George Yardley made it clear coming down the stretch that he was the
luckiest man in town, and he was.
No one knew it better than King Georgie, as Newport Harbor High's
greatest athletic product was often described in these pages. And
even though he was saddled with this ruthless and savage disease
called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the fact stood up.
There are an awful lot of people here in the land of prosperity
known as Newport Beach and its surrounding communities who can lay
claim to the "lucky" factor. It's just that George had every base
The parents, the area, an education at Harbor and Stanford
University, the brains. The athletic superiority in basketball,
tennis, golf and volleyball. The gregarious smile, the confidence,
the business success, the perfect wife and family. The drive and
motivation, the competitiveness, the recognition, the loyalty and the
inherent ability to maintain all of it with a great sense of humor.
He wasn't Superman, but he did a lot of things to help keep the
illusion alive in the latter stages of his life.
I often think back to 1996 when he was honored at the Naismith
Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. for his seven-year
career in the National Basketball Association.
I had arrived at the Hall of Fame's main display room as the day's
first event was about to begin when we nearly walked into each other
on the way to a door leading to the auditorium, the site of an
autograph session for the inductees.
Although I had told him earlier I would be there for the
ceremonies, he seemed very surprised to see me.
Frankly, I was surprised to be there, as well. In 1996 the Daily
Pilot was, to put it mildly, struggling, and when I heard of George's
acceptance into the Hall of Fame I approached the question of
covering the event with an attitude that the worst that could happen
was a rejection.
But my editor, Bill Lobdell, appreciated the value of the moment
and never hesitated.
George was happy to see a familiar face and, as we entered the
double doors, we found ourselves at the back of the auditorium, with
a long, 40-step stairway to go down.
George, all of 6-foot-5, asked me for a boost and he used my
shoulder as a crutch as we slowly traversed the stairs, one step at a
He could do a lot with two reconstructed knees, but walking
downstairs, at least on that day, wasn't one of them.
"Boy," said George, "am I lucky to have run into you."
Just another stroke of luck.
As we went down, I asked him what he had planned for the following
day and he said the first thing he was going to do was play in an
early-hour golf tournament. I wondered how that could be possible
considering his bout with the stairs.
We got to the bottom and off he went to the long table where four
other honored players -- Gail Goodrich, George Gervin, David Thompson
and Nancy Lieberman -- joined him and they signed autographs for
basketball fans for about an hour.
The sixth player in the Class of '96, Croatian star Kresimir
Cosic, had died the previous year.
George? He was all smiles, enjoying every moment.
He went on to stand the town on its ear with his audacious style.
The place just fell in love with him and he returned several times as
additional classes were inducted, to the delight of Springfield.
Other memories of George in Springfield was my "interview" with
him at a table in the open spaces of a little restaurant, where my
efforts were interrupted by adoring basketball fans, I swear, every
12 seconds thoughout. And, of course, there was the night he walked
to the dais to accept the honor before thousands and proceeded to
explain to the NBA commissioner what was wrong with the game, and how
to straighten it out.
The somewhat straight-laced crowd, alternately gasping and
laughing, was caught off guard like never before.
Suddenly, all of them were experiencing a different era.
When George Yardley was setting the NBA stage afire, St. Louis was
about as far west as the eight-team circuit got.
The Lakers came west prior to the 1960-61 season and when George
retired in 1962 as a member of the Syracuse Nationals, he had
received very little recognition in the Southern California press.
From there, it was the relative anonymity of a successful businessman
that would be his fate.
He was an original inductee into the Orange County Sports Hall of
Fame in the mid-1970s, but it really wasn't until the '90s before he
stepped back into the limelight, beginning with a roaring sendoff at
the Balboa Bay Club before his date in Springfield.
Suddenly, the glory days were back and this time his home town
knew what was going on. And did he ever enjoy it.
The Hall of Fame, now at a new site in Springfield, was closed on
Aug. 8 and 9 because of his passing.
At his recent April 29 tribute at the Big Canyon Country Club, he
was all smiles as he alternately stood and sat, accepting his guests.
But there were many problems he was dealing with as he once again
The inside circle, of course, knew everything he was going
through. But how else could he present himself, considering he was
the luckiest man in town?
Thursday afternoon was the conclusion of the longest of goodbyes,
and friends and family gathered at the Balboa Bay Club for the
reception after a memorial service earlier in the day at Calvary
Chapel of Costa Mesa.
More yarns were told and it was festive, just as he would have
The day's script was about as beautiful as the life he lived, but
it was not something George had envisioned.
In contrast, despite the fact his mind was clear until the end
while his body faded against the deadly forces of ALS, known as Lou
Gehrig's disease, he was unaware of anything that would transpire in
the aftermath at the memorial or reception.
"We never talked about it, at all," his daughter Anne said.
The luckiest guy in town? He certainly was.
Hey! See you next Sunday!
* ROGER CARLSON is the former sports editor of the Daily Pilot.
His column appears on Sundays. He can be reached by e-mail at