The United States Military has been a big piece of American history and American lore. Before every basketball game fans stand an honor America and the men and women who have served with the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. The song immortalizes the defense of Fort McHenry from the war of 1812. The Veterans Administration (VA) estimates that 22 million Americans have served in the military. Countless famous Americans have served in the armed forces and that includes several NBA players.
During the early days of one of the NBA’s precursors, the NBL, it was not uncommon for a player to leave the league to join the military. The military offered better pay and better accommodations than the league did.
World War II was nearly the end of the NBL as the majority of players left to serve. The lack of players caused the first racial integration in any major sport in American history, with several teams such as the Chicago Studebakers and Toledo Jim White Chevrolets signing black players starting in 1943. This was due to the military not actively recruiting African Americans to join the war effort, though millions joined on their own.
When the war ended millions of Americans return to the workforce after serving. This included professional basketball which now had two major leagues in the NBL and BAA.
The Korean conflict one again brought a call to the American populace to join the armed forces and two of the NBA’s biggest stars did just that. George Yardley and Paul Arizin both joined. Yardley joined the Navy right after graduating Stanford in 1950 and Arizin joined the Marines in 1952 after having played two seasons for the Philadelphia Warriors.
Arizin is an interesting case because he was one of the top stars of the era. The season before he joined the Marines he lead the NBA in scoring with 25 points a game. He served in the Marines from 1952 until 1954. In the 1955 he came back to a new NBA which had just implemented the shot clock, but he continued to be amongst the best players in the league averaging over 20 points a game until 1962 when he retired, he even helped the Warriors to their second NBA title in 1956. He did not retire because of his age, he was 33 at the time, he retired because the Warriors were moving to San Francisco and he did not want to move to California.
Like most players who have served, Yardley joined the Navy after his collegiate days but before his professional days. Yardley served in the Navy from 1950 until 1954 before joining the Fort Wayne Pistons. Yardley would go on to have a stellar career with the Pistons and Nations before retiring in 1960.
Both Yardley and Arizin would go on to make the basketball hall-of-fame, another hall-of-famer would also join the military before his playing days. Elgin Baylor is one of the most successful people to never win a championship in NBA history, and many forget that during the prime of his career he joined the military. Baylor was drafted twice by the Minneapolis Lakers, once in 1956 and again in 1958. Baylor became one of the league’s best scorers and joined the Army Reserves in 1961. He was only allowed to play when he was on leave and on weekends but did manage to play in 48 games that season averaging 38 points a game. He spent only a short time in the reserves before rejoining the Lakers, now in Los Angeles, full time.
Like Yardley, Bill Bradley joined the Air Force Reserves a couple of months before graduating Oxford. He served six months as an officer before created controversy by leaving to return to Oxford for his degree and joining the New York Knicks. In response to this President Johnson issued an executive order prevented deferments except for medical and dental school. Bradley would go on to be a key part to one of the most successful era’s in Knicks history. The Knicks with Bradley, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed would go on to win the franchises only two NBA titles. After the NBA Bradley would go on to serve as the Senator from New Jersey following the Watergate scandal and in 2000 he launched an unsuccessful bid for the presidency.
Probably the most famous veteran is David Robinson. Robinson was a standout at the United States Naval Academy before joining the Spurs. Robinson is one of the rare few who did not intend on joining the NBA but grew during his college years to the point where the NBA wanted him. Robinson was 6 ft. 8 in. when he was admitted to the Naval Academy, two inches above the height limit, but received a waiver from the Superintendent of the Academy. Robinson considered leaving the academy after his second year, before incurring an obligation to serve on active duty.
Robinson was drafted by the Spurs with the first overall pick in 1986 but served his two years in the Navy before joining the team and leading them to become one of the most successful franchises of the modern era. Robinson was given the nickname “The Admiral” but he never obtained that rank in the Navy, when he left the Navy he was a Lieutenant.
The most recent veteran to join the NBA was Bernard James, who at age 27, was the oldest player ever drafted in the NBA. James joined the Air Force after getting his GED at 17 and served six years. He left the Air Force in 2008 after having been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. James played a short time in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks before playing in China and Europe.
Others have served in the armed forces and joined the NBA, but they did not have as lasting of impact as the players mentioned above.
Mike Silliman, the only person to attend West Point and play in the NBA played only one season in the NBA with the Buffalo Braves. Tim James a former first round pick in 1999, played 43 games in 3 seasons in the NBA before joining the Army and serving in Iraq.
Connie Norman played a short time in the NBA in the 1970s before joining the Navy and being stationed in Europe, where he continued his basketball career. Darren Morningstar played at Navy, but unlike Robinson left after two years to avoid the obligatory service on active duty. he would play 1 season for the Mavericks and Utah Jazz.
With the modern legacy of players making millions of dollars in the NBA, and now with college athletes going to be getting paid very soon, it is unlikely we will see many more veterans joining the NBA in the future. But on the other hand, with the growing global instability there is always the possibility. Though, the mostly likely path for future veterans will be much like what we seen with Bernard James, where a player is not recruited and joins the armed forces out of high school and develops there and joins the NBA later in life.