America was ready to celebrate. For most Americans, it had been nearly fifteen years since they had felt such a sense of exhilaration. From the nightmare decade of the thirties, the country had been plunged into four years of war that affected, to some degree, every household in the country. A postwar economic boom put money in the pockets of millions of people — and they were anxious to spend it. With many consumer good still in short supply, Americans looked for other ways to spend their money. They tackled leisure activities with a frenzy and professional sports became a major beneficiary.
The 1920s were the “Golden Age of Sports.” It was the era of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones and Red Grange. It was a decade of truly memorable sports figures and a great a period of great prosperity for professional sports teams. Nevertheless, in terms of sheer numbers – fans, teams, and players – the twenties paled in comparison to the late 1940s. In many ways, professional basketball’s “Golden Age” was the four year post-World War II period when professional teams and leagues proliferated at a pace never see before and never to be repeated. During the war, the ABL and NBL had strained to keep eight to ten teams afloat between them. During the 1946-47 season, over ninety professional teams were involved in major and minor league action, while dozens of others toured independently.
The handful of basketball men who had survived the long Depression and war years were suddenly joined by promoters in dozens of cities anxious to get in on the gold rush they saw in professional sports. Few of the old-time basketball figures were prepared to meet the challenge. The two regionally based major leagues had operated since the mid-thirties with little or no conflict. Players occasionally moved from league to league, but there was never any sense of the two leagues being in direct competition with each other. The frenzied post war years would gravely affect both leagues. One would flame brilliantly for a few years before being unexpectedly snuffed out, while the other one, unable to cope with the new economic realities, would quietly slip into oblivion.
When World War Two ended in 1945, millions of young men returned to civilian life. They were eager to pursue peacetime pursuits and sports were at the top of the list for many of them. Basketball players returning from military duty fell loosely into three categories. There were the veteran major leaguers in their mid-to-late twenties. Few of them could regain their prewar form. They found their spot on the roster taken by faster, stronger youngsters. Many veterans did find employment, nevertheless, in the numerous minor leagues that had sprung up.
Younger pros and college players who had graduated during the war years captured most of the major league jobs in the first post war years. The most important group, however, were the players whose college careers were interrupted by the war and returned to finish their college careers. These older, more experienced college graduates of the late forties would provide professional basketball with a nucleus of players that would dominate the game through the mid-1950s. These tall, talented, nationally known players, graduating from college in unprecedented numbers provided the pro game with the talent on the floor and publicity at the box office.
Max Kase, the sports editor of the New York Journal American, was convinced that pro basketball had a tremendous future. Kase convinced Walter Brown, the owner of the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League and Al Stuphin, owner of the Cleveland American Hockey League, that professional basketball could be a moneymaking venture if properly promoted. They convinced their fellow hockey owners to join in the formation of a new basketball league. At the enfant league’s initial meeting in New York in early June of 1946, only Montreal was not represented from the six-team National Hockey League. Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Toronto all signed up. From the American Hockey League came Stephan’s Cleveland team plus Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence and St. Louis. An eleventh team, without any hockey connection, was added in Washington. Also included in the package deal from the AHL was Maurice Podoloff, the president of the league who signed as the first president of the new organization. The most obvious thing about the lineup was that the members had absolutely no connection to the existing major leagues, the Midwest-based National League or the Eastern corridor American Basketball League.
While the new owners know little or nothing about basketball, they did provide the new organization with all the ingredients that George Halas and Preston Marshall had calculated as necessary for success over twenty years earlier. All the franchises were “big-league” cities in major population centers. The franchise owners were all well-established businessmen with extensive experience in the operation and promotion of professional sports franchises. The new league installed a commissioner-system with a strong president and each team would be showcased in a first-class playing facility.
When the new Basketball Association of America teams began to develop their rosters, a definite split in policy was discernible almost immediately. Most of the teams had a strong regional flavor. It worked well where in cities there was a strong basketball tradition such as in New York or Philadelphia, but proved disastrous in cities like Providence and Toronto.
In many cities the coaches were a lot better known than their players. Eddie Gottleib (Philadelphia), Dutch Dehnert (Cleveland), Honey Russell (Boston), Paul Birch (Pittsburgh) and Ed Sadowski (Toronto) were all longtime pro basketball fixtures. Four teams chose well-known college coaches: Olen Olsen (Chicago), Ken Loeffler (St.Louis), Glenn Curtis (Detroit) and Neil Cohalan (New York). Robert Morris a well-known high school coach was signed in Providence. The one team that followed none of the guidelines was in Washington were Red Auerbach, a brash unknown 29-year-old who had served in the Navy during WWII, was chosen.
The BAA had an immediate and devastating effect on the American Basketball League. The upstart league stripped the ABL league of most of its best players. On the other hand, the National Basketball League largely ignored the new league. A solid roster of well-known professionals and for that matter the best collegians, including 6’10” George Mikan, joined the NBL in 1946. Mikan, a three time All American at DePaul, would reign as the dominant figure in professional basketball during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He would win six consecutive scoring titles and be a member of a championship team for seven of his nine professional seasons.