Imagine for a moment how you would feel if University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was named the assistant coach of the USA Olympic team and five of his one-and-dones were picked for the Red, White and Blue team.
That is about what happened in 1948 when UK’s most storied team – the Fabulous Five of Alex Groza, Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, Cliff Barker, Ralph Beard and Captain Kenny Rollins – won everything in sight.
The Wildcats won the regular-season Southeastern Conference championship and then the SEC Tournament on the floor of the Jefferson County Armory in Louisville. Remember the Armory floor because it played an important role in making the Wildcats’ trip to London possible for the 1948 Olympics.
The Cats defeated Columbia of the Ivy League 76-53 in the opening game of the 1948 NCAA Tournament. Then the Kentuckians whipped Bob Cousy and his Holy Cross team 60-52 in the semifinals and Baylor 58-42 in the final.
Next came the Olympic Trials in New York, where the Cats defeated Louisville 91-57 and Baylor 77-59.
In the Championship Collegiate Bracket, the Cats were edged 53-49 by an AAU team, the Phillips Oilers, in New York.
In 1948 there were no ESPNs or television networks throwing money around, so to raise expenses for our Olympic team to travel to London for the Olympics, a three-game exhibition series was scheduled. The first game between the Cats and Oilers, the AAU team beat the Cats 53-49 in Tulsa.
In a two-overtime game in Kansas City, the Oilers nipped the Cats 70-69. The third game was scheduled for Lexington. But where to play? Remember that floor at The Armory? Well, someone thought of moving the floor to Stoll Field, UK’s football stadium, and that’s what happened!
With 13,000 fans (the biggest basketball crowd in the south at that time) watching the game – UK bowed to the Oilers 53-49. That meant that the Oilers’ coach Bud Browning would be the head coach of the USA Olympic team and UK’s Adolph Rupp would be the assistant coach.
On the day before the Fabulous Five and Rupp were to leave Lexington for the trip to London, they posed outside Alumni Gym on the UK campus.
Ralph Beard told me that Rupp said, “I would like to thank you @#%&*@ for making me the assistant Olympic coach.”
I went to see Beard for one final goodbye before he left us. I asked him how he wanted to be remembered. He said, “I want people to know that each time I put on a uniform I did the best I possibly could.”
I asked him what out of all his great achievements he was most proud. Quickly (everything he ever did was done with amazing quickness) Beard said that his Olympic gold medal was what he cherished most.
“Podge, it was for our country!”
As for the USA’s competition in the 1948 Olympics, there wasn’t much. Remember, this was the first Olympics since the most devastating war in the history of mankind. World War II had ended just three years before the London Olympics. The city had taken horrible bombing after bombing from 1939 to 1945. And because of World War II the Olympics were cancelled in 1940 at Helsinki, Finland, and again in 1944 in London.
UK finished 1947-48 with a 36-3 record and claimed the world championship.