By the summer of 1928, the American Basketball League was at a crossroad. For three seasons the ABL had operated with confidence that professional basketball was finally on route to long-term stability and financial security. Beginning with the fourth season, however, the league turned down an uncertain path where mere survival became the main consideration.
President Joe Carr resigned to devote full time to his position as head of the National Football League. John O’Brien, former Metropolitan League president, and a highly respected basketball man, was named to replace him. O’Brien’s first task was to revitalize the league whose membership was down to just six teams with the off-season season departure of Philadelphia, The Warriors inability to make a go of it was disconcerting to other teams. Philadelphia was an excellent basketball town. The Warriors had winning teams both seasons and Eddie Gottlieb was a savvy basketball man — and still the franchise lost close to $60,000 in just two years. Gottleib’s departure on the heels of George Preston Marshall’s abrupt midseason farewell the past year was deeply troubling to the other owners. In his own way, each man represented the ideal owner. Marshall, with his wealth, poured unlimited funds into his Washington operation, producing a slickly run, highly paid team. Gottleib, with limited financing, ran a nuts and bolts operation, built on a combination of his keen knowledge of the game and immense personal charm. The fact that neither could succeed was ominous for the league’s future.
The most pressing problem was the continued domination of the league by the Celtics. Owners were tired of seeing their clubs continually mauled by the Celtics –- and so were the fans. Because of their overwhelming superiority, the Celtics’ ability to draw consistently large crowds in the ABL had evaporated. The answer to the problem was obvious. The Celtics had to go if the ABL was to survive. Celtics’ owner Jim Furey, imprisoned in Sing Sing, was helpless to control the rapidly disintegrating affairs of his team. Without opposition, the league cancelled his rights to the New York franchise and distributed the Celtics’ players to other teams.
To bring league membership back up to eight teams, two former Metropolitan League teams, Paterson and Trenton, were awarded franchises along with the New York Hakoahs, an all-Jewish club, organized around former Celtics’ stars Nat Holman and Davey Banks.
Cleveland placed itself in the forefront of the league’s stronger teams by signing three of the Celtics, Lapchick, Dehnert and Barry, at the beginning of the season and adding a fourth, Beckman, once the campaign got underway. Fort Wayne lost Pop Morgenweck to the new Paterson franchise, but strengthened itself with the acquisition of another New Jersey native, George Glasco, to bolster the Hoosiers’ offense. Brooklyn, which last season had compiled a fine record after combining with the defunct Washington club, returned with virtually the same lineup featuring Joe Brennan and Red Conaty upfront.
The one-year experiment with a division alignment was scrapped and replaced with the split-season format of the league’s first two years. The three pre-season favorites all performed up to expectations, but could not distance themselves from the rest of the field, which proved to be unexpectedly well balanced.
The Chicago Bruins, behind the leadership of player-coach Honey Russell, had a surprisingly good team. In the reshuffling of the league’s rosters caused by the breakup of the Celtics, the Bruins had acquired veteran standouts Nat Hickey, and Ray Kennedy. Davey Banks and Nat Holman managed to keep New York respectable, but a weak bench limited any possibilities to challenge the top clubs. Trenton performed as if they were playing in a time warp. The Bengals showcased a lineup of aging former Eastern League stars of a decade earlier and in total disregard of league rules exhibited another relic of the past, a wire cage around their homecourt. Unfortunately, neither over-aged stars nor the sharp-edged wire cage could restore past glories. Rochester and Paterson were never a factor in the race.
First place was decided by the last game of the first half when Cleveland nipped Fort Wayne to give the Rosenblums the top spot. The second half of the split season was just as exciting with Cleveland, Fort Wayne and Brooklyn all jockeying for first place. Cleveland held a slim lead with just two weeks to go, but two losses allowed Brooklyn and Fort Wayne to slip past the Rosenblums just before the wire. In the final game of the first-half, Fort Wayne took a 30-29 thriller from the Visitation to capture sole possession of first place. After the excitement of the regular season races, the playoffs proved a disappointment when Cleveland steamrolled Fort Wayne in four straight games.