Born: October 7, 1926
Died: January 21, 1995
Indianapolis Oympians (NBA): 1949-’51
Alex Groza was bona fide, qualified and without a shadow of a doubt Hall of Fame material. Yet, his NBA career was so short, I couldn’t find a photo of him in the league, hence the University of Kentucky picture.
The brevity of his professional career was in fact due to circumstances arising from his collegiate days. Along with a couple dozen others, Groza was implicated in, and confessed to, point-shaving that occurred in 1949. The scandal didn’t hit until 1951 and Groza, despite his small-time role, was one of the big-time losers.
NBA President Maurice Podoloff banned Groza for life from professional basketball for actions that occurred in amateur basketball. The decision was horribly high-handed and robbed the NBA of one its singular, amazing talents.
But how did it get to that point…
Despite being a two-time all-state basketball player in Ohio and scoring a record amount of points in a season his senior year (628), Groza was turned down by Ohio State, his preferred college. In fact, everyone turned him down for a scholarship except the University of Kentucky. So in 1944, Groza crossed the Ohio River and came to Lexington, Kentucky.
The United States Army, however, interrupted Groza’s freshman year after 10 games and drafted him into service. It was World War II after all. So for the next year-and-a-half, Groza was on an Army base in Texas.
When he returned to Kentucky for the 1946-47 season he had grown 2 inches and gained tons of weight. He was now a majestic 6’7″ tall and 220 lbs. Quite a load at the time and the delighted UK coach, Adolph Rupp, threw Groza in at center.
For his sophomore and junior seasons, Groza averaged respectable 11.6 PPG as a part of Kentucky’s fabled Fabulous Five consisting of Groza, Ralph Beard, Wallace ‘Wah Wah’ Jones, Cliff Barker and Kenny Rollins. In the 1948 season, the Wildcats won 36 of 39 games and captured the national title. Not finished, yet, the Fab Five and coach Adolph Rupp formed the core of the 1948 US Olympic team in London and easily captured the gold medal.
In 1949, Groza’s senior season, the Wildcats went 32-2 and again captured the national title. Without the services of Rollins, who had graduated, Groza stepped up his performance dramatically that season averaging 20.5 points and upped that impressive number to 27 during the NCAA tournament. He was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player for the second consecutive season.
Alex’s leap to the NBA for the 1949-50 season was quite unique. He and the remaining Fabulous Five joined with old teammate Joe Holland and formed the Indianapolis Olympians; the only time players themselves have owned their team in the NBA. Groza’s leap was also unique for the domination he unleashed, even as a rookie.
He averaged 23.4 PPG on 47.8% shooting from the field and 72.9% from the line. The points average placed him second in the league behind George Mikan’s 27.4. The FG% blew away the competition finishing first. The second place finisher was Dick Mehen at 42%. The Olympians finished first in the Western Division with a 39-25 record in the 1949-50 season.
True to form, Groza again upped the ante in the postseason. In the opening best-of-3 series against the Sheboygan Red Skins, Groza salvaged the Olympians in the do-or-die Game 3 with 30 points including going 14-16 from the free throw line. In the Western Division Finals (still best-of-3) the Olympians faced off with the Anderson Packers. Groza proved even more unstoppable in Game 1 of that series, which was a tight contest. The halftime score was 38-37 Indy and the final score was 77-74 in their favor. Alex scored 31 of the Indianapolis’s 77 points to save the day.
Groza put up a stinker, as did the whole Olympians squad, for Game 2 as the Packers blew them out 84-67. For the deciding Game 3, Alex was back in the zone scoring 26 points and hitting 8 of his 9 free throws. Like Game 1, this was a close contest throughout, but unlike the first game, the Packers would overtake Indy and win the game 67-65. For this postseason Groza shot a spectacular and absolutely astonishing 59.5% from the field and 83.1% from the line as he averaged 23 points.
The next season, 1950-51, the Olympians slumped to a 31-37 record finishing 4th in the division. Alex’s FG% and PPG both dipped slightly but he still finished 1st in FG% and 2nd in PPG like the previous year. Groza was also a no-brainer selection to the NBA’s 1st All-Star Game in 1951. In the inaugural classic, Groza scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, leading the West in both categories. Groza also shot .500 from the field, while the rest of the West shot .297. Little surprise the East won 111 to 94.
For the 1950 postseason, Groza was a measure of efficiency not yet seen in the NBA. For the 1951 postseason, with a weakened Olympians squad, he would have to ditch a bit of the efficiency but he remained sensational.
The Olympians drew the worst matchup possible: the defending champion Minneapolis Lakers stacked with Hall of Famers Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard and George Mikan. Despite losing the series, Groza still gave the Lakers all they could handle and then some.
In Game 1, Minneapolis throttled the Olympians 95 to 81. Groza scored a “measly” 19 points. For Game 2, Alex struck back with a fury. He pasted the Lakers for 40 points as Indianapolis ran away with the game 108-88. Opposing center George Mikan, battling through a leg injury, managed just 2 points. For the deciding Game 3, Groza again came up huge with 38 points. Mikan, however, returned to form with 30 and the Lakers edged out the Olympians 85 to 80. That was the last basketball game Groza played in the NBA.
In October just prior to the start of the 1951-52 NBA season, Groza and teammate Ralph Beard were arrested in connection with a point-shaving scandal rocking college basketball. They were accused of, and later admitted to, taking $500 bribes to shave points against Loyola Chicago during their 1949 season at Kentucky. Fully complying with investigators, Groza and Beard were given probation and banned for three years from basketball by a federal judge, who leveled a scathing rebuke of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp:
In a withering attack on Kentucky, Rupp and college athletics in general, [Judge] Street said of the coach who has led Kentucky court teams since 1930:
“The facts are that he aided and abetted in the immoral subsidization of the players. With his knowledge, the charges in his care were openly exploited, their physical welfare was neglected, and he utterly failed to build their characters or instill any morals – indeed if he did not impair them. [emphasis emphatically mine]
In view of his conduct, Mr. Rupp’s sanctimonious attitude before me becomes ludicrous and comic.”
In what has become an all-too-common theme, the supposedly mature and well-paid adult coach who aided, abetted and enabled transgressions of unpaid, youthful players was given a slap on the wrist. Rupp’s Kentucky program was suspended for a single season and he’s sitting pretty in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, Groza and Beard already had a heavier hammer laid upon them by the court’s ruling that they must stay away from basketball for three years.
Then NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff stepped in and, in my opinion, went completely overboard. Groza and Beard were banned for life from the NBA. They were also forced to sell their ownership in the Olympians for a fraction of what it was actually worth. The franchise folded two years later.
A punishment was needed for their transgressions, but the NBA killed an ant with a stick of dynamite instead of just stepping on it. In the process, we lost out on seeing one of basketball’s greatest talents fully develop, maturate and dominate.
Even in his brief time, Groza was definitely the 2nd-best center in basketball and most likely would have surpassed the great George Mikan in his 3rd campaign as the best.
Regular Season 1949-50 and 1950-51
Postseason 1949-50 and 1950-51
Obviously, Groza was the more efficient of the two and this despite having the weaker supporting roster. This isn’t me trying to besmirch the great Mikan, but rather to put into focus and perspective just how amazing Groza was.
His 1951 season averages of 20+ points, 10+ rebounds and 47%+ from the field wouldn’t be accomplished again until Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson showed up a decade later.
The list of players who averaged at least 25 and 10 while shooting over 49% from the field and 80% from the FT line for their postseason career? Albeit in just nine games, the list only includes Groza.
And just one man managed more win shares through his first two seasons than Groza’s 35.9. And even then the great Kareem had a larger schedule (34 more games) with which to edge out Groza out with his 36.1 win shares.
This was just for his first two seasons. His only two seasons after capturing 2 college titles and a gold medal. And dragging an average Olympians team to the Western Division Finals in 1950. And dragging a mediocre Olympians team to within 5 points of dethroning the defending champions in 1951.
It makes you wonder just how much more greatness he had on tap.