It began in an airport down in Savannah, Georgia.
Noah Yates ’18 was a sophomore, heading home to New Jersey after a spring break trip to Hilton Head. As he waited for his flight, Yates watched his school make history on his laptop: for the first time ever, the Yale men’s basketball team won a game in the NCAA Tournament, upsetting No. 5 Baylor.
Yates was a member of the football team at the time, rehabilitating from an elbow injury that had plagued him since high school, and he — like other Bulldog fans across the country — was captivated. But his next decision separated him from the rest of the Eli faithful, changing the trajectory of his college career.
“I had some thoughts that I would be [done] playing football, and then I watched the basketball team in the tournament,” Yates said. “I was just like, ‘wow, that’s something special. I’d love to be a part of that.’ It was all speculation at that point. It was just a thought, maybe more of a dream than anything.”
Nearly two years later, Yates has realized that dream, and then some. Last Friday night, he was on the floor in the fraught final minutes of the Elis’ back-and-forth tilt with Cornell. Never one to lack confidence in his outside shot, the walk-on calmly drained a 3-pointer with 20 seconds left to deliver a key victory: nudging the Blue one step closer to the postseason environment that first caught his attention.
This time, when Yale students return home for spring break, Yates and his teammates will head to Philadelphia, with a March Madness bid on the line. ESPN will broadcast the Ivy League Tournament, and Yates will be in the game — not watching from a laptop screen 700 miles away.
“He got hurt as a football player and was not able to get as strong as he would need to be [in order] to be an effective football player,” head coach James Jones said. “He spent the better part of his sophomore summer [focusing] on playing basketball. He befriended a bunch of the guys on the team, and, as it so happened, we had a bunch of injuries two years ago, so we had the opportunity for a practice guy.”
Still, Jones made one thing clear to the tight-end-turned-basketball-player: Do not even think about playing in a game.
Yates was undeterred; his path had never been conventional.
As late as the summer before his junior year of high school, Yates had neither basketball nor football on his mind. It was baseball that consumed his thoughts. Although he played all three sports in high school, America’s pastime was his primary sport for most of his life, and several baseball programs wanted the three-sport athlete at the collegiate level.
But an injury to Yates’ right elbow slowed down his recruiting process during his all-important junior-year season, and he found himself on the gridiron in New Haven just two years later. Even then, the New Jersey native planned to play out his four years at Yale as a tight end, but two more injuries to the same elbow changed his future prospects.
Heading into his first year with the basketball team, the coaching staff preached hard work. In his junior year, Yates played in 11 games for a total of 60 minutes, accruing 13 shot attempts along the way.
“We didn’t know how he’d fit in in terms of playing time, but we definitely knew that he would be able to help us in practice,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “He just came ready to work every day and really took advantage of his opportunity. He practiced well all last year, but wasn’t rewarded with minutes, so to speak.”
As his senior season began, however, the Bulldogs were dealt a major blow: Forward Jordan Bruner ’20 — who turned down Clemson to play at Yale — was out for the season with a torn meniscus. Second-Team All-Ivy forward Sam Downey ’17 had graduated, and Jones was forced to start a first year, Paul Atkinson ’21, in the frontcourt.
In his first major action as a Bulldog, Yates played 21 minutes against Creighton and 25 at Wisconsin, two high-major teams that typically contend in the NCAA Tournament. He shot 7–11 in those games, knocking down a triple in each. He has appeared in every game since and played fewer than 10 minutes in only two contests.
Given the team’s lack of size, Yates factors crucially into Yale’s defensive schemes. Although undersized for the power-forward spot at 6-foot-6, the former walk-on is able to use a unique blend of football toughness and basketball IQ to defend his position, Jones said.
Still, Yates’ larger impact may come on the offensive end. His 3-point shot has proven to be a weapon all season, and with 30 makes on 79 attempts from downtown, the senior has helped with the Elis’ offensive spacing. Three of those makes from distance came in the Cornell game last Friday, when he scored a career-high 17 points.
“He developed a role as a perimeter four-man for us,” Jones said. “He shoots the ball very well and has a lot of confidence in his shot, and he takes advantage of those opportunities when they come his way. Guys like [Miye Oni ’20] make sure [they find Yates] when he’s spotting up, and he’s been able to knock down some key shots for us over the past couple years.”
This weekend, Yates will play the final home game of his unique Yale basketball career. In front of what is sure to be a packed Senior Night crowd, a dream that began in a Savannah airport two years ago will culminate as Yates is celebrated for his brief but significant time with Yale basketball.
Yates will join guard Makai Mason ’18 and forward Eric Anderson ’18 on Senior Night as graduating members of the class of 2018.
“It was definitely tough [to walk away from the football team], but once I earned a spot on the basketball team, I don’t think I’ve really turned back,” Yates said. “I’m fully into it, and I love it. I feel like I’ve been playing for four years, but it’s only been two. It’s just been a great experience, and I can’t say enough about the coaches and my teammates and the whole program.”
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