Chevette to Corvette No. 54: The 1948-49 Fort Wayne Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 22-38
  • Pythagorean record: 21-39
  • Points scored per game: 74.3 (12th of 12)
  • Points allowed per game: 77.5 (3rd of 12)
  • Arena: North Side High School Gym
  • Head coach: Carl Bennett (0-6), Curly Armstrong (22-32)

Leaders

  • Points per game:  Bill Henry (9.9)
  • Assists per game: Bruce Hale (2.6)

Top player

Richie Niemiera

The Pistons used 19 players in 1948-49, and none of their four leaders in points per game, and only one in the top nine, played more than 37 games during the 60-game season.

Niemera, who who finished 13th on the team in points per game, gets the edge because he played 55 games, shot 34.7 percent from the field (above league average) and 80 percent from the line (well above league average).

The Pistons ran through so many players to get a head start on building the following year’s team, according to Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story.” But Niemiera, unlike many of his teammates, earned his spot early and kept it.


Key transaction

Left National Basketball League for Basketball Association of America

Chronologically, we began our rankings in 1948-49 – the first season of what would become the NBA – but the Pistons actually began competing professionally seven years earlier. In fact, the team formed even four years before that, according Myron Cope  of Sports Illustrated:

In 1937, responding to a request from the boys in the shop, Zollner decided to sponsor a company basketball team. Because he offered good jobs to new players, the best talent in industrial basketball came to his door at a fast dribble. "We rarely lost," Zollner says, "and since we were playing neighboring industries, we were making enemies instead of friends."

That being the case, Zollner turned the team pro, enrolling it in a Midwest circuit—the old National Basketball League—in 1941. The coming of World War II made the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, as they were then called, as successful an athletic organization as there was in the land. The country was full of topflight athletic competitors who, because they were working at draft-deferrable jobs, did not have to join the Army and go to war. Working in the Zollner plant by day, they could indulge their competitive instincts by night. Zollner’s basketball team dominated the NBL four straight years.

Prior to the 1948-49 season, the Pistons left the NBL for the BAA, which would later become the NBA. In the long run, it was a wise move. In 1948-49, well, the Pistons were focused on the long run.

Trend watch

Dropped “Zollner”

Pistons owner Zollner made no secret that he treated his team as an advertising mechanism for his pistons factory.* One way he did that was including his name in the team’s. Until this season, they had always been the Zollner Pistons.

*The auto part – although, it is fun to imagine a factory where they put together Bob Laniers and Vinnie Johnsons.

Tacky? Sure. An interesting remnant of another time? Absolutely. Lead to anything awesome looking? You tell me.

But with the move to the BAA, Zollner dropped his surname from the team’s nickname.

Why this season ranks No. 54

The Pistons won NBL titles in 1943-44 and 1944-45, also reached the final round of the playoffs in 1941-42 and 1942-43 and made the playoffs each of their seven NFL season. In all, Fort Wayne went 166-71 in the NFL.*

*Evidence of the unstructured nature of that league: the Pistons never played the same number of games in any two years. In order, they played 24, 23, 22, 30, 34, 44 and 60.

Unfortunately, competing in the BAA proved more difficult than expected. In hindsight, maybe the troubles should’ve been expected. The Pistons’ coach, Carl Bennett, was more of a game manager than a basketball man. He often let players handle scheme, opting to focus just on lineups. In fact, Bennett started working for the Zollner organization because of his softball acumen, according to Nelson:

Bennett was first base- man for Fairview Nurseries’ team in Fort Wayne’s fastest softball league, and in 1938 was named player of the year. Fred Zollner was an avid fan and enjoyed some of the game from the press box. Fred asked Carl to come to work at Zollner Machine Works in 1939.

Somehow, that eventually made him head coach of a professional basketball team. Once the team started 0-6 in 1948-49, though it became clear he was in over his head.

When the team pulled into Washington, there was a telephone call awaiting Carl Bennett from Fred Zollner. Zollner relieved Bennett of his coaching responsibilities, named him athletic direc- tor and chief scout and appointed Curly Armstrong as player-coach. It was a deeply disappointing start for the whole Zollner organization, which had worked so hard to make the jump to the BAA a significant part of Fort Wayne basketball history.

Zollner’s official statement was conciliatory, but Bennett realized that his duties were being diluted. "We have had a change such as this in mind for some time," Zollner explained, "And perhaps the decision has been hastened by the amazing display of strength of other teams in the BAA. We need someone to devote much of his time to the scouting of new talent. We need to keep pace with the other BAA clubs who have had scouts out for two years, resulting in strong ball clubs now bearing the fruits of these efforts. In our other league perhaps we were too complacent with our position. For that reason we thought a change should be made now rather than wait until later in the season or the end of the year. A change now allows us to start our scouting program immediately with the start of the college season. In the meantime we will make every effort to strengthen this year’s club."

The results weren’t spectacular, but the Pistons improved to 22-32 under Armstrong.

Previously

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