I remember these moments as though they just happened last week when in fact, it was more than three decades ago.
Kentucky had signed a promising power forward – McDonald’s All-American, Parade All-American — a kid who could do it all: Shoot, rebound, bang around under the basket and leap out of the gym. I dropped in on one of the first practices of the 1980-81 season to check him out for myself.
I’ll never forget seeing Bret Bearup in action for the first time. He appeared to be as good as advertised and when I left Rupp Arena, I knew exactly what I was going to say on my radio show that night: When it comes to the power forward spot, UK is set for the next four years.
Only, it didn’t work out that way.
Bearup struggled for most of his career, although he did play for Kentucky’s Final Four team in 1984, and was a vital cog in Joe B. Hall’s final UK squad, which pulled off two upsets in the NCAA Tournament.
And now, Bearup is gone too soon, dead at the age of 56. Nobody knows yet what took him. But anyone who knew him remembers, more than his basketball prowess, his wit, charm and easy smile. Bret Bearup was fun.
That’s why I so easily remember a second moment, this one just before he began his “do-over” season. Bearup struggled mightily as a freshman, trying to work his way into a forward rotation that included Sam Bowie, Chuck Verderber, Fred Cowan and Charles Hurt.
After averaging only three points and two rebounds per game, Bearup red-shirted his sophomore season and came back the following year, vowing to stop thinking so much on the court and just unleash the athletic skills that he’d brought from Long Island, N.Y.
That’s probably why, on Media Day in 1982, I wanted to hear what he had to say. I walked up to him as he posed for pictures in his game uniform and asked, “How are you feeling, right about now?” And he said, without hesitation, “I feel like Superman. I feel like I could jump right out of this gym.”
He was always good for a quote. Bearup once assured me that, had the three-pointer been around when he was playing college basketball (he missed it by two seasons), he most certainly would have indulged, as much as possible.
The trey might have helped his game. Roaming the paint near the basket, Bearup was willing to scrap but he never quite found himself. He was a bit player in his redshirt sophomore season, which ended with the loss to Louisville in the original Dream Game.
The following year, with Sam Bowie back in the lineup after a two-season hiatus because of leg injuries, Bearup rarely got off the bench as Kentucky won its way to the Final Four in Seattle. A pre-season case of mononucleosis didn’t help, either.
But when his senior year rolled around, Hall needed him, and Bearup responded, playing more minutes that season than his first three combined. He helped that Kentucky team, Hall’s last as UK head coach, make the NCAA tournament, where the Wildcats upset first Washington and then Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV team before falling to St. John’s.
The numbers were never quite there for Bearup. In fact, in his last game as a Wildcat, playing 19 minutes against the Redmen (as they were known then), he scored just two points and grabbed three rebounds.
A career playing professional basketball never materialized but ultimately, he became an influence in the NBA not even he could have imagined.
A law school graduate, Bearup eventually built a business as a financial adviser to pro athletes, at one point counting Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Elton Brand and Nick Van Exel among his dozens of clients, counseling them on investments such as stocks, bonds, real estate, restaurants and more.
He also became known as a controversial figure at college recruiting events and basketball camps, forging relationships with high school players in the hopes of one day counseling them on their finances. Bearup was neither agent nor recruiter; he had found the coveted gray area not covered by NCAA regulations.
Still, when he began to form high school all-star teams that would play summer games in Europe, Bearup became a 6-foot-8 lightning rod for criticism, particularly from then-South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler, who claimed Bearup was funneling talent to his friend, then-Florida coach Billy Donovan, among others.
“I would say Bret, in a very intelligent, innovative way, has carved a niche in doing something nobody else had done,” Donovan told the New York Daily News.
Bearup later became an adviser to the Denver Nuggets, teaming up with another ex-Wildcat, Rex Chapman, in the team’s front office. He was credited for helping to engineer the trade that brought point guard Chauncey Billups back to Denver.
Bearup and Chapman left the Nuggets in 2010 as the team overhauled its front office, though at the time of his death, he was serving as an adviser to Stan Kroenke, whose company owns the Nuggets, Los Angeles Rams and Colorado Avalanche of the NHL.
Described as a “millionaire who dresses in black and favors good cigars and good scotch,” Bret Bearup fell short as a player. But I’m guessing if I had told him, back in 1982, what kind of career in pro sports truly lay ahead for him, he might have jumped out of the gym, after all.