Neil Yanke’s ’01 basketball career was foretold by the palm of his hand — or at least by the results of a medical examination.
Shortly after birth, Yanke — who is now the captain of the Yale men’s basketball team — was given a test to determine his adult height. From the results, his doctor predicted that Yanke would be at least 6-feet-6-inches tall. When he heard the news, Yanke’s father immediately decided his son would be a basketball star.
Twenty-one years later, Yanke has proven that both his doctor and father are accurate prognosticators, of sorts. The 6-foot-11-inch Ohio native is an All-Ivy candidate on a Yale team that is making a bid for its first Ivy League championship in 37 years.
Two and a half weeks ago, the Bulldogs (10-14, 7-4) weren’t in such a rosy position. After dropping three league games in a row, Yale was in danger of letting its season slip away. But Yanke took the team on his shoulders.
In the last six games, the soft-spoken center has averaged 17.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game — numbers 4.6 points and 1.4 rebounds above his season averages. In the process, Yale notched four crucial league victories over Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard and Cornell.
Yanke’s recent success has not been unexpected. All year long, the team has relied on him to be the focal point of its offense. His size and athleticism give him an advantage over most other Ivy League centers. This advantage causes nightmares for opposing teams.
“I’m sure that teams have Neil on their board as the threat to stop,” men’s basketball head coach James Jones said.
Unfortunately for Yale’s opponents, trying to defend Yanke allows other Bulldogs to flourish.
“Neil draws a lot of double teams because it’s hard for any one man to stop him,” said Chris Leanza ’03, the team’s starting point guard. “[The double teaming] creates a lot of open shots on the perimeter.”
But Yanke is far from a one-dimensional player. His talents extend far beyond the basketball court. He plays lead guitar in Hung Jury, a rock band made up of Yale students. The band has performed at numerous on-campus events, including the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween Show. Their next appearance will be at the Battle of the Bands, which is during the weekend of Spring Fling.
But Yanke’s biggest shows continue to take place under the boards. The stalwart defender has used his intimidating frame to protect the basket. He has 17 blocks — a team high — and has altered many other shots.
The impressive numbers that this Bulldog has racked up place him in the Ivy League’s top 10 in points, rebounds, blocked shots and field goal percentage. But while Yanke has been a statistical leader for a couple of seasons now, this year he has become an off-the-court leader, as well.
“Neil is a lot more vocal this year,” Leanza said. “He gives us an inspirational speech before each game.”
The motivational speeches have worked of late. And Yanke, who is a psychology major, hopes that Yale basketball fans will help him employ one more mind trick for this weekend’s home games against Pennsylvania and Princeton — both of which Yale needs to win in order to have a realistic shot at the Ivy title.
“Ask the people to come to the games this weekend,” Yanke said.
With a raucous crowd giving Yale a decisive advantage, Yanke hopes to prove that those media pollsters who picked Yale to finish dead last this season are not nearly as clairvoyant as his dad and doc.