Yardley, George Harry III (“The Bird”)

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Yardley, George Harry III (“The Bird”)

(b. 3 November 1928 in Hollywood, California; d. 12 August 2004 in Newport Beach, California), professional basketball player who was the first player in the National Basketball Association (NBA) to score 2,000 points in a single season and was a six-time member of the NBA All-Star team.

Yardley was one of two children of George Harry Yardley II, a building contractor who played basketball at the University of Chicago, and Dorothy (Schoyer) Yardley, a homemaker. In 1942, when Yardley was thirteen, his family moved to Balboa Island near Newport Beach, and Yardley attended Newport Harbor High School, from which he graduated in 1946. Yardley played both volleyball and basketball in high school, and he developed a number of hobbies that he continued to enjoy for many years, such as building model airplanes and playing the piano. Yardley also was interested in mechanical operations, and this interest remained with him through his professional life. In 1946, his senior year, Yardley was first-team All-Sunset League in basketball and was named to the third team of the California Interscholastic Federation.

Yardley enrolled at Stanford University because of its excellent engineering program. He was the only player on the basketball team not on scholarship, because his family was wealthy enough to afford the university’s expenses. Yardley had reached his full height of six feet, five inches when he entered college. His height and his great leaping ability and accurate jump shot made him a starter on the varsity his junior year, during which he averaged 12.3 points per game. He averaged 16.9 points per game his senior year, setting the conference scoring record. Yardley graduated in 1950 with a degree in civil engineering. During his years at Stanford, Yardley picked up the nickname “The Bird,” either shortened from “Yardbird” and given to him by his fraternity brothers or simply “Bird,” based on his slim frame (185 pounds) and bald head. The name stuck with Yardley throughout his career.

After earning a BS from Stanford in 1950, Yardley was recruited by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team Stewart Chevrolet of San Francisco, which was coached by the former Stanford All-American Hank Luisetti. Yardley was voted AAU Player of the Year after leading Stewart to the AAU title, scoring thirty-two points in the championship game. Yardley met his future wife, Diana Gibson, on a date arranged by their grandmothers. The couple married on 29 August 1953. Yardley enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, where he played on the AAU team for two years. A short time before the 1952 AAU tournament began, Yardley broke his hand in a game, and the injury prevented him from playing in the tournament and in the 1952 Olympic Games. The next year Yardley led Los Alamitos to the first All-Service title and was, for the third consecutive year, voted the Most Valuable Player in the AAU.

In 1950 Yardley was chosen by the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Pistons with the third pick in the NBA draft, but he did not sign until 1953, as he had hoped to maintain his eligibility for the 1952 Olympic Games. He rejected the team’s initial offer of $6,000 and remained in California, playing beach volleyball, until the Pistons increased their offer to $9,500 per season, which Yardley accepted. Yardley and his wife moved to Fort Wayne never having seen snow, but their adjustment was aided by the friendliness of the people in the small town.

Yardley became an occasional starter by the end of his rookie year (1953–1954), during which he averaged nine points per game. He averaged in the double figures in scoring every year for the remainder of his NBA career. The Pistons were eliminated in the playoffs in Yardley’s first season, losing four straight games, but Yardley started all the playoff games and tied for the team lead in points scored in the playoffs. In the 1954–1955 season Yardley scored 17.3 points per game, good enough to be eleventh in the NBA in average points per game. The Pistons won the Western Division title. In the playoffs Yardley led the team in scoring with 15.8 points per game, but Fort Wayne lost four games to three to the Syracuse Nationals in the NBA finals. The score in the final game was 92–91. Fort Wayne repeated its Western Division title in the 1955–1956 season, and Yardley’s 17.4 points per game made him ninth in points in the NBA. His rebound average of 9.7 made him ninth in rebounds as well. Yardley increased his scoring to twenty-three points per game and rebounds to thirteen per game in the playoffs, in which the Pistons defeated the St. Louis Hawks for the Western Division title and lost to the Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA finals. The next year Yardley improved to fifth in the league in scoring with 21.5 points per game, but the Pistons were in decline, losing in the first round of the playoffs.

In the 1957–1958 season Yardley became the first NBA player to score 2,000 points in a season. He averaged 27.8 points per game to lead the league in scoring. Yardley made the All-NBA First Team, but the Pistons, who had moved to Detroit, lost to St. Louis in the Western Conference finals. The Pistons continued to decline, and late in the 1958–1959 season Yardley was traded to the Syracuse Nationals, even though he was Detroit’s leading scorer. Yardley joined a veteran Syracuse team and made them dramatically better. After finishing third in the Eastern Division with Yardley scoring just over nineteen points per game and being voted to the second team of the All-NBA squad, the Nationals defeated the New York Knickerbockers but then were edged in seven games by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Division finals. Yardley averaged twenty-five points per game in the nine playoff games. The next year he again scored more than twenty points per game, but he retired at the end of the season at the age of thirty-one. Yardley was selected as an NBA All-Star from 1955 to 1960 and averaged 19.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game for his seven seasons in the NBA.

Yardley’s retirement, even though he was making the team’s highest salary of $25,000 per year, fulfilled the promise that he had made to his wife that they would return to California when their oldest child reached school age. His teammates had noticed that Yardley had many varied interests while on the team, including designing missiles, upholstering furniture, playing the piano, sewing his own shirts, building and flying model airplanes, and rebuilding automobile engines. Yardley had worked for an engineering firm in the off-seasons and when he returned to Southern California established his own company, the George Yardley Company, which sold mechanical engineering equipment. Yardley also invented and patented a seal for the liquid oxygen fuel tank on the Atlas-Titan rocket. In the 1961–1962 season Yardley was persuaded to play for the Los Angeles Jets in the newly established American Basketball League. The league folded within two years, and the Jets did not make it through the first year. Yardley had agreed to play only in home games, in which he averaged nineteen points per game.

Yardley and his wife had four children. In 1996 Yard-ley was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2003 he was found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and helped raise more than $120,000 for the ALS Association before dying of the disease on 12 August 2004 in Newport Beach. He is buried in Corona del Mar, California.

Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (13 Aug. 2004) and Stanford Magazine (Jan.–Feb. 2005). Yardley’s playing career is summarized on the Web sites of the George Yardley Company, http://www.georgeyardley.com/georgeyard.htm, and of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, http://www.hoophall.com/halloffamers/Yardley.htm.

Murry R. Nelson