After two seasons as an “amateur” league, the Midwest Basketball Conference ended the transparent charade and formally restructured as a professional circuit, the National Basketball League. Pro basketball now had two recognized major leagues, but the contrasts in style of play, player personnel, and ownership between the two leagues far outweighed the similarities.
The American Basketball League personified the seat of the pants early years of the pro game. More often than not, the team was owned, operated and coached by one man. Eddie Gottlieb in Philadelphia, John Donlin in Brooklyn, Eddie Wilde in New York, and Pop Morgenweck in Kingston were all one-man operations. The National League reflected a newer trend to well-financed teams run by large national companies such as General Electric, Goodyear, Firestone or smaller locally owned companies such Columbus Athletic Supplies or Dayton Metropolitan Clothing Stores.
The NBL players (particularly on the company teams) were usually college-trained and played exclusively for one team, while many of the ABL’s best players were off the playgrounds of New York City and more than likely moonlighted with one or more other professional teams. The American League retained more of the gritty quality of the early pro game and its heritage of rough play and fighting. It was particularly brutal under the basket. The problem was compounded by the rule that gave a player fouled in the act of shooting only one shot. The obvious strategy was to foul hard and often. The National League was also rough, but the mediating influence of more college-trained players kept the mayhem to more reasonable levels.
Of the twelve teams that finished out the final Midwest Basketball Confernce season, only Chicago, Detroit and the Indianapolis U.S.Tire did not join the new National Basketball League. Buffalo, a 1935-36 member of the MBC, joined along with teams from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Richmond, Indiana, and Kankakee, Illinois.
The Eastern Division race was a repeat of the past season with the two Akron tire company teams battling each other for first place. The Firestone team, strengthened by the addition of high-scoring guard Jack Ozburn, managed to nip cross-town rival Goodyear by a single game. In the Western Division, MBC holdovers Fort Wayne and Whiting battled the new Oshkosh All-Stars for first place. Oshkosh, behind Leroy Edwards’ scoring and rebounding, and Whiting led by the playmaking and scoring of Johnny Wooden, finished respectively in first and second place to shut Fort Wayne out of the playoffs.
In the best-of-three game divisional playoffs, Oshkosh took two straight games from Whiting, despite the outstanding play of Wooden who led all scorers. In the East, Goodyear used a superior bench to win two straight games from first-place Firestone. The Wingfoots took the opener of the best-of-three game final with a 29-28 victory in Oshkosh, but blew a chance to wrap up the series at home when they succumbed 39-31 to the All-Stars, who were led by Leroy Edwards’s 16-point performance. Goodyear recovered to take the deciding game in Oshkosh 35-27 for their first NBL title.
In the American League, the Philadelphia Sphas, winners of three of the past four titles, opened the new season with six straight wins. The Sphas then went into a mysterious tailspin, lost ten of their next sixteen games and fell out of contention for the rest of the season. Jersey quickly took up the slack and easily won the first half of the split-season schedule. The Reds presented a balanced attack built around Moe Spahn, Moe Frankel and veteran Paulie Adamo, and a defense headed by Mike Michelotti and Al Benson.
The New York Jewels, who had suffered their first losing season the past year, were forced for the first time to augment the original St.John’s alumni group with new talent. Veterans Rip Gerson, Mac Posnack, and Allie Schuckman were released and replaced by talented youngsters like Willie Rubinstein and John Pelkington. The revitalized Jewels took the second-half title and the right to face off against Jersey for the championship.
The Jersey Reds opened the best-of-seven game championship by taking two of the first three games. The fourth game in Brooklyn was punctuated by fistfights, constant bickering with the referee and a half-hour hiatus when the Reds walked off the court late in the third period to protest a disallowed basket. While the orchestra (a regular adjunct to 1930’s contests for after game dancing) played soothing music, league president John O’Brien cajoled the Jersey club back onto the floor where the Reds finally subdued the Jewels 26-24 to take a 3-1 series lead. New York fought back from extinction in game five to upset Jersey on its homecourt and force the series back to Arcadia Court in Brooklyn. In game six, however, the Jewels could hit only 5 of 63 field goal attempts (star Mac Kinsbrunner was 0 for 18) and suffered a two-point loss to the Jersey Reds who claimed their first ABL championship.