Farewell, Fort Wayne

The Pistons' proud history began in IndianaFarewell, Fort Wayne by Ryan Pretzer

You won’t find a place in the United States with more tradition and reverence for the sport of basketball than Indiana. It makes a most fitting birthplace for the Detroit Pistons franchise. This is purely coincidental, of course. The real reason the Pistons started in Fort Wayne, Ind. - and left it, 50 years ago this summer - is Fred Zollner.

For a man who made his fortune selling automobile parts, Zollner’s legacy was founded, quite unintentionally, in basketball. Zollner seemed to have a knack for seeing things for what they could become, not as they were. Aspects of the professional game that are standard today - namely a specialized bench coach and private air travel between games - were innovations that only the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons enjoyed in the pro game’s infancy.

The signature works of Zollner’s clairvoyance were the modern day NBA and his team’s landmark migration from the Hoosier State to the Motor City. One move established the long-term viability of his franchise, the other of the fledgling league it belonged to. But there were short-term consequences, none greater than the competitiveness of his own ball club. The Pistons’ early history from Fort Wayne to Detroit is equally groundbreaking and heartbreaking.

The genesis of Zollner’s basketball team was in the industrial leagues, when companies assembled the best talent they could find to win bragging rights over their competitors and colleagues on the playing field. The piston, a small but critical engine component, had been the focus of Zollner’s business. He gave the name to his basketball team its first season in 1941.

The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons played in the National Basketball League against the likes of the Akron Firestone Non-Skids and the Sheboygan Redskins. Success was quick-coming during the war years. The Zollner Pistons made the NBL finals their first two seasons and then won back-to-back NBL titles, defeating Sheboygan in 1944 and 1945. The Pistons were over .500 every season in NBL, amassing a 166-71 record over nine seasons.

Realizing the old industrial league system, which began in the 1930s, was past its prime, Zollner was among the chief architects in the NBL’s merger with another pro basketball league, the Basketball Association of America. In a transitional move, the Pistons spent one 22-38 season in the BAA before entering the new National Basketball Association in 1949.

The merger, as expected, greatly increased the quality of competition, making success much tougher to come by for the Pistons in their first five NBA seasons. In 1954, Zollner made the unprecedented move of hiring Charlie Eckman, a former referee, for the sole position of head coach. Eckman made all the difference. The Pistons won the first of three straight division titles and made two consecutive NBA Finals appearances, falling short in both 1955 and 1956. Even greater changes were on the horizon.

Financial constraints and market size are frequently cited when pro franchises relocate today, but those were the same issues that Zollner faced as the 1960s approached. Fort Wayne was not Boston, Minneapolis or New York, a large metropolitan area that could enhance the league's "big-time" image or raise the team's attendance numbers. The NBA had outgrown Fort Wayne, just as it had Rochester and later Syracuse.

Zollner did not have to look far to find a natural fit. Many of the pistons he produced went to the automotive companies in Detroit, only 150 miles northeast of Fort Wayne. Even the Pistons’ name fit with the Motor City theme, as if the team had been there all along. Detroit was far from a perfect suitor, however. There was a reason Detroit didn’t have an NBA team already - four unspectacular predecessors from the pre-merger days had come and gone. Only one of them lasted more than a single season, which was cut short by the Second World War after its second season. In 1957, “Detroit basketball” was followed by a question mark, not an exclamation point.

So how did the Pistons perform when they arrived in Detroit? Check Pistons.com for the second part of the series next Tuesday, Oct. 23 -- the 50th anniversary of the Pistons' first game in the Motor City.