By GAVIN LAPAILLE
Gold Standard Sports Editor
The bus ride from Louisville to Fort Knox isn’t long, but to Alfred “Butch” Beard, it must have felt like an eternity. The military was never part of his plans, however, there he was, riding south to report for basic training and the unknown scenario that awaited him.
Vietnam was certainly on his mind. How could it not be? The year was 1970, and the war had been ongoing for 15 years now. Many young American males had been shipped to the foreign land. A good portion of them never returned.
It was quite the role reversal for Beard, who was used to doing his battles on the basketball court. He had just finished his rookie season in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, following an All-American career at the University of Louisville and a state championship at Breckinridge County High School. But none of that mattered once he was drafted into the military, and certainly not as he rode the bus to Fort Knox.
More than 40 years later, Beard still remembers that bus ride vividly, and the fear of a potential deployment to Vietnam that hung over his head. He thought about shots that would soon be fired at him, and his likelihood of survival.
Thankfully for Beard, his time in the service did not include Vietnam. He was one of the fortunate ones, to say the least. Still, Beard’s military tenure left an impression that would stay with him during the remaining years of his NBA career, and as an eventual head coach in both the NBA and college.
“You never know what to expect,” Beard said. “When you get in, you have everyone telling you what to do and how to do it. Those 15 months were very good for me.”
Once Beard got off the bus on Fort Knox, he quickly worked to make a positive impression. He was handed a leadership role in basic training, as at 22 years old, he was a bit older than most of his fellow draftees. He was named a platoon guide, and given his own room, helping keep everyone in line at the barracks.
Beard wasn’t sure where his orders would take him after basic training, and considered himself lucky when he was allowed to stay on Fort Knox and work in the messaging center. Many of his former mates ended up fighting in Vietnam, and meeting up with them after they returned reminded Beard of what easily could have been.
“The military treated me well,” Beard said. “After basic, almost everyone who wasn’t in the reserves or National Guard went to Vietnam. I was very fortunate.”
Beard spent his entire 15-month service on Fort Knox, completing the daily rigorous activities of an active duty Soldier and focusing on being the best serviceman he could. He would carry that mindset into the rest of his professional career, and said every young man should spend a year in the military.
“There’s nothing like someone telling you what to do when you don’t want to do it,” Beard said. “There’s nothing like it being 5 a.m. and someone comes running through the barracks waking you up.”
Basketball was never far from Beard’s mind. He helped the Fort Knox team win a tournament against other installations while he was on post, and routinely could be found in gyms working on his game. Beard received an early out from the Army in 1971, allowing him to return to the NBA for the upcoming season.
Despite missing the previous year, the season after his release from the Army turned out to be Beard’s best as a pro. Playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Beard averaged career-highs with 15.4 points and 6.7 assists.
“That discipline helped me prolong my career,” Beard said. “I came back from the Army and made the All-Star team that year.”
Beard went on to play seven more seasons in the NBA, helping the Golden State Warriors win the 1975 championship over the Washington Bullets and former Louisville teammate Wes Unseld.
Beard played the last four years of his NBA career with the New York Knicks, then joined head coach Red Holtzman’s staff as an assistant. He got his first head coaching job in 1990 with Howard University, and he also coached the New Jersey Nets from 1994-96 and Morgan State University from 2001-06.
Beard has since relocated to New York, but stays close to basketball, currently training young players for agents. He also plays a role with the public school system in New York as a mentor, trying to get more of youths into college.
Last year, Beard was named to the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame, and was in attendance when Breckinridge County last made the Sweet 16 basketball tournament in 2011. A ceremony marking the 50-year anniversary of the state title he was part of is planned for next year.
All in all, Beard said he is happy with his professional life and reflects on his career and military life proudly.
“I’m just hanging in there as an old man and doing what I have to do,” Beard said. “Trying to stay active and busy. I have no complaints.”