Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Ryan Pretzer
George and Diana Yardley’s four children – Anne, Marilyn, Rich and Rob – grew up in Southern California with only the slightest hints of what their father had accomplished during their toddler days.
“We had plaques on the wall,” Rob said. “We just didn’t pay much attention to them.”
They do now. On Sunday, the Yardleys received one more plaque for the family mantle as the Pistons honored George for the NBA’s first 2,000-point season. On Mar. 9, 1958, Yardley scored 26 points against the Syracuse Nationals in the Pistons’ last game of the regular season, giving him 2,001 points.
The 50th anniversary of his NBA milestone coincided with the Pistons’ season-long celebration of 50 years in Detroit. Yardley was not only the league’s leading scorer in 1957-58; he was Detroit’s first NBA superstar. And his children never knew it.
Once semi-retired from basketball and living in his native Southern California to raise his family and start his company, Yardley tucked away his Pistons uniform like Superman hides his cape. “He was just a guy who had a business,” said Anne, who was born after Yardley’s NBA days.
The Yardleys cherish their father’s basketball accomplishments; they brought 17 family members from California to witness the on-court ceremony. They also appreciate the way they learned about him, growing up blissfully unaware of his former life until the time was right. “He was an engineer,” Rob said. “He didn’t want to talk basketball very much.”
Who’s Gordie Howe?
George was a six-time All-Star, five times with the Pistons, but he never broached his basketball career with his children. It probably wouldn’t have done him much good anyway. Like many fathers, George’s successes as a younger man were not enough to make him a cool dad.
“We were baseball fans. We wished he knew Sandy Koufax,” Rob said. When the boys asked if he knew the Detroit Tigers’ Al Kaline, George responded that he knew Gordie Howe.
Marilyn was let down, too, in her own way. “I remember seeing him on TV one time, black and white screen, and I’d be like, ‘Hi, Dad, hi!’” she said, then speaking with a sorrowful tone. “I’d say, ‘Mom, he’s not saying hi to me.’”
Over time, like this trip to a Lakers game against the Suns, Rob and his siblings started to get the idea.
“He never hung around (the league), he wasn’t one of those guys who stayed with the game, so the Suns announcer is interviewing somebody on the court and he says, ‘Stop it. Is that George Yardley? We wondered what happened to you,’” Rob said. “It was kind of fun when things like that happened.”
Rich was in eighth grade when a schoolmate approached him with a book and asked if his dad was the George Yardley. “I had no idea what he was talking about,” Rich said. “He showed me his picture in the book and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s Dad.’”
It took the company of someone else – a former Pistons teammate like Chuck Noble or other NBA colleague like Tom Heinsohn – to make George reminisce. That’s how Rich heard one story about his 6-foot-5 father wanting to shed the notion that he only picked on smaller players in fights. So one night he hit 6-foot-11, 245-pound Chuck Share from the St. Louis Hawks.
“Early in the game he belted the guy in the mouth and just got hammered the whole rest of the game,” Rich recalled. “So he went home and said, “Diana, did you hear about me on the radio, my big fight?’ She said, ‘No, the broadcaster said it looked like somebody bit George Yardley on the hand.’ So he got no credit for taking on a big guy and got beat up all night.”
’He was phenomenal’
Yardley received the sport’s highest honor in 1996 when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The Yardleys say their father opened up about his career after that, doing more media interviews and events like Sunday’s. He passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, in 2004.
“Tonight, people would get him,” to talk, said Rob. “They’d ask him about the 2,000 points. He thought it was a bigger deal to break Mikan’s scoring record, which he did on March 6.”
George Mikan, the NBA’s first elite big man, won three scoring titles from 1948-51, including a league record 1,932 points in 1950-51. Rob said his father was motivated to reach 2,000 only after the Syracuse coach said he wouldn’t do it.
“He thought [topping Mikan] was the bigger accomplishment because Mikan had held the record for seven years,” Rob said. “He was a legend in the league with all those titles with the Lakers. That was always the bigger accomplishment.”
George’s athletic genes have passed to Anne’s son, Kyle Caldwell, who is 6-foot-9 and one of the country’s most highly regarded volleyball recruits. He passed on Division I scholarships offers for basketball to accept a volleyball scholarship at UCLA. Joining the Bruins’ legendary hoops program hasn’t been ruled out, Anne said.
“Basketball ability skipped a generation,” Rich quipped. Before he could compliment Rob’s knack for the hardwood, his brother cut him off.
“We had a lot of fun, but we weren’t like Dad,” Rob said. “He was just phenomenal.”