HISTORICAL BASKETBALL WRITER
The World Professional Basketball Tournament was created on the heels of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in 1937 and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament in 1938. The World Professional Basketball Tournament was the professional counterpart to the NIT and NCAA. As John Schleppi, the author of Chicago’s Showcase of Basketball: The World Tournament of Professional Basketball and the College All Star Game, notes, “During the Great Depression many organizations and events, as well as several college football bowls (the Sugar, Cotton, and Sun), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (present NAIA) tournament, and Amateur Softball Association tournament, were all promotions born out of financial necessity to put backsides in arena seats. The developing World Tournament of Professional Basketball was to become another of these events.”
This was considered the World Series of Professional Basketball. In many ways, this was an early version of March Madness, which we experience each March in college basketball. One of the successes of the tournament was the inclusion of all-black and integrated teams. The tournament was also instrumental in saving professional basketball, which was struggling financially and in popularity, during the 1940s. As Schleppi notes, “Professional basketball was in disarray in the late 1930s due to poor financial backing, quixotic leadership, and the effects of the Depression. Against this background entrepreneur Harry Hannin and Leo Fischer of the Chicago Herald American promoted the World Tournament of Professional Basketball, which began in March 1939. Attracting the best available teams, they included the leading black and integrated teams. This was the first time blacks competed with whites on an even footing for a professional team championship. Using major facilities, including the Amphitheatre and the Stadium, attention was drawn to the game during the war years.” Another byproduct of the tournament was the increase in scoring that was the result of basketball in World War II.
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The history of the tournament can be divided into three distinct areas.
The first is the integration of basketball. The fact that the tournament served as the first venue for all-black and integrated teams to play for a professional championship was the World Professional Basketball Tournament’s most important and lasting legacy. From its very first year in 1939 until it concluded in 1948, the World Professional Basketball Tournament invited the best black teams to participate. The New York Renaissance (Rens) won the inaugural tournament in 1939 and earned the unique distinction of being the only team to participate all ten years. One of the Rens best players, William (Pop) Gates, was the only player to compete in all 10 years, although not all with the Rens. The following year, the Harlem Globetrotters won the title. In 1943, the Washington Bears won the tournament. Thus, in the first five years, three black teams captured the title as basketball champions of the world.
As black teams won, recognition fell to their players. A strong array of black players competed in the tournament including Robert (Sonny) Wood, Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton, William (Pop) Gates, Zack Clayton, Bernie Price, William (Dolly) King, Johnny Isaacs, Clarence (Puggy) Bell, Babe Pressley, and Sonny Boswell, and all garnered recognition. Except for the 1946 and 1947 tournaments, at least one black player was named to the all-tournament first or second teams every year. Other players like Al Price and Willie Smith all made contributions to integrating the game. Integrated teams coached by black players also appeared in the tournament. Professional basketball integrated in World War II and this dovetailed with the World Professional Basketball Tournament. The integration of professional basketball occurred five years before Jackie Robinson in 1947.
A second theme in the tournament is the emergence of the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons as a dominant team during World War II. Owned by Fred Zollner, who managed the Zollner Piston plant, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were professional basketball’s greatest team during World War II. The players were employees in the Zollner Piston plant that made pistons for military vehicles. The players then played on the team on weekends. The team won two National Basketball League titles (1943 and 1944) and three World Professional Basketball Tournaments (1944, 1945, and 1946). Their team was the deepest and most balanced of any during that period, and they were led by Bobby McDermott, arguably the best basketball player in the first half of the twentieth century. The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons would eventually become the Detroit Pistons of the NBA.
The third significant theme is the emergence of center George Mikan on the national basketball scene. After a stellar college career at DePaul University, where he captured College Player of the Year honors in 1946, Mikan led the Blue Demons to the 1945 NIT Championship. On the eve of the 1946 tournament, Mikan signed the largest contract for a professional basketball player—5 years, $60,000 with the Chicago American Gears. His play in the 1946 tournament, 100 points in 5 games, earned him MVP honors. Over the next two years, Mikan was a dominating force in the tournament. During the 1950s, Mikan was instrumental in championing the nascent National Basketball Association and being the top basketball player.
In the course of researching the World Professional Basketball Tournament, this author compiled all ten programs from the tournament. This volume provides an opportunity to learn about the significance of this tournament, its stars and teams, and importance in keeping professional basketball alive during World War II and its role in the integration of the game.