Chevette to Corvette No. 9: The 1954-55 Fort Wayne Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 43-29
  • Pythagorean record: 43-29
  • Points scored per game: 92.4 (5th of 8)
  • Points allowed per game: 90.0 (2nd of 8)
  • Arena: War Memorial Coliseum
  • Head coach: Charles Eckman

Playoffs

  • Beat the Minneapolis Lakers in Western Division Finals, 3-1
  • Lost in NBA Finals to the Syracuse Nationals, 4-3

Leaders

  • Points per game: George Yardley (17.3)
  • Rebounds per game: Larry Foust (10.0)
  • Assists per game: Andy Phillip (7.7)

Top player

Larry Foust

Foust made the All-NBA first team for averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Key transaction

Hired Charles Eckman as head coach

Hiring a former referee, like Eckman was, has never been a unconventional method for finding a new head coach, but the Pistons pursued him at full speed, anyway. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

Within three weeks, non-gambler Fred Zollner rolled the dice and named Charley Eckman, veteran college and NBA referee, as head coach and turned the basketball program over to him.

The announcement of a three-year contract stunned the Fort Wayne community and startled the basketball world. It had been Zollner’s best-kept secret. Eckman’s name had never entered any speculation. Carl Bennett was probably the most surprised. He had been Zollner’s number one liaison with sports for fourteen years, but had no inkling of these plans.

Fred Zollner derived great enjoyment from doing the unexpected, pulling a big surprise, keeping a dark secret. His secret of hiring Eckman was probably the biggest of his sports life.

It was another Zollner surprise for Eckman when he was offered the job. Charley recalled it for a story by Alan Goldstein for the Balti- more Sun in June, 1990.

"I’m sitting at home in Baltimore," said Eckman, "when the operator said she was putting through a call from Golden Beach, FL, where all the millionaires went for a sun tan. It was ol’ man Zollner. He wanted me to come down for a job interview. He said his was looking for a coach.

"It sounded crazy at first, but then I figured I had nothing to lose. I had $38 to my name after spending all winter running around the country officiating high school, college and pro games. I also had a wife and three kids with big appetites. Why not take a shot at it? "

So I borrowed $20 from the corner grocer and hopped a plane for Fort Lauderdale. By the time I got there, I was down to $12. But there is a chauffeur-driven Cadillac waiting for me at the airport. He drives me to a fancy beach-front hotel. I ordered a fifth of Canadian Club from room service. When I got hungry, I had the chauffeur drive me to Wolfie’s for a hot dog. Then I went to bed.

"At 10 a.m. the next morning, Mr. Zollner is knocking on my door. He says, ‘Charlie , can you coach my team?’ I say, ‘Absolutely. I can win a title with your guys.’ And he says, ‘I think you can, too.’

Trend watch

Upward

The Pistons had gone from 29 to 36 to 40 to 43 wins, steadily building a championship-caliber team by 1954-55.

Why this season ranks No. 9

The Pistons’ 43 wins and .597 winning percentage were both best in franchise history. The former would remain so until the team won 45 games in 1970-71, the latter until the team won 52 in 1973-74. Their 1954-55 finish earned them the best record in the Western Division, tied with the Syracuse Nationals for the NBA’s best record, and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t capitalize on their homecourt advantage. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

A problem for the Pistons was the fact that they did not have a home court to play on. The American Bowling Congress moved into the Coliseum in early March to build 38 bowling alleys for the annual national tournament, which would attract thousands of tourists to Fort Wayne for a two-month period. The Pistons played their final Coliseum date on March 4 and clinched the title two days later.

The Zollners still faced the problem of not having their home court to play on. The NBA turned down a request to return to their original home, the North Side High School gym, because the floor was not large enough for NBA specifications.

The Pistons played their first home game of the playoffs in Elkhart, Ind., and the rest in Indianapolis. They beat the Lakers and played a tight series against the Nationals, who had a 7-2 regular-season record against Fort Wayne. The Pistons took a 3-2 series lead into Game 6, when:

A brawl erupted when Houbregs and Syracuse’s Wally Osterkorn scrambled over a loose ball. Police had to break up the melee and technicals were given to both benches, but there were no player ejections.

The Pistons lost that game and then fell in Game 7 by only one point. The Pistons first NBA championship would wait 34 years.

Still, it was a fantastic year on the court. There was just one problem, one that would come to a head in a couple years. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”

Jim Costin wrote in the News-Sentinel the Z’s were exciting "all NBA cities but Fort Wayne." He continued, "Of the eight cities participating in the National Basketball Association, seven are excited about the ‘new look’ Zollner Pistons. "The eighth, Fort Wayne, can’t seem to get too enthused about pro basketball, despite its quality

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