The first great Detroit Piston had more than hoops in mindThe First 2,000-Point Scorer by John Maxwell
The first player to capture the imagination of Detroit Pistons fans was 6-foot-5 forward George Yardley, who had been the team’s leading scorer (21.5 ppg) and rebounder (10.5 rpg) the Pistons’ last season in Fort Wayne. Ranked among the NBA’s top 10 in both categories, Yardley had earned All-NBA Second Team honors in 1956-57. He arrived in Detroit an established star, three times named to the All-Star game.
Ironically, Yardley - who was the Pistons’ first-round selection in the 1950 NBA Draft - was initially hesitant to get involved in professional basketball.
The fact that Yardley could make more money utilizing his engineering degree, coupled with an aversion to moving East, kept Yardley away from the Pistons for several years. A two-time All-America honoree at Stanford, Yardley stayed in California after graduation. He worked in San Francisco and played for the local AAU team, the San Francisco Stewart Chevrolet. In the 1950-51 season, they won an AAU national title and he was named tournament MVP. The following year he enlisted in the Navy as part of his military obligation but continued to play AAU ball.
Pistons owner Fred Zollner finally got his man prior to the 1953-54 season when he offered Yardley $11,000 ($9,500 in salary with a $1,500 bonus) - nearly triple the NBA average for the day. He soon proved his worth. As a 25-year-old rookie, Yardley wasn’t the focal point of the Pistons during his first season, when he averaged 9.0 points and 6.5 rebounds. Helped in part by the introduction of the 24-second shot clock, he averaged 17.4 points and 9.8 rebounds the next two seasons as the Pistons reached the NBA Finals both times. During the 1956-57 campaign - the team’s last in Fort Wayne - Yardley averaged a double-double and made the All-Star game for a third time.
But Yardley saved his best season for the fans in Detroit. During the team’s inaugural year in the Motor City, he established the league single-season scoring record by pouring in 2,001 points. His 27.8 points per game was the league’s highest scoring average by nearly three points. Against the St. Louis Hawks on Dec. 26, 1957, Yardley shot 20-of-24 from the foul line - both are franchise records that stand today.
The Pistons didn’t fare as well as Yardley in Detroit, going 33-39, but that was still good for a playoff berth. The Pistons topped the Cincinnati Royals in the Western Division Semifinals only to fall to St. Louis in the Western Finals. It turned out to be the end of Yardley’s only full season in Detroit. After a run-in with Zollner, Yardley was traded to Syracuse late the following year.
Yardley would play one more NBA season before retiring at 31 to spend more time with his wife Diana and four children. Even before he retired, however, Yardley had interests outside of basketball. During his final NBA campaign, he started the George Yardley Company, which represented people who manufactured energy-related products. Yardley took one more crack at the pro game when the American Basketball League emerged. The Los Angeles Jets came calling, and Yardley arranged his contract so that he only had to play in home games and in road games when he was able to piggy-back his business interests onto the travel.
Yardley passed away due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (technically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) on Aug. 13, 2004, but the George Yardley Company is still in business today.
Yardley was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996. Pete Newell, famed basketball coach and world-renowned “Big Man Camp” entrepreneur commented after his induction, “George Yardley embodies what the Hall of Fame is all about. A marvelous athlete who made full use of his natural talents, a demeanor on the court a coach admires, and a life off the court and after his basketball career ended that has been very successful.”