LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Butch Beard sacrificed the second year of his NBA career to work as an enlisted soldier. He worked in the message center at Fort Knox.

“They drafted me,” Beard said. “They had me come back (from Atlanta) and I stepped forward.”

He stepped forward – unlike Muhammad Ali.

Beard served 15 months, all at Fort Knox in Hardin County, before he returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where Beard averaged 15.4 points and made the NBA all-star game during the 1971-72 season.

A reasonable man could argue that Beard sacrificed a prime year of his career by serving his country.

“The Army helped make me more disciplined,” Beard said. “There is nothing in the world that can get you to understand about life more than to have somebody at 5 o’clock in the morning come running down the middle of the barracks and throw a damn garbage can, waking people to get up and eat.”

Understand, please, that Beard, the pride of Breckinridge County and a former star at the University of Louisville, was not anti-Viet Nam War, anti-military, anti-government or anti-anything.

But also understand that Butch Beard had no quarrel with Muhammad Ali, who famously had no quarrel with the Viet Cong and refused to step forward and serve in 1967.

Once a young, prominent black athlete in Kentucky, Beard still marvels at the things Ali stood for, including his divisive stance against the war. Beard, 69, said he considered Ali “royalty,” the one person who left him tongue-tied when the two men were introduced.

His appreciation and respect for Ali has remained so powerful that Beard said he planned to fly to Louisville from his home in New York City Thursday to attend Ali’s memorial and prayer services.

“He gave up everything,” Beard said. “He was a pariah for 3 ½ years. As that went along, you finally realized, damn, this is what he believes in and now the country has turned on him.

“As a black athlete, I was more inclined to say how strong he was to do that. He just voiced his opinion and everybody jumped against him, mainly because of his religion.

“If he was Cassius Clay, I don’t think it would have been as big. It might have been the same reaction, but it wouldn’t have been as vicious. But he was Muhammad Ali (a converted Muslim and member of the Nation of Islam).”

Ali’s decision stirs howls and X-rated commentary nearly five decades after he chose not to serve. The generations that served in World War I and II didn’t like it – and didn’t get it.

If your country asked you to serve, you served. Save the questions until after your returned home.


But Beard is certain that Ali would have lived as he lived during his time in the service: Based entirely at Fort Knox, away from the bullets, tanks and napalm.

Beard said he was one of the few soldiers in his basic training platoon who was not sent to Southeast Asia.

He said there was a woman that he called “Ma Collier,” who ran the commissary at Fort Knox. Beard said the first time his family visited him on the base, Collier told Beard’s father that Butch had three choices:

Stay at Fort Knox; play basketball for the U.S. Army team or go to Viet Nam to serve in the infantry.

“I said, ‘Dad, I want to stay here,’ “ Beard said.

“I got to know Ma Collier pretty well after that. She always told me that if Ali had come in here he never would have done anything because she would have made sure that he would not have gone any place.

“If he would have gone, all he would have done is what I did. I was there for 15 months. I didn’t do anything (except work in the message center). Never left Fort Knox. Played basketball for the base. Helped them win their first Army title by averaging 36 points.”

Angry? Resentful? Carrying a grudge decades later?

Not Beard. His respect for Muhammad Ali has only grown because the heavyweight champion sacrificed 3 ½ of the prime fighting and earning years without considering a way to play the system. This was during a time when suspicions raged that you could arrange a medical or educational deferment if you had the proper connections -- if you were what they called a "fortunate son."

“This guy gave up his livelihood at his prime for what he believed in,” Beard said.

“You think Michael Jordan would have an opinion on anything? Hell, no, because all he wants somebody to do is buy his damn brand, shoes and stuff because he wants to make money.

“That’s the difference. You don’t have that any more. You don’t have that. I respect what Ali did.”

Yes, he does. And Butch Beard will confirm that respect on his trip to Louisville Thursday and Friday.

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