It was obvious that the National Basketball Association could not operate again with seventeen teams, and during the summer six clubs were pared off the rolls. Some of the losses were for obvious reasons. Anderson, Sheboygan and Waterloo were too small to survive, Denver, in the days before air travel was just too distant. The two surprises were Chicago and St.Louis, big cities with first-class arenas, but too few paying customers. With sixty veteran players out of work, teams were able to strengthen their rosters. Black players appeared in the league this year. The New York Knicks signed veteran Sweetwater Clifton while rookies Chuck Cooper (Boston) and Earl Lloyd (Washington) were also added.
In a surprise move, new Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach passed on Bob Cousy, a much publicized All-American from nearby Holy Cross, to select 6’11” Bowling Green center Chuck Share as the first choice in the entire draft. Baltimore chose Wisconsin Don Rehfeldt, and Philadelphia close high-scoring Villanova forward Paul Arizin. Cousy went to Tri Cites as the fourth choice in the draft. Hawks owner Ben Kerner then traded him to Chicago for veteran guard Frank Brian.
Then just a few weeks before the season was to start the Chicago franchise folded leaving three quality players up for grabs: Max Zaslofsky, Andy Phillip and Cousy. Commissioner Maurice Podoloff set up a lottery. The Knicks were happy to draw native New Yorker Zaslofsky. Philadelphia was equally happy to get Phillip, a veteran playmaker who was a perfect fit the Warriors offense. By default Cousy ended back in New England with the Celtics.
The new streamlined eleven-team league was divided into two divisions for a 66-game schedule. When play began in November, it was quickly apparent that the balance of power had shifted dramatically in the East. After two consecutive losing seasons, Eddie Gottlieb’s Philadelphia Warriors finished on top. Villanova rookie Paul Arizin proved to be the perfect compliment for Joe Fulks, while Andy Phillip, picked up in the dispersal draft paired well with veteran George Senesky in the backcourt. Boston had its first winning season in five tries and finished second. Cousy turned out to be the perfect fit for Auerbach’s fast break offense. Blessed with large hands and exceptional peripheral vision, Cousy revolutionized the pro game with his dribbling and passing skills. He bewildered opponents and dazzled fans with his behind the back and through the legs passes to fast-breaking teammates. Cousy combined with Ed Macauley, who had arrived from St.Louis in the dispersal draft, to provide the Celtics with one of the league’s most potent offensive duos.
New York finished third. Max Zaslofsky, acquired from Chicago in the dispersal draft, plugged the hole left by Carl Braun’s departure for military service. Sweetwater Clifton joined Harry Gallatin and Vince Boryla to give the Knicks one of the league’s more formidable front lines. Syracuse slipped badly because they did not strengthen their roster. Baltimore finished in fifth place, and Washington did not finish at all folding in early January.
In the West, it was business as usual. Minneapolis finished first with Rochester in second place just three games back. The Lakers featured the league’s best frontcourt with George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard, while the Royals had the best backcourt with Bob Davies and Bobby Wanzer. Fort Wayne, bolstered by the fine play of 6’9” La Salle rookie Larry Foust, finished third, while Indianapolis, despite the fine play of Alex Groza and Ralph Beard, slumped to fourth place.
In January there was news that sent shudders through the basketball community. Junius Kellogg, a Manhattan College player, reported a bribe offer to shave points in a game. An investigation quickly discovered widespread fixing activity centered on the big double-headers at Madison Square Garden. At first it appeared to be strictly a New York City aberration. CCNY, winners of both the NCAA and NIT tournaments was implicated, as were Long Island University and New York University.
The NBA was nervous, but remained unaffected. The league played its first All-Star game in March in Boston, with the East winning 111-94. Minneapolis and Rochester won the opening rounds of the Western Division playoffs as expected. With Mikan hampered by an ankle injury, Rochester managed to outrun the bigger Lakers and win their second-round series three games to one. In the East, the third and forth place teams, New York, and Syracuse, ousted first and second place finishers Philadelphia and Boston. New York defeated Syracuse in the decisive fifth game of their series by two points after trailing throughout the game.
For the first time since the Original Celtics and the Whirlwinds had faced off almost thirty years earlier, New York was once again the center of the pro game. The heavily favored Royals quickly won the first three games, but the underdog Knicks rallied to even the series with three straight wins of their own. The final game of the series, played in Rochester, was memorable. After trailing by as many as sixteen points, the Knicks rallied to tie the game at 75-75 with just 40 seconds left in the game. Bob Davies sank two free throws and the Royals got another basket at the buzzer to finally squeeze out the victory and win the NBA championship.
Four teams tossed out of the NBA, Anderson, Denver, Sheboygan and Waterloo, formed a new league, the National Professional Basketball League. New teams in Grand Rapids (Michigan), Louisville, Kansas City and St.Paul joined the four veteran teams to bring the membership in the enterprise to eight teams. The new league made few serious inroads into NBA personal, although it did sign some well-respected professionals such as Stan Miasek, Odie Spears and Blackie Towery along with the aging, but still fiery Bobby McDermott as player-coach in Grand Rapids. The NPBL was much more successful in signing collegiate stars including Chuck Share, the top choice in the NBA draft, who signed with Waterloo. Other major prizes included All-Americans Dick Dickey of North Carolina State, John Pilch of Wyoming, Hal Haskins of Hamline and Bill Erickson of Illinois.
St.Paul, competing for fans with the Minneapolis Lakers was in an impossible situation from the beginning. Despite a good team, the club absorbed huge financial losses before dropping out in late December. The player-owned and operated Grand Rapids team followed suit a week later. Grand Rapid player-coach Bobby McDermott had been banished from the league just a week earlier for destroying a locker room after a tough loss in Denver. It was a sad, but in some ways fitting swan song for the fiery New Yorker’s two-decade long career. The NPBL steadied itself and seemed to be making a go of it until late January when three teams with corporate sponsorship: Kansas City (Canada Dry), Denver (Frontier Refining) and Louisville (Reynolds Aluminum) all quit. An independent team in Evansville, Indiana was recruited to fill the fourth slot so Anderson, Sheboygan and Waterloo could complete the season. The ill-fated NPBL’s first (and only) season ended in confusion with both Sheboygan and Waterloo claiming the championship.