Pride of Schenectady: Jordan turned down Yankees, Pistons to pursue career in orthopedic surgery
The Pistons wanted his jump shot; the Yankees loved his screwball. Lou Jordan, however, had other ideas.
“I almost kind of planned my life a little bit, and as a little boy, I always wanted to be a doctor,” said Jordan, a 1955 graduate of Mont Pleasant High School who went on to play college basketball at Cornell University. “Having a tryout with the Yankees and getting drafted by the Pistons was great, but then I got accepted into medical school. I was torn by the decision, but I didn’t want to take any chances on losing that opportunity to become a doctor.”
Jordan, who became one of the leading orthopedic surgeons in the country, will be enshrined into the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame Monday at Proctors Theatre along with professional bowler Joe Donato and two-time Section II wrestling champion Severino Popolizio. A reception will begin at 4:30 p.m., with dinner to follow at 6:15.
A baseball and basketball standout at Mont Pleasant, Jordan, now 75, is retired and a resident of Virginia Beach, Va., where he was been living since 1971.
“I haven’t been back to Schenectady in 50 years or so, but I’m looking forward to it,” Jordan said last week. “When I got the phone call about the Hall of Fame, I thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s nice.’ I didn’t realize just how significant and what a big deal this is. The other people who received this award are unbelievable, so it’s a tremendous honor for me to be included in the company of such wonderful people.”
Red Raider leader
Jordan, who was also president of his senior class, played two years of varsity basketball at Mont Pleasant, and when he graduated, he was the Red Raiders’ leader in single-game, season and career scoring. However, he was also a three-year standout on the baseball team, and on
July 5, 1955, his 18th birthday, Jordan was at Yankee Stadium, having been given a tryout by the Bronx Bombers.
“The team was out of town, but we were able to dress in the locker room and then run out on the field,” said Jordan. “It was really cool. I had a pretty good screwball; I’d guess you call it a cutter today, but I can remember thinking how the stands were so high it seemed like they were right on top of you. I felt like I was going to give up a home run every time I threw the ball, and I can remember wondering, ‘How am I going to hit a 95 mile an hour fastball?’ But it was a great experience, one of the most exciting days of my life.”
The Yankees offered Jordan a minor league contract, but he turned it down.
“I knew I wanted to go to college, and I knew I wanted to play basketball,” he said.
At Cornell, Jordan was twice an Ivy League all-star for the Big Red, and in his senior season, he won the league’s scoring title ahead of Dartmouth’s Rudy LaRusso, later a five-time NBA all-star with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers. When he graduated from Cornell, Jordan was the school’s second all-time leading scorer, and was good enough to get drafted by the Detroit Pistons with the 42nd overall pick.
Pistons to med school
“That was another very exciting time in my life,” said Jordan, a 6-foot-1 guard who will join his high school coach, Ray Vacca, in the Hall of Fame. “I had actually signed a contract with the Pistons, but three weeks later, I got accepted into medical school. I wrote back to the Pistons and they more or less cancelled the contract. They were very nice about it. They said if I ever changed my mind, I could just give them a call. It was a very nice gesture on their part.”
So, instead of going to Detroit, Jordan headed to New York City and Cornell Medical School, and never thought twice about his decision.
“I signed with the Pistons for $6,500, and I read somewhere recently where today the average salary of a NBA player is $6 million,” said Jordan, who grew up on Baker Avenue. “It was a different time and era, and I have no regrets. Orthopedics has been unbelievably rewarding for me. I have met many wonderful people and helped them get back to more pain-free, productive lives. That is very satisfying. I would not trade my decision for anything.”
Sports, however, did end up playing a role in Jordan’s career path.
“I liked orthopedics, and I think it was because it was related to sports,” he said. “What’s nice about it is that you really get to fix something. You take an X-ray, you do the operation, and after the operation, you take another X-ray and you can see how well you’ve done. It’s like instant gratification because you can see right away what you accomplished. It’s very satisfying to be able to help people with a problem, and get them back to their normal life.”
Mostly knees and hips
He completed his internship and surgical residency at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., and his orthopedic residency at Cornell’s Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. For 34 years, Jordan helped people with their body parts, mostly knees and hips, and was one of the trendsetters in making that kind of surgery less invasive. He traveled all over the U.S., Europe and Asia giving presentations about knee and hip replacement surgery. He retired in 2005.
“It used to be we’d do hip replacement surgery and the patient would be in the hospital for three weeks,” said Jordan. “Now, we do the same operation, and the patient goes home in three days. The instruments have changed, the technique has changed, the design of the artificial hip or knee has changed. That’s progress that was good for everybody.”
The fact that Jordan chose a higher playing field for his life’s work than the basketball court or the baseball diamond didn’t come as a surprise to Ed Meyer, a 1956 Mont Pleasant graduate who played on the Red Raiders with Jordan.
“He had a great shooting eye, so he hit a lot jumpers, and most of the time, there was a hand in his face,” Meyer said of Jordan. “He was a terrific basketball player, but I always figured he would do something like that, something outstanding that would really help people. He’s a wonderful guy.”
Jordan was also a wonderful teammate.
“Sure, he took a lot of shots, but he was a great guy to play with,” said Meyer, who now lives in Saratoga Springs. “He had his assists, and he always gave credit where it was due. When you did something right, he let you know. He was very unselfish in that way.”
Bill Kirvin, a 1958 Mont Pleasant graduate and a 2003 inductee into the Schenectady Hall of Fame, was a freshman during Jordan’s senior year, and occasionally had the opportunity to practice against Jordan.
“I would go over there on Saturday mornings and they would allow me to practice with the team,” said Kirvin, who played three seasons of basketball at Xavier after breaking most of Jordan’s scoring records at Mont Pleasant. “I can remember he used to play with knee pads on his elbows, and he would score a lot of his points at the foul line. He was a helluva player, but what he did with his life after basketball is just wonderful.”
Jordan said he got his athletic ability from his father, who was a pretty fare pitcher himself before hurting his elbow.
“My father struck out 25 of 27 guys one game in college, including 18 in a row, and he also was offered a contract by the Yankees, but his father wanted him to go into business,” said Jordan. “My father actually wanted to be a dentist, but my grandfather didn’t like that idea. It’s amazing how your life is influenced by various little things that happen.”
Jordan’s father did enter the business world, moved to Schenectady in the 1930s and worked for the General Electric Company for most of his adult life.
“He would pitch batting practice for the [Schenectady] Blue Jays when he was older, but he had a problem with his elbow much earlier that really prevented him from having a baseball career,” said Jordan. “He had a tingling sensation in his elbow and nobody knew what to do with it. Nowadays, it’s a simple operation that I personally used to do. If we could have done it when he was younger, it would have saved his career.”
Time to play golf
As for his own playing career, Jordan said he continued to play basketball in recreational leagues into his 30s, but then stopped.
“I kept on playing for a while, but then I started missing shots when I was completely open,” he said. “I used to make them with guys hanging all over me. When it got to that point, I stopped and started playing tennis and golf.”
These days, Jordan sticks pretty much to golf. He and his wife Shirley, from Greenwich, Conn., raised three children — two girls and a boy — and his one son has followed in his footsteps and is an orthopedic surgeon.
“Now we have eight grandchildren, and our main enjoyment these days is watching them grow up,” said Jordan. “I thoroughly enjoyed orthopedic surgery, but my wife really wanted me to retire so I could spend more time with her and our grandchildren, and it was the best thing that I could have done.”