Upon first glance, the early history of the NBA would seem to divide neatly into two distinct eras: Laker dominance, followed by Celtic dominance. What gets lost in this glossing over, however, is the critical bridge between them—and the paradigm-altering players who helped basketball evolve from a bone-rattling brawl to the smooth game it is today. One of the key figures in this transitional period was George “The Bird” Yardley, an engineering genius who owned the first great turnaround jumper in the NBA. A 20-point scorer until his final NBA game, George walked away from basketball in the early 1960s and into the shadows of basketball history. For all but the most ardent NBA fans, his achievements did not come to light again for more than three decades, when he was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame. Historian Jim Sargent, who rooted for George Yardley as a young fan, brings his career into sharp focus in this JockBio Classic.

George Harry Yardley III was born November 3, 1928, in Hollywood, California, to George and Dorothy Yardley. George’s father was something of a Midwest sports legend, becoming the first person to captain the football and basketball teams at the University of Chicago. George was an athletic child, though he did not play organized ball until high school. Like most children of means in Southern California, he was handy with a tennis racket. He later took up golf.

George enrolled at Newport Harbor High in 1942, playing football, basketball and tennis for the school teams. As a senior in 1945-46, he made the All-Sunset League First Team as well as earning Third Team All-CIF honors. Tall and skinny with long, loping strides, he did not attract serious scholarship consideration from any colleges, but was proficient enough as a student to earn acceptance to Stanford University, where he would earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering.

George made Everett Dean’s varsity basketball squad as a sophomore in 1947-48, and was named to the All-Conference Second Team as a junior. His best season came as a senior in 1949-50, when he was co-captain with Gus Chavalas. The squad also included Jim Ramstead, a talented junior. George scored 237 of his team-high 423 points in Pacific Coast Conference games, breaking the PCC scoring mark of Stanford legend Hank Luisetti.

Luisetti was famed for introducing the running one-handed shot to basketball. George did not have the moves of his fellow Stanford alum. Instead, he was an early master of the turnaround jumper. He got off the floor very quickly for a man his size, and with his long arms could shoot over most defenders at will. Though he could not know it at the time, the turnaround was tailor-made for the game that would evolve after the 24 second clock was introduced to pro ball. In 1949-50, George’s jumper was good enough for 16.9 points per game and honorable mention as an All-American. He finished his college career with 820 points.

It was at Stanford that George acquired his nickname, “Bird.” Contrary to stories that circulated later, it did not come from his leaping ability, nor was it a reflection of his flamingo-like frame. The tag had nothing to do with basketball. In the fall of 1946, as a 17-year-old pledging a fraternity, George was younger than most frosh, because many of them were World War II veterans. Usually he got stuck with the dirty jobs. His ex-soldier roomie said guys who did the dog work in the Army were called “yardbirds.” Yardley was dubbed “Yardbird,” which was shortened to “Bird.”

In the spring of 1950, George was the first draft pick of the Ft. Wayne Pistons. Other first-rounders that year included Paul Arizin, Bob Cousy and Larry Foust. Hesitant to move east, and wary of the low salaries being paid by the pros—especially after the absorption of the National Basketball League by the newly renamed National Basketball Association—George worked locally and played AAU ball for the San Francisco Stewart Chevrolet team, which was coached by Luisetti. He averaged 13.1 points in 1950-51 and led his team to the AAU national title.

In the semifinals of the 44th annual AAU tourney, played in Denver, Yardley was the biggest star. Against the Phillips 66ers and their famed seven-foot center Bob Kurland, he scored 25 points and, showing his quickness, made several steals. The San Francisco club won, 66-63, in three overtimes, thanks to a pair of clutch free throws by George in the final minute. Rob Yardley, George’s son, recalled that his father considered this victory over Kurland’s team—the defending champion and winner of seven of the eight previous AAU tournaments—to be his “finest moment.”

George Yardley

In the AAU finals, George burned the nets for 32 points—including 20 in the first half—and the Stewart Chevrolets ran away from the Colorado Collegians (players from Colorado A&M), 76-55. George, said the Los Angeles Times, “turned in a spectacular all-around game and with his amazing jumps took the ball off both backboards with phenomenal regularity.” The Bird was named tournament MVP and was honored as an AAU All-American for the season.

George continued to rebuff Fred Zollner’s attempts to sign him for the Pistons. To a man with an engineering degree and a shot at making the Olympic team, the $6,000 being offered by Ft. Wayne (about 50 percent more than the average NBA salary) was not particularly tempting.

Before the 1951-52 season, George decided to enlist in the Navy and fulfill his military obligation while playing ball for Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. He led the Chevrolets back to the AAU tournament and won All-American honors again. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken hand in the last game of the AAU season, ending his Olympic dream. Bob Kurland, Clyde Lovellette, and other college and AAU stars won the Olympic gold medal for America with relative ease in 1952.

In 1952-53, George led Los Alamitos to its first ever All Service title, and a second-place finish in the national AAU tournament. On March 21, 1953, playing in the finals, again at Denver, Los Alamitos fell to the defending champion Peoria (Illinois) Diesel Cats, 73-62.

George led all scorers with 29 points. According to the Chicago Tribune, when the erstwhile Stanford whiz left the game in the final minutes, the enthusiastic crowd of 6,500 gave him a “thunderous ovation.” After the game, when he came forward to receive his trophy as an AAU All-Star, chairman Lou Wilke called George “the greatest basketball player in the world today,” prompting another huge ovation from the appreciative audience.

That summer, George joined a tour of South America with a team of amateur All-Stars. He later told the Los Angeles Times they played before 20,000 fans in Buenos Aires, and Juan Peron, Argentina’s dictator, invited the Americans to his villa for a weekend. At this point, George had decided to turn pro. Having received national recognition as an outstanding player, he waited until a salary was offered commensurate with his reputation. He stayed in shape playing beach volleyball, and he married his longtime sweetheart, Diana Gibson. On Saturday, August 29, 1953, the couple exchanged vows in Westwood, California. They had been introduced by their grandmothers.

Two days later, the Pistons announced that they had signed George. The figures, not made public, included a $9,500 salary—more than double the NBA’s average at that time—and a $1,500 bonus. By the end of his career he would nearly triple that salary, earning as much as $28,000 in 1958—a very good pro sports salary for the decade.

Hank Luisetti Book



George was part of an exciting influx of amateur talent in 1953-54. Also joining the NBA that season were AAU superstars Clyde Lovellette, Ernie Barrett, Walt Davis and Don Sunderlage. George joined a good Pistons team coached by Paul Birch. Veteran guards Andy Phillip and Fred Scolari handled backcourt duties, with Max Zaslofsky joining the team during the year and taking over from Scolari as the starter. The Pistons’ front line included center Larry Foust and forwards Don “Monk” Meineke (the reigning Rookie of the Year), Mel Hutchins (the NBA’s best defensive forward), and rookie Jack Molinas, an exciting star drafted in the first round out of Columbia University.

George failed to become a regular at first. Molinas, a terrific finesse player and a talented offensive rebounder, made the starting lineup ahead of George, despite a complete disinterest in playing defense. This irked his Ft. Wayne teammates, who felt he was not earning his points at the other end of the court. But coach Birch, who was instrumental in drafting Molinas, gave his man carte blanche.

Andy Phillip, Bowmsn Card

George’s playing time finally increased in the second half of the year, after Molinas, accused of wagering on Pistons game, was suspended on January 10, 1954, by commissioner Maurice Podoloff. George played in 63 of the team’s 72 regular season games, averaging 9.0 points and 6.5 rebounds. The Pistons finished third in the NBA’s four-team Western Division with a record of 40-32. The NBA, whittled down to nine teams at this point, adopted a confusing round-robin playoff format involving three teams from each division. The Pistons lost two games to the Rochester Royals and two to the Minneapolis Lakers, who went on to defeat the New York Knicks in the finals for the NBA title. George was entrenched at forward by this time, and he tied for the team lead with 42 postseason points.

Although George made his mark on the league as a rookie, he must have had second thoughts about playing in the NBA. The 1953-54 season marked a low point for the league in terms of the quality of play. Anyone coming within 10 feet of the basket could count on being hammered, thus neutralizing driving guards and forwards and turning the foul lane into a back-alley brawl. Referees let the players go at it, knowing if they whistled every foul, the fans would boo the endless free throw shooting that would result. These were the days of the one-shot foul, so anyone with a decent chance of scoring a basket was usually hacked before getting a good look. With no shot clock, the end of games either came down to foul-shooting contests or out-and-out stalls.

This scenario spelled potential disaster for the NBA, which had just signed its first-ever TV deal with NBC. Basketball fans that gravitated from college to the pros after the NCAA scandals of 1950-51 hated the action they were seeing on the court. And when the Molinas story broke, the NBA could no longer claim it was “clean.”

George was appalled by the violence he encountered in his first season. “The first time around the league as a rookie, they just didn't push you around—they hit you with a clenched fist in the face,” he later told the Los Angeles Times, adding that he received 100 stitches to his face during his career.

“The weak didn't make it,” he said.

The NBA had to do something. During the following year, the 1954-55 season, the 24-second shot clock was introduced, and it revolutionized the league. From a game dominated for decades by the buffalo, pro ball now belonged to the gazelle. And although there would always be a place in the NBA for the bruising, physical defender and rebounder, a team could no longer afford to put too many thugs on the court. Time was, quite literally, running out on this approach.

For players like George, the shot clock changed everything. It enhanced the value of players who could create their own shot and the value of players who could get open looks for their teammates. George fell into the former category. He was comfortable shooting the ball squared-up, on the move, leaning one way or the other, and, of course, starting with his back to the defender and spinning as he rose off the hardwood. In 1954, he was one of the few shooters in the league who were willing and able to fire up high-percentage shots within 24 ticks. And this would make George a star of an entirely new magnitude.

About his shooting ability, George later recalled, “I was one of the best jumpers in the league, and I could move my body to one side or the other when I was shooting and still control my shot, which helped me shoot over other players.”

Jack Molinas Book

As was the case with many early players, George utilized the backboard a lot. “I think you can shoot the ball harder and with more accuracy by using the backboard,” he said, “because your distance doesn’t have to be exact, since you can put it off the board and it will bounce into the basket. I didn’t bank it on straight-on shots or from the baseline, but I usually hit the board on shots anywhere between the baseline and out front.”

Frank Ramsey, Boston’s great sixth man who came to the NBA a year after George and ended up shooting his way into the Hall of Fame, described for Terry Pluto in Tall Tales the Yardley technique: “George had a turnaround jumper—he took it right in your face. He just jumped over you and shot like the guys do today.”

George was not only the right man at the right time, but he was also in the right place. Fred Zollner hired a new coach, former NBA referee Charley Eckman. Despite his inexperience, he knew enough about pro basketball to recognize that, with the new 24-second rule in place, the Pistons would be better off if he kept the team loose with jokes and simply let the veterans freelance. Indeed, years later Eckman would boast that his team did not call any set plays; but one season earlier, this would have been unthinkable. For George, it meant freedom on the offensive end. It also meant, more than ever, he would be a target for fists and elbows. It was a trade-off he was apparently willing to accept.

At first, Eckman did not know what to make of George. “He was such a skinny, chalky-white bastard that you thought he was dying from malnutrition,” he said for Terry Pluto’s Tall Tales. Also, George, who was easy going off the court and apparently relaxed on the court, was actually a very intense competitor. Often he got sick just before a game, so Eckman kept a case of Ginger Ale or 7-Up on hand for George, just in case. The coach once observed, “When he goes so far as to toss his cookies, well, then we know he’s going to play a hell of a game. It’s when he doesn’t get sick that we worry.”

But soon George’s value to the team became apparent. He led the Pistons with 17.3 points per game, and combined with Foust and Hutchins to haul down nearly 30 rebounds a night. At guard, Phillip proved to be a superb set-up man. The Pistons were talented and deep. They blended an undisciplined-yet-effective offense with the NBA’s best defense and went 43-29 to finish three games in front of the defending champion Minneapolis Lakers in the West. The Lakers were without George Mikan, who retired after the 24-second shot was instituted. He had no taste for sprinting up and down the court three or more times every minute and correctly anticipated the game was passing him by.

After a first-round bye, the Pistons defeated the Mikan-less Lakers in the playoffs, playing their two home games away from Ft. Wayne, in Elkhart and Indianapolis, because their gym was unavailable for postseason games. The lack of a homecourt advantage nearly cost them in Game Two, as they needed an extra period to down Minneapolis 98-97. The Lakers took Game Three with an overtime victory of their own, but the Pistons came back to finish off the best-of-five series with a 105-96 victory.

This earned Ft. Wayne a berth in the NBA Finals against the Syracuse Nationals. It may not have been a coincidence that Danny Biasone, the man who sold the league on the shot clock, was part owner of the Nats. Like the Pistons, Syracuse was made for the new game. Coach Al Cervi’s squad had skilled players at several key positions, including Dolph Schayes at forward, Paul Seymour and George King in the backcourt, and young Johnny Kerr off the bench. Earl Lloyd and Red Rocha functioned as enforcers.

The finals opened in Syracuse with George and the Pistons looking to grab the momentum. They had Game One under control until benchwarmer Dick Farley entered the game for the Nats in the fourth quarter. He sparked his club to an 86-82 comeback victory. The Nationals got a big game from Schayes and a clutch shot by Rocha to take Game Two, 87-84.

George Yardley Booklet

The Pistons limped back to their new home away from home (Indianapolis) and proceeded to turn the tables on the Nationals. Hutchins starred in a 96-89 Game Three victory, and the Pistons knotted the series with a 109-102 shootout in Game Four. Game Five saw Fort Wayne establish a 15-point lead in a tense defensive struggle, only to have the Nats storm back and threaten to steal the game. Their momentum was final broken by an irate Pistons fan, who threw his folding chair onto the court and had to be escorted from the arena. The Pistons held on for a 74-71 win and a 3–2 series lead, but the last two games would be played in Syracuse.

Back home in their cramped arena, the Nationals were brimming with confidence. The Pistons had not won in their building in six seasons, and there was no reason to expect that this trend would change. In Game Six, there was a glimmer of hope for Ft. Wayne, but that ended when a fight between Don Meineke and Wally Osterkon woke up the crowd and the team, and the Nats evened the series with a 109-104 win.

George had played well throughout the postseason, and was seen by many as a key to the Pistons Game Seven hopes. The Nats obviously agreed, as they gave him special defensive attention and limited him to just nine points. However, the focus on George opened up opportunities for other Fort Wayne players, and the Pistons found themselves with a 17-point advantage early in the second half. Cervi inserted Farley and another super-sub, Billy Kenville, and their energy quickly turned the game around. The Nats took a 91-90 lead on a pair of Schayes free throws, then fouled George, who sank his shot to tie the game at 91-91 with less than a minute left. Syracuse went ahead after guard George King converted one of two free throws with 12 seconds left. When King and Paul Seymour batted the inbounds pass away from Andy Phillip, the buzzer sounded and the Pistons lost, 92-91.

Fort Wayne paced the West again in 1955-56, but with a mark of just 37-35. George topped all Piston scorers at 17.4 points, with Foust a close second at 16.2. The team’s backcourt was revamped with the release of Zaslofsky and diminished playing time for Brian. Rookie Chuck Noble was inserted in the starting lineup and Corky Devlin spelled Phillip, who was now 33 years old. Neither Noble nor Devlin was drafted, making Eckman’s team as walk-ons.

After a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Pistons met the St. Louis Hawks, who had dispatched the Lakers in the first round. Mikan had returned for Minneapolis, but was no longer an impact player. The Hawks, on the other hand, had a couple of talented scorers in Bob Petit and Jack Coleman, and a couple of razor-sharp bench players in Jack McMahon and Alex Hannum—both of whom would go on to coach NBA champions. St. Louis gave the Pistons all they could handle in the best-of-five series, taking the first two games before dropping the final three.

Waiting for the Pistons in the finals were the Philadelphia Warriors. They were going to be trouble. The team had the two biggest guards in the league—Tom Gola and Jack George—along with forward Paul Arizin and center Neil Johnston. Gola, a center in college, was a player built for the new NBA, as was Arizin. Like George, they were capable of scoring whenever they touched the ball. Johnston, an old-style hookshot artist, gave the Warriors an added dimension in the pivot.

In the opener, the Pistons dug in on defense and built a double-digit lead. Philadelphia coach George Senesky had obviously studied Fort Wayne’s last trip to the finals, because he inserted a high-energy substitute named Ernie Beck. Beck started hitting shots and getting the home crowd into the game, and the Warriors were in control the rest of the way to a 98-94 win.

Game Two, in Fort Wayne, went to the Pistons. George was the man, calmly hitting two clutch free throws with 42 seconds left. The Warriors put the ball in Beck’s hands again, but this time the magic was not there. Devlin stole the ball and drove for what should have been the deciding layup, but missed the shot. The Warriors called time and set up one final play. They inbounded the ball, and Arizin drove under the bucket. According to the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, “Yardley blocked his shot and gained possession of the ball. The Pistons held it up for the few seconds needed for the final buzzer.” George’s game-high 30 points, 19 rebounds, late free throws, and defensive gem had preserved an 84-83 victory.

Dolph Schayes Autographed Photo

The teams returned to Philadelphia for Game Three, and once again it was close, with the Warriors winning 100-96 on 27 points from Arizin. Piston fans greeted their team for Game Four, expecting them to even the series. Philadelphia had never enjoyed much success in their building, but Arizin proved unstoppable again, leading his club to a 107-105 victory with 30 points. A late rally by the Pistons fell just short. The Warriors wrapped things up 98-88 in the City of Brotherly Love, ending a brief but closely contested final. George led the team in scoring for the series, and he was Fort Wayne’s overall postseason leader, averaging 23.0 in 10 playoff games.

In 1956-57, the Pistons tied for first in the West, although the three top teams, Fort Wayne, St. Louis, and Minneapolis, all finished with losing marks of 34-38. For the season, George again topped the club in scoring, averaging 21.5 points on 41 percent shooting. He finished fifth in the league scoring race. He also averaged 10.5 rebounds, which ranked ninth in the NBA. The Pistons still had a great front line, with Foust, Hutchins and Bobby Houbregs joining George, but the guard situation remained in flux. Andy Phillip was dealt to the Celtics, and Gene Shue was brought in from the Knicks to run the offense. Noble and Devlin were still in the mix, along with Billy Kenville, but the team failed to get reliable production from its guards all year long.

With first place in the West undetermined at season’s end, two tiebreaker games were played. The Hawks beat Fort Wayne 115-103 in the first and Minneapolis in the second tiebreaker, 114-111, to claim the division championship. That left the Pistons and Lakers to go at it in the opening round of the playoffs. The Pistons bowed out after losing a pair of barnburners to the Lakers by scores of 131-127 and 110-108. The finale came on March 19, 1957, at Memorial Coliseum. Dick Schnittker of Minneapolis missed a free throw with four seconds to play, but teammate Clyde Lovellette grabbed the rebound away from Larry Foust and dunked it, giving Minneapolis a 109-108 lead. The Pistons called two timeouts trying to set up a final shot, but the second timeout was one too many. Shooting the technical, Schnittker scored a free throw for the game’s final margin.

Paul Arizin, Upper Deck Century Legends Card

For the 1957-58 season, Fred Zollner moved the Pistons franchise to Detroit, where the club shared Olympia Stadium with the Red Wings. In the final standings, the Pistons slipped a game to a 33-39 record, tying the transplanted Cincinnati Royals, who moved from Rochester in 1957, for second place. The Hawks led the West at 41-31, thanks to fine seasons by Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan. They would go on to win the championship that spring.

Charlie Eckman did not make it through the year. He was replaced by Red Rocha after winning just nine of the first 25 games. Under Rocha, the Pistons improved their record to 34-38.

T he Pistons were a profoundly different club in a number of ways. Gone were Foust, Hutchins and Devlin—dealt away for point guard Dick McGuire, rebounding specialist Harry Gallatin, and two of the league’s early African-American stars, Sweetwater Clifton and Walter Dukes.

In a lineup that often featured a trio of 30-something ex-Knicks, George, now 29, became Detroit’s go-to guy. His high game was a 52-point performance against Syracuse on February 4. He hit for 48 against the Nats two weeks later. George also netted 51 against Boston on January 15, despite being guarded for much of the game by Bill Russell. He also blitzed St. Louis for 48 and 44 points and burned Minneapolis for 49, 44, 43, and 41-point nights.

By early March, George was within striking range of the NBA scoring mark. On March 6th, the Bird set a new NBA single-season record during his 49-point night against the Lakers in Minneapolis. He eclipsed the old mark of 1,932 on the home floor of its former owner, George Mikan, who achieved this figure in 1950-51. George also set a new season mark for free throws in this contest, sinking 11 for a total of 635. He finished the year with 655. Dolph Schayes held the old record of 625 in a season.

At the Boston Garden on March 8, the Celtics, in a nationally televised game, defeated the Pistons, 108-103. With the East title already clinched, Boston’s primary focus was on defending George. It worked as the Pistons’ ace could score 22. But the next day, in Detroit’s regular season finale at Syracuse, George broke the once seemingly impossible 2,000-point barrier. He started with 13 in the first quarter, but the Nationals’ Earl Lloyd held him to one free throw in the second period.

George needed nine points when the fourth quarter opened. With three minutes to go, he still needed two. He decided to trail a Syracuse play, hanging at half court in hopes of getting an outlet pass behind the Nats’ guards for an uncontested shot. “I cherry-picked on them,” George admitted in a 1995 interview. “It was a dunk, which was doubly pleasing because they were really making a big effort not to let me make it.”

In the last minute, he knocked down a free throw, boosting his regular season total to 2,001. George topped the NBA in scoring with a 27.8 average, ahead of Schayes and Pettit, who finished at 24.9 and 24.6, respectively. Recalling the 1957-58 season, George remained modest: “That was my best scoring year,” he observed, “but we didn’t have as many guys who could shoot well that season, so you didn’t have to share the ball as much.”

He also downplayed his 2,001 point achievement: “Bob Pettit was a little behind me the year I scored the 2,000, and he broke his arm near the end of the season, so I was lucky. Had he continued playing and not broken his arm, he might have been the first one to score 2,000. But as it worked out, I broke 2,000 first.”

George Yardley’s’s mark would last one year, as a healthy Pettit scored 2,105 the following season. Jack Twyman and Wilt Chamberlain would obliterate Pettit’s record one year afterward.

While George shot well in 1957-58 (41.4 percent), the next year he pressured himself to repeat as the league’s top scorer, and his numbers fell. He also suffered a series of physical ailments, including hypoglycemia and asthma. Recalling that season in 1995, he said the illnesses were at least partly psychosomatic. Yet he kept trying to play, because that’s what pros had to do. In a January 25th game against the Celtics, George broke his left (non-shooting) hand in a scramble under the basket in the second quarter. He was summoned to Fred Zollner’s box on his way to the dressing room for medical treatment. “You’re through as far as I’m concerned,” barked Zollner. “I never want to see you again.”

George, who never liked Detroit as well as he did Fort Wayne, was happy to go. On February 13, 1959, he was traded to Syracuse for swingman Ed Conlin. Wearing a light arm cast, George played the remaining 11 regular season games for the Nats.

Teamed with Dolph Schayes on Syracuse’s front line, George was revitalized in the playoffs, averaging more than 25 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game. The Nats killed the Knicks in the first round, then extended the eventual-champion Celtics to seven games in the Eastern finals. A blown 16-point lead in the first half and a missed layup by Syracuse in the final moments of the deciding game was all that stood between George and a third shot at an NBA championship. He and Schayes combined for 67 points in the finale, but it simply was not enough.

“I recall that we led by quite a bit in that seventh game, and we easily could have won that game,” George said years later. “That was the best team I ever played on, no question about it.”

“George was a scoring machine,” Schayes told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “Teams couldn’t defend us. If they concentrated on me, George scored 20. If they concentrated on George, I scored 20.”

George Yardley Souvenir Photo

George returned to Syracuse for the 1959-60 season—his last in the NBA—and averaged 20.2 for a terrific team coached by Paul Seymour. Besides Schayes, the Nats had Johnny Kerr, Larry Costello, Dick Barnett and Hal Greer in uniform. They finished 45-30, but fell to Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs. George shot poorly against Philadelphia, averaging just 13.3 points and spending significant minutes on the bench. He just could not get it going.

It was a great disappointment. Except for the playoffs, George has fond memories of the 1959-60 campaign. “I thought I was still playing better all the time,” he maintained. “I think I had my best year in my last year. We had a better team and I didn’t get to shoot as much, and I played the defensive forward. So I had to play all the tough guys, and I scored about 20 points a game, which I still think was my best season.
“The only reason I quit after the 1959-60 season is that I had promised my wife Diana I would retire before the kids [Marilyn, twins Robert and Richard, and Anne] started school. Otherwise, we would have them starting school in California, pull them out and bring them to Syracuse, and pull them out in the spring and go back to California to school.”

George had been working as an engineer in the off-season and purchased his own business during the last season. His company represented people who manufactured products for use in the energy field. “I started my business, the George Yardley Company, for three months of my last year,” he once explained. “I took over the company on January 1, 1960. I played for three and a half months with Syracuse, and then retired.”

George Yardley Schick Card

George was not banking on his NBA reputation to drive his business. On the contrary, he was recognized in engineering circles for his expertise in missiles—a boom industry during the Cold War. His contributions to the perfection of the liquid oxygen seal enabled the U.S. to deploy its Titan ICBMs.

George remained active physically for the rest of his life. In fact, he worked out with the Lakers during 1960-61, the year the team moved to Los Angeles. Diana agreed to her husband playing one more pro season, but Syracuse owned his rights and wanted Elgin Baylor in return. So George simply practiced with the club during much of his first season back on the coast.

One year later, a new opportunity to play pro ball emerged with the formation of the American Basketball League. An invention of entrepreneur Abe Saperstein, it featured a team in Los Angeles called the Jets. Bill Sharman had retired from the Celtics in order to coach the club. Among the ABL’s innovations was a three-point line. George found the possibility of joining the Jets intriguing. He cut a deal to suit up for home games and to accompany the team on the road when he could incorporate business into the itinerary. George scored 482 points for the Jets in his final pro season.

Yardley Company Logo

In 1996, George Yardley received the long overdue honor of induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In addition to his sparkling college and AAU achievements, he was an NBA All-Star six times and All-NBA twice, averaging 19.8 points per game in the regular season and 20.3 in the playoffs.

Former coach and teammate Dick McGuire later said he liked George because he was a great shooter who didn’t “hog the ball.” If George saw a teammate with a better shot, he would almost always pass off.

I first learned about George Yardley when I was a senior at Kearsley High in Flint, Michigan, in 1957, the year the Pistons moved to Detroit. During the 1957-58 basketball season, when Yardley inspired legions of followers with his record-breaking 2,001-point performance, I played for our church’s team and led the Flint YMCA Senior Boys League with an average of 18.7 points. Taking my cue from Detroit’s superstar, I wore a jersey with his number 12.

In 1995, after I interviewed Yardley, a friendly and down-to-earth former pro athlete and big time businessman, I wrote an article about his career for Sports Collector’s Digest. The editors added the subtitle “When White Men Could Jump” to my title of “George ‘The Bird’ Yardley.” When he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996, those present for the ceremony saw a picture of my article’s front page as the first screen in the Hall of Fame’s Yardley video clip.

Later, George sent me a signed NBA ball that I will always treasure. His inscription says, “To Jim – without whom I would not be in the Hall of Fame.”

A generous, dedicated family man as well as a sports legend, George Yardley will always be my basketball hero.

—Jim Sargent.


Bill Sharman Book


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