermission, Capt. Duane Van Horn, president of Su-Ky, the student pep organization, presented Groza a University Gold Key.  Behind Groza's sharpshooting, the Wildcat basketeers put on a 48-point second-half drive to knock off Michigan State 66-35.  Groza finished with 14 points.  He left the following Monday and was inducted into the Army on January 15, 1945. He then set off to Camp Atterbury, Indiana.  He left the Wildcats averaging 16.5 points per game. Rupp was asked why he would miss one player so much.  “You don't replace a Caruso with a barbershop singer,” Rupp replied. Rupp said at the end of the season that Groza was the only truly great athlete in the nation this year. He said that Groza was not only worth 20 points a game himself, but he set up plays usually good for 10 more points.

At Camp Atterbury, he played for the Attebury Attaboys.  He scored 19 points in his first game wearing an Attebury uniform.  Groza went on to Camp Hood, Texas, where he teamed up with Bob Brannum to play for the Camp Hood army basketball team.  In nine games, the duo accounted for 334 of their team's 531 points. In an 81-42 Camp Hood victory over the Dallas Naval Air Station, Groza scored 27 points and Brannum 26.  Both returned to Kentucky for the start of the 1946-47 season.

Through the first 10 games of 1946, Groza was averaging 8.9 points per game.  On January 11, 1947, against Dayton, Groza, in a masterful exhibition of rebounding and in an unbelievable display of shooting, sent eight baskets swishing through the net and three free throws for 19 points, and the scoring honors for the night.  In collecting eight field goals, Groza shot just nine times. which is something a shade better than colossal.  Kentucky won 70-29.  Against Xavier on January 25, 1947, Groza, the six-foot-seven-inch hustling Hungarian, again was the high point man for the ‘Cats with his seven field goals and four three throws for a sparkling 18-point assignment in 25 minutes.  The Cats won 71-34.  On February 1, 1947, in a 60-30 win over Notre Dame, the elongated Groza, led the parade in scoring by ringing the hoop for six field goals and six out of eight charity attempts for a total of 18 points.  In an 84-41 win over on February 21, 1947, he, in an almost uncanny exhibition of shooting, led the Wildcats with 17 points in just the first 14 minutes of play.  Against Notre Dame on February 2, 1947, Groza was magnificent.  His rebounding and his shooting was superb. His big ham-like hands poked 18 points down through the net to lead Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the nation, in a 60-30 beating of the Irish.  In a 60-39 thrashing of Temple on March 8, 1947, Groza scored 8 points in the first 5 minutes of the game.  After just 11 minutes of action, Rupp benched Groza and he finished with 15 points.  On March 18, 1947, he was named to the All-American First Team by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.  At season's end, he had tallied 392 points for a 10.6 points per game average, giving him season-scoring honors over Ralph Beard, but barely

As a junior, Groza was the star center on the University of Kentucky's 1948 Fabulous Five national basketball champions, as well as the leading scorer on the gold medal-winning 1948 US Olympic basketball team.  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 Groza. After giving UK its first of five NCAA titles, the Fabulous Five was 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,” Groza said in a 1983 interview. “Something you can't replace, something that doesn't cost a nickel.”  In the 1948 season, UK's Fabulous Five and their teammates won 36 of 38 games. After rolling to seven straight wins, on December 20, 1947, Kentucky was edged 60-59 by Temple in Philadelphia. However, in a return match in on February 28, 1948, the ‘Cats annihilated the owls 58-38.  Only one defeat went unavenged. Notre Dame's Lucky Irish caught the ‘Cats flat on a Monday night February 2, 1948,  following a brawling, mauling win over DePaul.  The score, 64-55.  In tourney play, Kentucky beat 87-31; 63-47; Tennessee 70-47; and Tech 54-43.  In the 1948 NCAA tournament, the Wildcats defeated Columbia, 76-53.  Groza, whose 17 points and complete mastery of the boards was a vital factor in the triumph.  Next they defeated Holy Cross, the defending national champion, 60-52 in a semifinal round. Groza paced the scoring attack with a hefty 23 points.  The Wildcats went on to defeat Baylor University 58-42 to win the title in Madison Square Garden.  Groza, who fell ill before the game with a fever but did not tell the coaching staff, led the Wildcats with 14 points against Baylor.  Groza averaged 18 points in three tournament games.  The 6-foot-7 Groza was the top scorer and the most valuable player of the 1948 NCAA tournament.  Groza played in all 39 games of the season, sharing a record with Rollins for most games in a season. For the second straight year, Groza was the leading scorer for the Wildcats with 488 points.  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.  On June 11, 1948, his hometown honored him with “Alex Groza Day.”  “This is the greatest tribute ever paid me,” said Groza, as his hometown turned out to welcome him.  The six-foot, seven-inch athlete had tears in his eyes as he addressed a packed banquet hall in the climax to the celebration in this river city of 15,000 persons.

Groza was named captain of the 1948-49 Kentucky Wildcats succeeding Kenny Rollins and was expected to be the nation's outstanding cager.  In 1949, Groza became the third UK star to be named Helms Foundation Basketball Player of the Year (Aggie Sale and Leroy Edwards were the other two).  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.  On January 29, 1949, a jammed Jefferson County Armory crowd of 8,000, estimated by officials to be Louisville's record basketball mob, saw Groza sizzle the basket with 16 points as Kentucky blitzed along to a 34-16 halftime lead over Notre Dame.  Groza, playing one of the most brilliant scoring, defensive, and rebounding games in his already fabulously successful career, hit the Irish with the force of a lightning bolt. He led the Wildcats to their fifth victory in the colorful 15-game rivalry with a hefty 22 points. They were built on seven field goals and eight free throws. Defensively, Groza blanked rival center Jim Foley.  On February 2, 1949, Groza led Kentucky to a 56-40 victory over for the Wildcats' fifty-second straight win over Southeastern conference foes.  He counted 23 points on seven baskets from the field and nine successful foul tries. He also dominated play under the basket and generally was responsible for Kentucky's relatively easy triumph.  On February 5, 1949, approximately 7,400 howling basketball fans were on hand at Owensboro's new Memorial Recreation Center last night to see Kentucky, the nation's top-ranking collegiate basketball team, turn back the Bradley University Braves by the score or 62-52. It was Groza, who sparked the Wildcats to their well-earned victory over the classy Braves from Peoria, Illinois.  Big Alex dropped in twelve field goals and six free throws for a total of 30 points, in addition to doing a bang-up job of rebounding off both backboards.  Seventeen of Groza's points came in the first half, which found the other members of the Kentucky five having difficulty hitting the basket. Groza was removed from the game with nine minutes left to play when the fourth personal foul was called on him. He came back with five minutes to play to tally his and the Wildcats' final six points.  On February 8, 1949, Groza connected for thirty-four points on fourteen goals and six free throws to establish a new Southeastern conference scoring record in leading Kentucky to a 71-56 basketball victory over Tennessee.  Groza broke the old mark which he held jointly with Pinky Lipscomb of Vanderbilt who established the previous high of thirty-one in 1941. His point-making also set a new high for the Kentucky team. Big Alex scored eleven points in the first half and twenty-three in the stretch drive.  Vanderbilt's Bill Adcock broke the record shortly after that with 36 points.  On February 16, 1949, Groza scored 18 points in just 25 minutes of action in an 85-31 massacre of Ole Miss.  That put him over the 400-point marker for the season at 414.  On February 21, 1949, Groza recaptured the Southeastern Conference single-game scoring record with 38 points. And Kentucky, incidentally, smashed Georgia 95-40 in the process.  Racing up and down the floor like a maddened racehorse, Groza shattered the SEC mark of 36.  Six and one-half minutes of playing time were left when Groza, his face flushed from fatigue, tossed in the field goal that smashed the record. It was a jumping one-hander a few feet from the basket.  When the ball snuggled cozily into the rim and dropped through Alumni Gym trembled with the uproarious ovation of the 3,200 fans who witnessed the historical shot.  Groza did it the hard way.  He accomplished the record with 12 field goals and 14 free throws. All told, he attempted 27 field goals and 20 gratis heaves.  Groza, playing his next to last game at home before graduating, was traveling at a record-shattering pace at the half with 21 points.  He left the game with 6:55 to play,  immediately after he broke the old mark.  “I couldn't have done it without the boys helping me and feeding the ball to me.” said Groza after the game. “They had as much to do with bringing the record to Kentucky as I did.”  Groza's dramatic exhibition not only broke the SEC mark but also shattered Kentucky's high mark for an individual player. Groza was tied for it with Leroy Edwards, who threw in 34 points when Kentucky played Creighton in 1935.  Just six days later, on February 26, 1949, Groza, in his last game in Alumni Gymnasium, hooped in 23 points in a 70-37 murder of Vanderbilt and that was more than enough to give him the all-time Southeastern Conference individual scoring record for a single season.  The 23 points brought his total to 508.  Lonnie “Country” Graham of  Mississippi State held the old record of 504 points, achieved in 1938.  On March 21, 1949, in the NCAA East region semi-finals, Kentucky, behind 30 points from Groza, won more or less as it pleased from outclassed Villanova.  In the first half at least, Kentucky fully convinced 13,051 spectators they were slick articles.  Kentucky led, 48-37, at half time, but slowed down in the second half with three starters riding the bench much of the way. Kentucky's 85 points were the most any team ever had scored in the tournament, breaking the mark of 79 set by in 1945. Groza and his personal foe for the evening, Villanova's Paul Arizin, had the largest hand in this record point production, each ringing up 30 markers.  After the game Rupp wailed, “We have no defense.  I don't know what's wrong.  Become coming here we had a 41 point defensive average. So now we give up 72.”  In the NCAA East Regional final on March 22, 1949, Kentucky toyed with Illinois in Madison Square Garden while winning, 76 to 47 to gain the title bracket against Oklahoma A&M in Seattle.  Illinois, after scoring the first field goal, never had a chance for victory and many of the crowd of 15,126 left long before the final score was tabulated.  Groza whipped in 10 field goals and seven of 10 tosses from the penalty line for 27 points. Most of Groza's goals were from under the board after Kentucky's passes had confused the Illini defenders. There just wasn't anything Illinois could do to stop Kentucky.  No player could keep Groza under control—he played 36 minutes.  When Groza left the game, Kentucky led, 65 to 41. Kentucky did not need his expert assistance any longer.  In 1949, Hank Iba's ball-controlling Oklahoma A&M team managed to shackle everyone but Groza in the NCAA championship game. Groza, the big, hulking bear of a man who moved with deceptive grace, scored 25 points in a 46-36 victory before a howling crowd of 12,500.  Fouls cost Big Alex a chance to break the NCAA single-game scoring record of 31 set in 1941 by North Carolina's George Glamack.  With four fouls against him, Groza was benched for eight minutes in the second half before fouling out with 5 minutes left to play.  In the first hectic dressing-room moments after Kentucky's 46-36 victory over Oklahoma A&M, Wildcat coach Adolph Rupp kicked up his heels and did a jig. And the rest of the championship Kentucky team shouted, thumped each other on the shoulders, and cavorted in general in a manner befitting the jubilant occasion.  There was no end of handshakes and back clapping for Groza, who had just finished stuffing 25 points through the hoops to pace the mighty Wildcats' NCAA tournament win. The agile giant of the Blue Grass also was voted the most valuable tourney player.  His three-game totals of 82 points, 31 field goals, and 20 free throws were all tournament records.  He averaged 27.3 points in the 1949 NCAA tournament. Kentucky and their All-America center Alex Groza set or shared eight records in their three-game drive to a second straight NCAA basketball title.  The records: 

  • TEAM – One-team points, one game, 85 against Villanova in the first round. (Old mark 79 by Arkansas. 1945 )
  • TEAM – One-team points, three games, 207. (Old mark 194 by Kentucky in 1948 )
  • TEAM – Two-team points, one game, 157. Kentuck y vs. Villanova in first round. (Old mark 155)
  • TEAM – One-team foul points, one game: 23 against Villanova
  • TEAM – One-team fouls, one game: 26 against Villanova (Old mark 23, State, 1948)
  • GROZA – individual total points, three games: 82 (Old mark 76 by Bob Kurland, Oklahoma A&M, 1945)
  • GROZA – Individual total field goals, three games: 31. (Old mark 30 by Kurland)
  • GROZA – Individual total foul points, three games: 20. (Old mark 18 by Jack Underman, Ohio State, 1946)

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.  Groza was a three-time and two-time NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player.

“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.”

Groza's record for career scoring at UK stood until Cotton Nash overtook him in 1964.  In 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. Groza and two other former UK players admitted taking $2,000 to shave points during a National Invitational Tournament game in 1949, Groza's last season.  Groza and other NBA players who were accused were banned from the league for life. The scandal also cost 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, Groza's performance on the court made him the darling of basketball fans nationwide.

The 6-foot-7 Groza was the top scorer and the most valuable player of the NCAA tournament in both 1948 and 1949.  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. Groza also was regional most valuable player in 1948 and 1949.

In 1949, 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 Groza scoring 1,496 points, second only to George Mikan, who scored 1,865, the Olympians won their division in 1949-50. 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.  He made the All-NBA team in the 1949-50 and 1950-51 seasons. But at the beginning of his third season with the Olympians, 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 the fall of 1951, 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 Groza and the other players for years. 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.

Groza went back to Kentucky and got a job at General Electric in Louisville. He returned to his hometown of Martin's Ferry in 1956 and ran his mother's tavern for three years.

But he still wanted to get back into basketball. In 1959, he applied for the head coaching job at Loyola of New Orleans. Of the scandal, he said at the time, “I'll never be able to figure out why we did it. I guess we got caught up in the times. I hurt the game.  Now I'd like to do it some good.”  His chance came in 1959, when he became coach of the Bellarmine College Knights.  “I'm most grateful for this opportunity to coach, especially at such an outstanding college as Bellarmine,” said an elated Groza, undertaking has first coaching job.  Groza's salary was $7,500. “I could be making more in other Jobs,” he said. “But I've learned that money's not everything, and I couldn't be any happier doing anything else. I'd never have been happy if I hadn't tried this. I've overcome what happened to me.”

“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 Groza's leadership, the Knights won the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament and season title, and Groza, at age 36, 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 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. Between 1971 and 1975, Groza coached 40 games with the Kentucky Colonels and San Diego Conquistadors and held a number of front office positions, including becoming the Kentucky Colonels' business manager in 1969 and general manager of the San Diego Conquistadors in 1972 (and, later, San Diego's head coach). Groza was 2–0 as coach of the Colonels but 15–23 as coach of the Conquistadors after replacing Wilt Chamberlain in 1974, putting his career coaching record at 17–23.  He was named general manager of the expansion Conquistadors on August 8, 1972.  In 1975 Groza became director of player development for the San Diego Sails of the ABA.

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

Although Groza lived his final years in San Diego, his ties with Kentucky remained strong.  In 1991, four of the Fabulous Five returned to Lexington to be honored by the U.S. Olympic Committee. Only Barker, who was ailing, couldn't be there. They were cheered heartily by a crowd of about 1,000 at Lexington Center.  “It was great in respect to the feeling of the community,” Groza said. “You heard no boos. (The scandal) was part of our lives. You have to take the good with the bad.  We all survived very, very well.”

In 1992, Groza was elected to the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame.  “I've won many honors,” he said. “I was elected All-American three years and Most Valuable Player of the NCAA Tournament two years, but this honor is the greatest moment in my life as an athlete.”

“I feel I'm home, that you people have done me honor. This was voted on by people who know me, my peers, my friends. Oh, how proud I am to be home tonight!”

Groza died of lung cancer on January 22, 1995 at the age of 68.  He was survived by his wife of 42 years, Jean (Watson) Groza, sons Alex of Santee, California and Lee of Louisville; daughter Leslie Ineman of Carlsbad, California and Lisa Bunney of San Diego; and two granddaughters.

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