The 1946-47 season marked the beginning of the modern age of professional basketball. The new Basketball Association of America brought the pro game to spacious arenas in eleven cities throughout the country. The American League had failed twenty years earlier to establish a big-city league across a wide geographical sweep, but this time the sport seemed ready for it.
For all the interest in the new BAA, the best pro teams remained in the less glamorous National Basketball League. Cleveland dropped out, but five new members: Anderson (Indiana), Buffalo, Detroit, Syracuse and Toledo joined holdover teams in Chicago, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Rochester, Oshkosh, Sheboygan and Youngstown.
The main attraction of the new season was 6’10″ George Mikan, the first big man to combine size and muscle with true athletic ability. Mikan was outstanding in every facet of the game. He was a proficient scorer, an excellent rebounder and outstanding defender. With Mikan in the lineup, the Chicago Gears were considered the pre-season favorite, but a contract squabble forced Mikan to sit out six weeks of the season throwing open the Western Division race. Five teams finished within four games of each other. A trio of hard-nosed veterans, Leroy Edwards, Bob Carpenter and Gene Englund, led Oshkosh to first place in the Western Division. Indianapolis captured second place behind the scoring of string bean center Arnie Risen. The Gears, with Mikan finally back on the court, surged from way behind to land in a third place tie with the Sheboygan Redskins. Anderson, despite an admirable 24-20 record, was left out of the playoffs.
In the Eastern Division, Rochester proved that last year’s fine performance was not a fluke by handily winning first place. Fort Wayne finished second, despite heavy personnel losses. Buddy Jeannette had jumped to the ABL, while Ed Sadowski had been hired as player-coach of the Toronto entry in the new BAA. After a midseason row with two teammates, Pistons’ player-coach Bobby McDermott was shipped to Chicago. New teams in Syracuse and Toledo played well enough to capture the next two spots.
Four teams from each division entered the playoffs. Rochester established its dominance over the once indestructible Pistons 76-47 in the clinching contest of the Eastern Division playoffs. In the West, the Chicago Gears subdued Indianapolis in five tough games and then ousted Oshkosh to reach the championship series against Rochester. The Royals offense was geared to the speedy trio of Bob Davies, Red Holzman and Al Cervi, but Rochester also had the muscle to defend against Mikan, with beefy George Glamack, Arnie Johnson and Dolly King taking turns doubling up against big George. In the opener, Mikan was limited to fourteen points and the Royals prevailed, but Mikan and forward Bob Calihan came on strong as the Lakers won the next three in a row to capture the National League title.
The Washington Capitals quickly established themselves as the best team in the new BAA with an early-season 17-game winning streak and went on to post a league-best 49-11 record. The Caps young coach, Red Auerbach, had recruited the best frontcourt in the league: Bones McKinney, an exuberant ex-Navy man who had starred at North Carolina, Johnny Norlander a speedster who had also served in the Navy and John Mahaken who had played locally at Georgetown. Auerbach also signed his Navy buddy, Bob Feerick, a former star at Santa Clara who provided the team with a west coast pipeline that included Fred Scolari (USF) and Marty Passaglia (Santa Clara). Rounding out the Caps was veteran Philadelphia Sphas star Irv Torgoff, a valuable swingman.
Led by veteran coach Eddie Gottlieb, Philadelphia finished in second place, fourteen games behind the Caps. Gottlieb filled his roster with a slew of former ABL stars including Art Hillhouse, Jerry Fleischmann, and George Senesky. The biggest prize, however, was Joe Fulks a 6’5”, 25 year-old ex-Marine with an unstoppable jump-shot. Fulks, who had played at tiny Murray State before entering the service, averaged an astonishing 23.2 points per game, almost 7 points a game more than any other player in the league. New York grabbed the final playoff spot with a roster heavily weighted with seasoned ABL veterans such as Ossie Schectman, Sonny Hertzberg and Stan Stutz. Providence, with lots of local college talent, finished fourth with Boston and Toronto lagging far behind.
In the Western division, Chicago and St.Louis tied for the top spot with identical 38-22 records, but with two very different styles. Chicago ran a high-powered offense built around the rebounding of 6’9” Chuck Halbert and a slew of speedy guards including Swede Carlson, Mickey Rottner and Doyle Patrick. When the fast-break offense bogged down, Max Zaslofsky provided long-range shooting. In St.Louis, Ken Loeffler ran a more methodical defensive-minded crew. Lacking the height to trigger a fast break offense, Loeffer settled for a half-court offense that looked for good shots for scorers Johnny Logan and Belus Smawley. Cleveland captured the third and the final playoff spot. The Rebels played very little defense but had a bevy of high-scoring former National League stars including Mel Riebe, Frankie Baumholtz and Ed Sadowski, acquired from Toronto after an unsuccessful stint as player-coach. Detroit and Pittsburgh brought up the rear.
The six surviving teams moved into the playoffs with the first-place, second-place and third-place teams matched against each other in the first round. Washington had lost only once in thirty home games, but the Caps were quickly stunned by two lopsided homecourt losses to the Chicago Stags, who finished them off in six games. Philadelphia, in the match up of second place finishers, defeated St.Louis, while New York ousted Cleveland in the third-place match up. Philadelphia convincingly defeated New York in two straight games to move into the finals against Chicago. Philadelphia opened the best-of seven game series with two decisive victories at home. Joe Fulks scored thirty-seven points in the opener to set the pace for the Warriors. The teams split the next two games in Chicago, before the Warriors returned home to wrap up the first BAA championship with a hard-fought 83-80 victory.
The player ravaged American Basketball League sunk totally out of the spotlight. No longer considered a major league, the ABL was totally dominated by a powerful team in Baltimore that captured 31 wins in 34 games. Buddy Jeannette, lured away from the NBL Ft.Wayne Pistons, starred as the Bullets player-coach. Between ABL games, the Bullets roamed south to North Carolina and as far as west as Seattle playing lucrative exhibitions. The ABL playoffs saw the first place finishers in each division, Brooklyn and Baltimore, face off against each other while four other teams fought it out for the right to play against the winner for the championship. After absorbing an uncharacteristic 80-66 loss in game one, the Bullets pummeled the Gothams with consecutive 27 and 24 points beatings to take their series. When the playoffs for the right to meet Baltimore for the championship dragged on, endangering some lucrative exhibition dates, the Bullets abruptly declared themselves as the league champions and declined to participate any further. With the league’s best team out of the picture, the ABL went on with the playoffs. Trenton, a mediocre .500 team, won a hallow championship. The dismal outcome to the season was just another embarrassment to the ABL. Any semblance of a major league operation was long gone.
The Chicago World Tourney rounded out the season, but with George Mikan and the hometown Gears sitting out the tourney it lacked the interest of past years. Fort Wayne’s attempt to win its fourth straight title was ended in the semi-finals with a 61-56 loss to Toledo. In the championship game, Toledo succumbed to NBL rival Indianapolis 62-47.