Welcome Back, Fort Wayne
Posted Apr 10 2007 3:59PM
Fifty years has simply been too long.
The NBA owes a debt of gratitude to this area, located 124 miles northeast of Indianapolis and especially to its visionary owner, Fred Zollner, whose leadership and financial resources played a crucial role in keeping a newly expanded league afloat, one that 61 years later enjoys unprecedented global popularity. The Pistons may call Detroit home but its roots will forever be in Fort Wayne, a city 190 miles south of Detroit and the former hometown of the Zollner piston manufacturing company.
Founded in 1941, the Zollner Pistons competed in the National Basketball League (NBL), which began as the Midwest Basketball Conference in 1935 and changed its name in 1937 with hopes of attracting a larger fan base. It was a league that was ahead of its time when it came to the marriage of professional sports and corporate commercialization, boasting such team names as the Akron Firestone Non-Skids, the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots and the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets.
Thanks to Zollner, the Pistons traveled in style, crisscrossing the Midwest in their own team plane, a DC-3. Fort Wayne posted a 15-9 record in its inaugural season and reached the NBL Finals before losing to the Oshkosh All-Stars, a powerhouse who appeared in the championship series five consecutive times (1938-42), winning two titles. The Pistons featured perennial league MVP Bobby McDermott, a tough 5-11 guard who owned the best two-handed set shot of his era and would later be voted as the greatest Zollner Piston of all time. McDermott along with the era’s other premier backcourt player, Buddy Jeannette, had the Pistons firing on all cylinders, as Fort Wayne boasted the league’s best record from 1943 through 1946, winning back-to-back NBL titles in ’44 and ’45.
The Pistons may have traveled first class but when it came to venues, the accommodations weren’t so state of the art. It wasn’t uncommon for the Pistons to play their games in armories, ballrooms, high school gyms or even taverns.
“In those days, you would drive into town and look for the biggest building,” recalled Jeannette, like McDermott, a Basketball Hall of Famer. “We drove up to this bar and I got out of the car and ran inside and I said to the bartender, ‘Hey, we are supposed to play a basketball game in this town today, can you tell me where it is?’ He said, ‘This is the place.’ I looked around and there were tables all over the place. After we got dressed they had shoved all the tables back and put a basket on one wall, and on the other side they had a basket drawn up into the ceiling. The referee drew a big circle on the middle of the floor, and a net dropped down around the floor. And the damnedest fight you ever saw started. That was a real education.”
In 1948, the Pistons, along with three other teams from the NBL, joined the Basketball Association of America. It was a merger in which Zollner played a pivotal role in overseeing. The BAA then adopted a new name prior to the 1949-50 season, the National Basketball Association. Due to the popularity of the college doubleheaders, the league was a far cry from being an overnight success, primarily relying on two main attractions: George Mikan (of the Minneapolis Lakers) and the Harlem Globetrotters, who played the front end of doubleheaders in which an NBA game followed. The success of Zollner’s business allowed him to provide the league with much needed financial support, transportation assistance, as well as personnel to help keep it afloat during this tumultuous time.
The revenue streams weren’t exactly flowing, considering that the Pistons played the majority of their games at Fort Wayne’s North High School. It wasn’t until Zollner convinced the city to build an all-purpose arena so they would finally have a big-league home. The Pistons surged to the NBA Finals versus the Syracuse Nationals in 1955 and because no one in this northern Indiana city had expected them to reach the championship series, the arena was already booked, having previously scheduled a bowling tournament, forcing the Pistons to play Games 3, 4 and 5 in Indianapolis.
“He was really disappointed,” said Danny Biasone, the owner of the Nationals and inventor of the 24-second shot clock, said of Zollner. “He said, ‘I’m moving the team to Detroit.’ And that's what he eventually did.”
Featuring future Hall of Famer George Yardley, Max Zaslofsky and Mel Hutchins, the Pistons battled the Syracuse Nationals in a hard-fought hotly contested seven-game series that featured plenty of great shots, great moves and plenty of fouls. It was also the first Finals that featured the shot clock, a league-saving innovation of which Zollner was a big proponent. Despite being up 17 points in Game 7 at Syracuse, Fort Wayne ended up losing in heartbreaking fashion as the Nationals’ George King played a crucial role down the stretch, sinking one of two free throws and coming up with a clutch steal to seal the victory and championship.
The Pistons again would advance to the Finals the following season, but fell to the Philadelphia Warriors in five games.
The Pistons era in Fort Wayne ended the following season. Holding true to his word, Zollner moved the team to Detroit shortly after being swept by the Minneapolis Lakers in the Western Division Semifinals. Fifty years later, it's now the Fort Wayne Fury’s turn to continue the rich basketball tradition, one filled with great players and an owner who was clearly ahead of his time.