- Alex Groza
- Hometown (Last School)
- Martins Ferry, OH (High)
- 1944-45, 1946-47, 1947-48, 1948-49
- October 7, 1926
Alex John Groza, nicknamed “The Beak” or “Big Al,” was born October 7, 1926. Groza grew up in Martins Ferry, Ohio and attended Martins Ferry High School. He was the brother of future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Lou Groza.
Alex Groza led the Purple Riders to two undefeated regular seasons and to the Ohio state tournament both years, as Martins Ferry finished 24–1 in 1943 and 26–1 in 1944. In 1944, he scored 628 points, including 41 in one game, and was named first-team All-Ohio. He was honorary captain of the All-Ohio high school team and 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.
He played nine basketball games at UK before getting drafted into the Army in 1945.
Groza was the captain and 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. Groza was three-time All-American and All-SEC, 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.”
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.
In 1949, 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 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 Oklahoma 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 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,” 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.
One of 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 Groza helped the Wildcats roar back to win in Madison Square Garden 62-52 in overtime.
When Groza entered the Army a short time later on January 15, 1945, Rupp was asked why he would miss one player so much.
“You don’t replace a Caruso with a barbershop singer,” Rupp replied.
His departure came five days before Kentucky was to open its defense of the Southeastern conference championship against Tennessee at Knoxville. Coach Adolph Rupp nominated Kenton (Dutch)’ Campbell of Newark. Ohio, to replace Groza at center. Groza spent his military career working in a hospital and playing basketball, earning all-service honors with the Fort Hood, Texas, 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. 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. 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. Groza’s record for career scoring at UK stood until Cotton Nash overtook him in 1964.
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.
In 1949, Hank Iba’s ball-controlling Oklahoma A&M team managed to shackle everyone but Groza in the NCAA championship game. Groza
scored 25 points in a 46-36 victory before a howling crowd of 12,500. 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.
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 fall 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 it 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!”
Alex 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.