Grandfathers and the NBA

Find a group of people with enough critical mass to start random conversations and you find the random linkages of who knows whom via some path of relatives, friends and former roommates. Playing this game (known as "Jewish Geography" in some of my circles) via the global community of eBay gives even more interesting and personal results. Not only are you searching based on a name, you end up e-meeting people with similar interests and passions.

Rewind 35 years. My maternal grandfather was a Pennsylvania doctor; my paternal grandfather owned a general store in Smithburg, NJ. Don't bother with Google for the physical geography; it's the home to some flood plain monitoring equipment and farmland. Grandpa Herman's store evolved from a carriage stop; Smithburg is midpoint - the way the crow flies or the carriage is drawn - between New York City and Philadelphia. Smithburg General Store was a disorganized mosaic of office supplies, hardware, cold cuts, and engine parts. You could get a tank of gas pumped and the same person (frequently my father) made you a sandwich, tossed in a bag with carriage bolts and some oil (sandwich or crankcase, your choice). Sundays were family days, when Grandpa closed up in time for an early dinner, but not before taking a paper bag and filling it with the objects of every grandchild's desires: gum, candy, trading cards, new pencils, and whatever else had accreted along his path between cash register and front door. Grandpa made a literal grab bag of goodies. Many of those trading cards ended up in the spokes of our bicycles, riding off all of that excess energy created by eating too much candy.

One Sunday in the late 60s, several of us popped into the store before Grandpa did the load-in. In the floor, near the register, was a small trap door that functioned as a safe at one point. Inside were all of the trappings that didn't quite make the candy aisle, including a dusty box of Topps trading cards. We were handed several unidentified wax packs of cards, with Grandpa's shrug indicating that he didn't know what they were either, but his smile said that he was happy we'd take them. We tore into the packs that afternoon, realized that they were basketball cards of some unknown vintage, mostly of players on teams we didn't recognize, so they were shoved into a back pocket while we hoped for another dip into the paper bag. The cards were dumped into the big box along with the rest of my pasteboard empire, where they hibernated for more than 20 years until my parents insisted I finallyclean out my room.

The card box came to rest in the late 90s at my house in Burlington, Massachusetts. One of the advantages of living in a major east coast city is that the sports teams tend to have long histories, so it's easy to pattern match childhood possessions against popular culture. Those nondescript wax packs of cards from Grandpa Herman were a set of 1957 Topps basketball cards, the first year such a set was produced. In the middle of the pack was a man in a kelly green uniform, sporting the #14 of the Boston Celtics - one Bob Cousy. In my single-digit years, this never registered with me; in my young adulthood I immediately recognized one of the saints of Boston sports. Cousy's card sits above my desk, where he is dribbling toward the hoop, always (in the words of the late Johnny Most) "has a notion, going right to left." I'm reminded daily of Grandpa Herman.

Riding shotgun in the wax pack with Cousy was George Yardley, who set the single-season scoring record in the 57-58 season. Yardley was the first player to score 2,000 points in a season, and is enshrined at the other end of Massachusetts in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even if you follow basketball, it's likely you didn't know that much about George Yardley, or any other NBA baller from that season. They were, and are, in the words of someone who met most of those players, "very nice, humble men".

Those words come to me via email from Rob Yardley of California, son of George Yardley. He bought his father's rookie trading card from me via an eBay auction, and I only noticed the surname similarity on my way to the post office. Rob is putting together card sets for each of his kids -- George's grandchildren. My grandfather's desire to clean up his safe area, followed 35 years later by my desire to clean up boxes of old trading cards, will connect the Yardley children to their grandfather.


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