George Yardley

Born: November 3, 1928
Died: August 13, 2004
Position: Small Forward
Professional Career:
Fort Wayne Pistons (NBA): 1953-’57
Detroit Pistons (NBA): 1957-’59
Syracuse Nationals (NBA): 1959-’60
Los Angeles Jets (ABL): 1961-’62

George Yardley
George Yardley

The one thing I’m most proud of as a coach is playing Yardley. He became the first player to score 2,000 points in a season, and he was such a skinny, chalky-white bastard that you thought he was dying from malnutrition.

– Fort Wayne Pistons coach Charley Eckman in Tall Tales

George Yardley was indeed the first player to score 2000 points in an NBA season. The Bird, as the fleet forward was called, pulled off the feat in the 1957-58 season. In the final game of the year, he needed 25 points to reach the 2000-point mark. Against the Syracuse Nationals, he scored 26 points and ended the year with 2001 points on 27.8 points per game.

That little factoid can be Yardley’s calling card, but the swingman deserves to be remembered for so much more.

Along with Philadelphia Warrior forward Paul Arizin, Yardley was a pioneer of off-the-dribble jump shooting. As Yardley himself once attested, Arizin and he were the only guys who took their jump shots at the apex of their jump instead of while shooting on the way up.

Seems like a small, insignificant thing. However, it was another important evolution of shooting. Shooting while going up meant the shot was more pushed than released. At the apex required greater strength from the arms, wrists, and hands rather than letting the legs provide the momentum.

Given his shooting and scoring methods, Yardley was probably the most athletic slasher and shooter in the mid-1950s NBA.

George Yardley

Aside from his jumping shot, he possessed a lightning-quick first step. This put defenders in a bind since Yardley could nail his jumper standing still, but if you closed out too hard he would blow by you in a hurry to the basket. And even if you did recover, Yardley was a beast at making off-balance or fading away jumpers. Basically, he’s the antecedent for players like Reggie Miller, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant who love to fire up jump shots from a litany of contorting angles.

Yardley spent the majority of his career with the Fort Wayne Pistons, had a  short stint in Detroit after the Pistons relocated there in 1957, and closed out his brief seven-year career with the Syracuse Nationals. The brevity is partly because he had to serve two years in the Navy thus delaying the start of his career and partly because he retired early to start his own engineering company.

He still packed those seven years with significant achievement. He was a six-time all-star and played in back-to-back NBA Finals with the Pistons in 1955 and 1956. The first of those was a nail-biting seven-game series with Fort Wayne against Syracuse. The Pistons lost the final game by one point. The next season the Pistons again lost to the Philadelphia Warriors in a much-closer-than-it-looks five games. They lost three of the four games by a combined eight points. The Yardbird was absolutely beastly in the ’56 Finals, despite the negative result for his Pistons. He averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds in the five-game series.

As his career wound down, Yardley helped lead the Pistons – now in Detroit – to the Western Division Finals in 1958. In 1959, after the trade to Syracuse, Yardley injected the Nationals with enough punch to nearly knock off the emerging Celtics Dynasty. Yardley averaged 26 PPG in the Eastern Division Finals against in Boston in ’59. In the decisive Game 7, Syracuse lost by a mere 5 points on Boston’s home court. Yardley was superb with 32 points in the narrow loss.

When Yardley did finally step away from the NBA after the 1960 season, he still had plenty of juice left averaging 20 points and eight rebounds on career-highs in FG% and FT%. His 20.2 PPG that year made him the first player to retire while averaging over 20 PPG in his final season. Since then he’s been joined by only Bob Pettit, Rudy LaRusso, Paul Arizin, and Michael Jordan.

And yet, Yardley wasn’t quite done with pro basketball just yet. He joined the Los Angeles Jets of the upstart American Basketball League in the 1961-62 season. George swooped in and averaged 19.2 points in 25 games before the Jets prematurely folded due to financial trouble.

What’s most intriguing of Yardley’s brief sojourn in the ABL was the three-point shot. The ABL was the first pro league to use the three-pointer and Yardley made 14 of 37 attempts that year for a cool average of 37.8%. Yardley was already an offensive menace. Imagine him with a three-pointer to his already impressive arsenal.

As it stands, Yardley was damn good enough and one of the best scoring small forwards in basketball history.

Honors

All-NBA 1st Team (1958)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1957)
6x All-Star (1955-’60)

Statistics

Regular Season Career Averages (497 games):
19.2 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 1.8 APG
.499 TS%, .421 FG%, .378 3PT%, .781 FT%
20.5 PER, .178 WS/48

Playoff Career Averages (46 games):
20.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.4 APG
.507 TS%, .422 FG%, .817 FT%
20.7 PER, .174 WS/48

Bob Cousy

Born: August 9, 1928
Position: Point Guard
Professional Career:
Boston Celtics (NBA): 1950-’63
Cincinatti Royals (NBA): 1969-’70

Bob Cousy

When George Mikan retired from the NBA in 1954, the NBA lost its first great star. The man ssuming Mikan’s massive place as the Face of the NBA, was surprisingly only 6’1″ tall. Well, only surprising if you accounted for stature. If you counted for talent and wizardry, then it’s not the least bit shocking that Bob Cousy mesmerized NBA fans in the 1950s and became the league’s big star.

The Cooz captivated crowds with his straight-from-the-playground theatrics. He never did these things for show, however. It was perfectly natural for Cousy to dribble behind the back and flip no-look passes. Elevating to dump dimes by dropping them over his head were legitimately done not for showmanship. These types of dazzling displays were genuinely natural Cousy. It’s how the game made sense to him. The deceitful pass beguiled the opponent and therefore gave his team the advantage.

Cooz

Cousy’s breathtaking passing has always, and rightly, held supreme over his ability to score. However, he was a fearful scorer. From 1951 to 1959 he finished in the top 10 in points per game seven times topping out in 1954 and 1955 with back-to-back second-place finishes. All the while, Cousy was leading the league in assists per game for eight straight years, 1953 through 1960.

Only Nate Archibald, Wilt Chamberlain, and Oscar Robertson have also finished so high in PPG and APG simultaneously. And of course, the Cooz was the first of these four to accomplish it.

The Houdini of the Hardwood helped transform the Boston Celtics from bottom dwellers in the East to perennial contenders. Along with Ed Macauley and Bill Sharman he formed the first of Boston’s many fabled Big 3s. And although Cousy ended his Celtics career with six titles, it was a rough road to that glory.

The Cousy-Sharman-Macauley Celtics always made the playoffs from 1951 to 1956, but were always thwarted, particularly by the Syracuse Nationals. The team was an offensive juggernaut, but was a sieve on the defensive end. Sharman more than held his own on both ends, but Cousy and Macauley just weren’t good enough on defense. That agony finally faded when Boston traded Macauley for Bill Russell while also drafting Tommy Heinsohn in 1957. With the team finally finding the right balance of offense and defense, the Celtics were better than ever winning the title in ’57 and Cousy won his only MVP award that same season.

It came not a moment too soon. After the numerous playoff failures, the Celtics management contemplated breaking up the most expensive roster in the NBA if they lost the 1957 Finals. The ultimate victory was particularly sweet as Boston swept their longtime tormenters, the Nationals, in the Eastern Division Finals. After breaking though that year, though, Cousy enjoyed five more championship victories over the next six years, finally retiring in 1963.

It’s often hard for those of us today to fully appreciate just how out-of-this-world Cousy was as a rookie 1951. His moves don’t seem as miraculous 60 years later. His 9.5 APG were earth-shattering in 1960, but have since become routine. The best we can do is remind ourselves that once upon a time in Beantown, NBA fans were dazzled by a Houdini of the Hardwood with never before seen tricks and left everyone spellbound.

Honors

MVP (1957)
6x Champion (1957, 1959-’63)
10x All-NBA 1st Team (1952-’61)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1962-’63)
13x All-Star (1951-’63)
2x All-Star Game MVP (1954, 1957)

Statistics

Regular Season Career Averages (924 games):
18.4 PPG, 7.5 APG, 5.2 RPG, .375 FG%, .803 FT%
19.8 PER, .139 WS/48

Playoff Career Averages (109 games):
18.5 PPG, 8.6 APG, 5.0 RPG, .342 FG%, .801 FT%
17.4 PER, .109 WS/48

 

 

Bill Sharman

Born: May 25, 1926
Died: October 25, 2013
Position: Shooting Guard
Professional Career:
Washington Capitals (NBA): 1950-’51
Boston Celtics (NBA): 1951-’61
Los Angeles Jets (ABL): 1961-’62

Bill Sharman
Bill Sharman

Ask folks for a list of great shooting guards from NBA history and you will likely get Michael Jordan. Then Kobe Bryant. Perhaps, Jerry West and Reggie Miller. Maybe…. maybe Sam Jones. But Bill Sharman? He would likely never crop up despite in many regards being the man who prototyped the shooting guard position.

Bill Sharman started out his NBA career at the age of 24 with the Washington Capitals in the 1950-51 season. At this stage in his life, Sharman appeared more likely to enjoy a lengthy pro baseball career than a prolonged NBA life. In 1950, he appeared in just over 120 minor league baseball games batting .288. The next year, Sharman was called up by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although he never played a game from the Dodgers, he was ejected from one, making him the only player in Major League Baseball history ejected from a major league game without ever appearing in one.

By that point in September 1951, it was still unclear whether Sharman’s basketball career was more promising than his baseball hopes. Tje Capitals folded midway through the 1950-51 season leaving Sharman without a basketball employer. Sharman, however, showed promise averaging 12 points in 31 games. Not exactly the stuff that would leave teams around the league scrambling for Sharman, but enough for someone to take a flier on him.

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Bob Pettit

Born: December 12, 1932
Position: Power forward
Professional Career:
Milwaukee Hawks (NBA): 1954-’55
St. Louis Hawks (NBA): 1955-’65

Bob Pettit layup

“I never tried to be a team leader in basketball. I wasn’t a guy who did a lot of talking. I just wanted everybody to see that I worked hard, that I’d give my full effort all the time. In business, I try to surround myself with the best people and then let them do their thing.” And if that doesn’t succeed? “Then we all sit down, talk it over, and work things out.”

– Via Dr. Jack Ramsay’s “Transition Game: Bob Pettit”

That’s a fairly accurate description Bob Pettit gave of himself in that interview with Jack Ramsay. Many have worked as hard as Pettit but none harder. You listen to him speak for any length of time and invariably he returns to the ethos of hard work, determination and consistency. These would be hallmarks of his Hall of Fame career.

Bob’s initial forays into basketball were strongly encouraged by his father, a sheriff in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Despite being cut from the high school team twice, the practice ultimately paid off as Pettit eventually made the squad and would subsequently led them to the Louisiana state title. A fairly successful stint at Louisiana State University followed where he averaged ho-hum 27 points and 15 rebounds a game in his time as a Tiger. His play in these years, however, was predicated on him being a back-to-the-basket, low post threat. And at 6’9″ he had the height, but with only a scant 200 lbs to that frame, he didn’t have the weight to succeed in the pros that way.

So, Pettit totally retooled his game upon entering the NBA and would prove to better than ever.

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Tommy Heinsohn

Born: August 26, 1934
Position: Power Forward
Professional Career:
Boston Celtics (NBA): 1956-’65

Tom Heinsohn SI

Tom Heinsohn’s influence in today’s NBA has boiled down to how many Tommy Points he hands out on a given night to the Boston Celtics. Or how many vitriolic rants he aims toward incompetent referees.

Back in the day, though, Heinsohn still dished out points, but they were the ones that actually counted on the court. As the Boston Celtics’ official gunner, he shot so much and so often that he was nicknamed “Tommy Gun” and “Ack-Ack.” You know, “Ack-Ack” as in the sound a tommy guns made in those old black-and-white gangster movies.

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Neil Johnston

Born: February 4, 1929
Died: September 28, 1978
Position: Center
Professional Career:
Philadelphia Warriors (NBA): 1951-59

neil-Johnston

“I doubt if Johnston will ever receive the recognition that Mikan got because Neil didn’t come into the league with the fanfare and blowing of trumpets that accompanied Mikan.” And the fact that Chamberlain came immediately after him, in the same city, also didn’t help.

Via Eddie Gottlieb and Alex Sachare from the 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time

If ever a player picked a bad time to dominate the NBA, it was Neil Johnston. He rose to prominence as George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers dynasty came to a close. He faded as Bill Russell began constructing a new one in Boston. Dynasties get the glory, interregnums, however, get a shoulder shrug.

His place in the mid-1950s, even if falsely reduced to merely a placeholder, was still pretty remarkable.

For three straight seasons, Johnston led the NBA in points per game with his ability to nail sweeping hook shots with either hand. So dependable was his hook shot that he also led the NBA in field goal percentage three times, although not consecutively. He was the finest, most dependable offensive weapon in the mid-1950s NBA with the exception perhaps of his Philadelphia Warriors teammate, Paul Arizin.

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Moonfixer: Earl Lloyd’s Enlightening Biography

The Moon

Earl Lloyd was the first African-American to play in an NBA game in the 1950-51 season. Three others – Hank DeZonie, Sweetwater Clifton, and Chuck Cooper – quickly followed within the week. Born in 1928, Lloyd is the last remaining of those quartet of trail blazers.

In his autobiography, co-written with Sean Kirst, Lloyd recalls his youth in segregated Virginia, his college days in West Virginia, professional career in the NBA, and life afterwards. Reading the stories and seeing how they’re told, Lloyd comes across as a passionate man who aspires for all men to have dignity as they traverse life.

I won’t detail too much of what happens because the book is genuinely worth getting, but this excerpt concerning a racist yard decoration is remarkable and shows Lloyd’s quiet disappointment with his white Syracuse Nationals teammates:

“I had another teammate, I remember we went to a party at his house, and he had a statue of a black jockey on his lawn. I told the guy, ‘That offends me.’ He explained to me how there was nothing wrong with it, and I said to him, ‘As long as you have that out there, I’d prefer you didn’t invite me.’ I asked him if he would ever put a statue out there of a drunken Irishman hanging from a light pole. He couldn’t understand, and I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t understand why I was upset. I said to him, ‘You read. You watch television. You ever just stop and ask yourself why there are no black folks in your neighborhood? You think we all live where we live by choice alone?’ He had no answer for that, but the statue didn’t come down.

“There would be other times in my career when people stood up: Bones McKinney in Washington. Freddy Scolari, who spoke up for me when the Capitols broke up. Dick McGuire in Detroit. You remember those things forever. That’s all I needed in Syracuse, for just one person to say, ‘Earl, this isn’t right.’ But no one ever did. And you realize in the end that you’re alone.”

Reading that passage, I’m personally reminded of the ongoing battle Native Americans are waging against their “mascotization” in society. In any case, story after story is presented in similar, succinct poise – whether joyous or hurt – throughout Earl Lloyd’s biography.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Lloyd’s book.

PS – my copy happened to come signed by Lloyd himself, so you never know what surprise might await!