Lienhard, Yunkus: Georgia's first big men

Tech's Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal were post-master generals, ruling the domain beneath the basket. The 6-foot-10 Favors is forecast as the No. 2 or 3 pick in Thursday's NBA draft, the 6-9 Lawal at the back end of the first round.

The court-roaming but equally dynamic Trey Thompkins (6-9), with another year at UGA, is projected as a possible 2011 lottery pick.

For production, though, the trio paled alongside a twosome some four decades ago who so filled up the stat sheet that numbers spilled into the margins.

In 1966, Bob Lienhard headed south for the winter sport from the Bronx, the nation's most populated metro area. A year after he alighted in Athens, Rich Yunkus migrated to Tech from Benton, Ill., a midwest version of Andy Griffith's Mayberry.

Their plan of attack on offense contrasted as much as their geographic backgrounds. The right-handed Lienhard parked himself in the shadow of the rim, much like his noted high school foe Lew Alcindor (whose passport now reads Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Yunkus, a lefty, would launch from near and far, his stroke perfected from lofting up to 400 shots daily as a kid.

Their output was standing-ovation worthy. Yunkus, the Yellow Jackets' career scoring leader, averaged 24.1, 30.1 and 25.5 in his three seasons. Lienhard nearly matched him with 21.3, 23.8 and 21.3. (Collegians were ineligible then as freshmen and stayed through their senior seasons, unbothered by the NBA.)

Rebounding was Lienhard's realm. Still UGA's career leader, he averaged 14.9, 15.8 and 13.9. For Yunkus: 11.0, 12.0, 11.1.

"Bob is right there with the best two or three centers to ever play [at Georgia]," former Georgia teammate Herb White said.

"Rich was so multi-talented," remembered Yunkus' ex-roommate and point guard, Jim Thorne. As a shooter, "He was unbelievable."

UGA's extended basketball depression -- the Dawgs had endured 17 consecutive losing seasons pre-Lienhard -- was no deterrent to him signing.

"I wanted to go where I could play 40 minutes [a game]," he recalled by telephone.

Yunkus was drawn to Tech and its more thriving program partly because its curricula dovetailed into his career ambition of being an engineer. "Besides, I couldn't say no to Dwane Morrison," the Jackets' assistant coach who camped in an area Holiday Inn for nearly a week until Yunkus committed.

For both players, Southern warmth -- atmospheric and human-- were additional lures.

The 6-foot-11 Lienhard helped deliver three winning seasons, bridging the campus' sports entertainment gap between football season and spring practice.

"We got the ball rolling there," he said, though it was a slow roller. Not until 1983 did UGA grace the NCAA tournament.

Teammate Lanny Taylor regarded Lienhard as the No. 3 college center of them time behind Hall of Famers Alcindor and Bob Lanier.

"Consistent, steady, a great athlete," Taylor said. "If he'd been a little meaner, no telling how good he could have been."

Though he was 6-9, Yunkus relied on a velvet shooting touch around three-point range, had there been one during his era.

"If [baskets] would have been worth three then, I would have backed up a few feet," he said over the phone.

Yunkus honed his shot mostly alone, except when he was at opposite ends of the high school gym with fellow Bentonite Doug Collins, an eventual NBA standout and incoming coach of the 76ers. It all began for Yunkus with a basket support constructed out of plywood by his father, with a net crocheted by his grandma.

Yunkus, too, forged three winning seasons. (Head-to-head, Tech and Georgia were 2-2 in the players' two overlapping years.) His farewell came in New York with a runner-up finish behind North Carolina at the National Invitation Tournament, when a berth in the event was a coveted, not a consolation, prize.

The newspapers in Lienhard's birthland bashed the tourney as terrible, Yunkus said, because the title game involved two southern teams.

The All-American pair at times one-upped ultimate NBA players -- Lienhard, for example, against Dan Issel of Kentucky; Yunkus versus Dave Cowens of Florida State. "I still have the bruises," Yunkus said.

Yet they combined for barely a half-season in the pro league.

Yunkus, drafted early in the third round by Cincinnati, wound up staying in Atlanta with the Hawks. He quit after two months, explaining now, "I'd made a contract with myself to where I would walk away if it wasn't fun anymore. I was burned out."

Thorne noted that Yunkus was young for a graduating senior and had not yet filled out physically when he left Tech.

"An extra year or two of maturity, and someone [in the pros] would have had a helluva player," he said.

Lienhard, a fourth-round selection by Phoenix, didn't bother with the NBA, which offered a non-guaranteed contract. It was arrivederci to hoops in the homeland for a two-year, no-cut deal in Italy.

After five years overseas, Lienhard was anchored, saying "I didn't have any more friends [in the U.S.] than I did here."

He married an Italian, changed his citizenship and registered 13 pro seasons, all in the city of Cantu. When basketball ended, the team owner decided to make use of Lienhard's by-then second language of English and hired him as head computer programmer for his business.

Lienhard speaks so rarely to Americans that his native tongue has become rusty, at least at the beginning of conversations. But the Bronx accent, flavored with Italian, came through loud and clear over the phone line.

Like Yunkus, he harbors no regrets about bypassing the NBA.

"Never lost any sleep over it," said Lienhard, now residing in Como. "I can't walk down the street in Cantu without everybody saying hello."

Nor can Yunkus in Benton, if only because most everyone in the town of 7,000 knows each other. He boomeranged back home after separating from the Hawks and has lived there since, lately as an investments advisor.

Three blocks once was a typical game statistic for Yunkus. Now it measures the distance from his home to the office.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.