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Two of the Best - Bob Lienhard and Rich Yunkus

Bob Lienhard is a former basketball player at the University of Georgia.

He became the school's all time leading rebounder with 1,116 career rebounds. He also holds the single season record with 396 rebounds, as well as the single game record with 32 rebounds.

Lienhard was drafted by the National Basketball Association's Phoenix Suns in the 1970 NBA Draft (10th pick of the 4th round, 61st overall).

It's been 35 years since former Benton basketball star Rich Yunkus left Georgia Tech as the school's all-time leading scorer. The Yellow Jackets featured many great players over the years but none have been able to top Yunkus' milestone of 2,232 points.
And Freshmen couldn't play in his day.

Matt Harpring came closest to Yunkus, amassing 2,225 points. Harpring played from 1995-1998 - one more season than Yunkus had. Harpring played in 40 more games than Yunkus and hit 210 3-pointers. The three-point shot didn't exist during Yunkus' 1969-1971 career.

"Without a doubt I'm surprised no one's broken that mark," Yunkus said. "We couldn't play on the team as freshmen."

Freshmen weren't eligible under NCAA rules during Yunkus' career. He averaged 26.6 points and 11.4 rebounds per game during his three-year run. In his junior season, he scored 30 points per game and grabbed 12 boards.

One of the greatest highlights of his career was finishing runner-up to North Carolina in the National Invitation Tournament in New York City in 1971.

"We spent 12 days in New York with all the games in Madison Square Garden," Yunkus recalled. "That's just an awesome place to play basketball."

That accomplishment wouldn't be a big deal now, but in those days only 16 teams made the NCAA Tournament and only 16 were invited to the NIT. Southern Illinois University won the NIT in 1967 with Walt Frazier - now an NBA Hall of Famer.

Yunkus, a 6-foot-9 forward/center, competed against the likes of Jacksonville's Artis Gilmore, Florida State's Dave Cowens, and UCLA's Sidney Wicks to name just a few. Another drawback to playing in the post during the late 1960s and early '70s was that players could not dunk the ball. Dunks, now a nightly feature on SportsCenter, resulted in a technical foul during Yunkus' playing days.

While he certainly was good enough to play professional basketball - and did suit up for the Atlanta Hawks for one-third of a season with "Pistol" Pete Maravich - it just wasn't for him.
"Back then, I always said if it ever got to be where it wasn't fun I would quit, and it wasn't fun anymore," Yunkus said. "The Hawks wanted me to go to Europe and play there the rest of the year and then come back. You're on the road all the time, and the money isn't like it is today. It just got to be where it was no longer enjoyable."

The Hawks released Yunkus in 1972, and his family purchased a Terminex business that he ran with his father. They eventually sold the business in 1989, and Yunkus is currently a representative for Edward Jones in Benton.

"Fortunately I had a good education," Yunkus said. "I felt like I had better opportunities to do other things."

On a recent business trip for Edwards Jones, Yunkus flew to Los Angeles to a seminar where the guest speaker was legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.

"I got to spend about an hour with coach Wooden, and it's a highlight of my life," Yunkus said. "He said he's a big advocate to bring back the freshman rule because kids need to stay in school. He's going to be 96 in October and he was still just unbelievably sharp. He talked for 45 minutes with no notes about what it takes to be successful."

Before Yunkus earned All-American honors in college, he led the Benton Rangers to the state tournament and a 61-2 record during his final two years of high school. His coach at that time was Rich Herrin, the current Marion coach and former SIU men's basketball coach.

"He was such a dominant player in high school," Herrin said. "His greatest asset was he could guard the goal. We could gamble and they couldn't get a layup because he blocked a lot of shots."

The hype surrounding the Rangers in the mid 1960s was tremendous and a lot of fans were forced to attend road games because of Benton's small gym at the time.

"He packed the gyms wherever we went in Southern Illinois, and we took a lot of people," Herrin said. "So a lot of other schools made money off of Benton people coming to see us play on the road."

Herrin ranks right near the top of all the people who helped turn Yunkus into the player he was and the successful businessman he is today.

"As I look back, besides my mother, coach Herrin was the person that molded my ideals and my feelings about all things," Yunkus said. "He was probably the most influential person in my life."

Yunkus currently lives with his wife Donna, a fourth-grade teacher in Benton. He has two daughters, Alicia and Lindsay, plus four grandchildren.

Both Yunkus and Herrin left lasting impressions on each other.
"I can remember coach Herrin getting a technical in a game," Yunkus said. "He spent the entire halftime apologizing to us about how that was inappropriate behavior. He said you just have to go out there no matter how tough it is."

As for Herrin, he said Yunkus is certainly one of the top three players ever to come out of the Southern Illinois area.

"He's the best high school player I ever coached," Herrin said. "He put Benton on the map."

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.


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