Those who played basketball for Kentucky in the 1980s have learned the rites and rituals associated with mourning the death of former teammates: Melvin Turpin. Ed Davender. Charles Hurt.
But All-American Kenny Walker noted a difference Saturday night after players, coaches, classmates and family members gathered to remember Bret Bearup.
“No tears tonight,” Walker said with a smile.
About 100 people came to The Club at UK’s Spindletop Hall. The stately mansion befitted a solemn occasion. But laughter filled the wood-paneled Oak Room.
“I know Bret’s here and loving seeing you and hearing you tell stories,” his widow, Beth Ann, told the crowd to begin the evening. Then she added a note of caution. “Crazy PG stories,” she advised.
One by one, people took a microphone and spoke of Bearup, who died last month at age 56.
“Bret was unusual,” former UK Coach Joe B. Hall said. Before Hall could explain, the first of many instances of knowing laughter erupted.
“Bret kind of stood out in an intellectual way,” Hall said. “Fun to be around. But he had a quirky side.”
One of his pranks as a Kentucky player was to bring a dead chicken to Wildcat Lodge and put it under the bed of teammate Jim Master. “He thought that was funny,” Master said as the crowd laughed. “I didn’t see the humor.”
Not that Master failed to appreciate Bearup’s wit and gift for lightening the mood.
Of any story involving Bearup, Master said, “Even if I heard it 44 times, I couldn’t wait to hear it a 45th time.”
Bearup’s mother, Judy, recalled him being in the seventh grade when the school principal called the house.
“I never heard someone stutter so much,” Judy said. Bearup had put dog feces in a bag and placed the bag in the desk of an unsuspecting classmate.
Bearup dreamed of being a baseball player. He turned to basketball after being cut from a baseball team. He was devastated by not making the baseball team, Judy said. But a subsequent growth spurt made basketball a viable option.
Bearup might not have seen the growth spurt as coincidental. He tried to foster his growth by taking melatonin and sleeping on an air mattress in the quiet of the basement on the theory that a good night’s sleep maximized the potential for growth.
As a high-profile recruit, Bearup came to Kentucky in 1980. As a senior for Harborfields (N.Y.) High School, he averaged 28 points and 17 rebounds.
Hall said Bearup had as much talent and potential as any player he coached. Yet, his UK career averages were 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds.
“He could have been a great basketball player if he had focused (on basketball),” Hall said. “He was thinking way above athletics.”
At one point, Bearup’s father came to UK to ask Hall why his son had not blossomed into a basketball star. Hall had a ready answer. He had assistant coach Leonard Hamilton bring a tape of a game against Georgia.
Hall knew exactly the play he wanted to show Bearup’s father. It began with a UK player taking a shot. “Must have been Bret, it missed,” Hall said in keeping with the night’s theme of humor at Bearup’s expense.
The rebound rolled toward Bearup. But a Georgia player retrieved the ball and sped away on a fast break. Where was Bearup? “Bret was tying his shoes,” Hall said. “But that was Bret. And you had to accept that. ... He had other thoughts. Even in the game. Tying his shoes was more important than stopping Georgia.”
Rex Chapman, who after his UK career lived with Bearup for five years in Denver, said his friend made a decision once he realized he would not be a star player for Kentucky. “I decided I’m just going to be a smart (aleck),” Chapman recalled Bearup saying.
As UK coach, Hall did not always appreciate the wisecracks. He preferred a single-minded drive to play well.
Master recalled UK trailing against LSU by double digits at halftime. Hall entered the locker room and said he needed to apologize to the team. This puzzled the players until Hall explained that he was apologizing “for putting Bret Bearup in the game.”
Pat Madden, who attended UK Law School with Bearup, recalled a story. After benching Bearup, Hall asked him a sarcastic question: What team are you playing for?
To which, Bearup replied, “Well, right now, Coach, neither one.”
Bearup’s 22-year-old son, Alex, recalled his father being invited by current UK Coach John Calipari to sit behind the bench for a game. Bearup called the family to tell them to look for him on the game telecast.
To which, Beth Ann’s father had a needling response. “Tell Bret I’ve already seen him sit on the bench,” Alex recalled his grandfather saying.
Yet again, more laughter as the gathering turned Spindletop into a comedy club. No doubt this pleased Beth Ann.
“I like to think this is a big party for Bret,” she said. “A night to remember Bret and share the funny stories.”