The War Years

As the forties began, a feeling of normalcy, missing throughout the thirties, was returning to the United States.  Professional basketball battered and bruised by ten years of the Depression, eagerly looked forward to a new decade that offered indications of financial prosperity.  At the beginning of the 1940-41 season both major leagues were in healthy shape for the first time in memory.  The American League had five teams in big league cities, while the National League, anchored by two strong industrial-sponsored teams in Akron, had seven members.  There were indications as well that the minor league basketball would again become a reality, The Tri-Counties League in Pennsylvania opened its sixth season.  Nine teams battled for the Connecticut State League title before good-size crowds and the New York State League was once again a training ground for talented young New York City players.

Americans basked in the sunshine of peace and prosperity while the world around them shuddered.  It turned out to be a brief interlude before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 plunged the United States into the nightmare of a world war.  Almost immediately, the nation geared up for war.  Millions of young men were mobilized for the military.  A nation that had spent a decade trying to locate jobs for millions of unemployed men suddenly found itself with an acute manpower shortage.  Woman went to work in large numbers for the first time; eighteen million were employed by the end of the war.  Life in America during the war was a strange mixture of tension and exhilaration, despair and hope, futility and achievement.  People on the home front worked long hours.  The war created new jobs and brought unprecedented prosperity to millions of people. Wages soared to an all-time highs, but there was little to spend it on.  Everything, from shoes to steaks, was rationed.

For the first time since the late twenties, there were large numbers of people with money in their pockets and looking for ways to spend it.  People were hungry for entertainment and diversions.  The movie industry flourished, while professional sports, including basketball, struggled to fill the demand.  The obstacles were many.  Travel was difficult and expensive. Non-essential travel nearly impossible.  Gas and tires were rationed limiting car travel and trains were jammed.  Passengers often spent the long trips perched on their luggage in the aisle or standing.  Hotel rooms were always in short supply, and many a weary traveler spent the night dozing in a chair in the lobby.

Scheduling games was a precarious task.  Games often started late or were canceled at the last minute.  As the war dragged on, it drained off many of the best players.  Coaches could never be sure of their rosters for any particular game during the war years. Players were not on contract generally, and the availability of players usually depended on their military situation.  The frequent roster changes broke down the quality of play and made the game rougher.  A punch now and then was almost obligatory to maintain one’s status in the league.  This was especially true of the wartime years, when team rivalries and league standings were secondary to individuals and the income the games provided.  Rosters shifted so often that it was hard for personal rivalries to develop.  Tonight’s opponent might be tomorrow’s teammate. Fouls as often, as not were to establish territorial rights.  If a newcomer tried to take a certain spot on the floor, he might get a belt that wouldn’t be in order for some other place on the court.

Dozens of unfamiliar names dotted American and National League box scores as the war dragged on. Some were authentic nobodies, but quite a few were well-known players on weekend passes playing under assumed names.  Former Santa Clara University star Bruce Hale played in the 1945 Chicago World Pro Tournament, before crowds of over 15,000, as Bob McNeill.  Hale officially turned pro after the war, but more than a few college players ventured into the pro game under assumed names only to return to college after the war.  Future college and professional coach Jack Ramsey played for Wilmington in the ABL in 1944 before returning to captain the St. Joseph’s College team after the war.

With many of the best players in the country in uniform, some of the best teams in the country were service teams.  The Great Lakes (Illinois) Naval Training Center featured teams throughout the war years that were equal to, if not superior to any pro team.  From 1941-45, the “Bluejackets” posted a 130-16 record against top-rated collegian squads.  Coached by longtime Butler University coach Tony Hinkle, the Navy squad featured over two-dozen pre-war or future professionals including standouts such as Bob Davies, George Glamack, Mel Riebe, Jack Coleman and Fred Schaus.  The Norfolk (Virginia) Naval Training Center team also produced quality teams throughout the war.  Bob Ferrick, Red Holzman, Johnny Norlander and a seldom used substitute by the name of Arnold (Red) Auerbach appeared on the roster. Auerbach contributed little as a player, but he made contacts that would profoundly affect the post-war professional game.

The most telling effect of the war was the change it brought on the game itself.  Professional basketball in the thirties had remained static.  Defenses dominated with teams point production seldom hitting forty points.  Three-time Stanford All-American Hank Luisetti had introduced the jump shot to the East in the late thirties, but for the most part it had not taken hold in the pro game.  When University of Wyoming star Kenny Sailors dazzled New Yorkers in the 1943 National Invitational Tournament with his scoring outbursts, his jump-shooting was still considered innovative.  By the mid-forties some professionals were shooting one handed push shots, but jump shooters were still few and far between.  The war broke down many regional barriers.  In service camps, where players were transferred with high frequency, it was easier to promote an offensive oriented team than a defensive club.  Defense, which takes long hours of practice with a stable roster to master properly suffered.  By the end of the war in 1945, proponents of offensive-minded basketball were ready to push to the forefront of the game.  Coaching attitudes changed when confronted with the wealth of young, talented players who could shoot and or dribble the ball better than anyone imaged possible.  Where a team would once probe and probe until it could get a good shot, in the new game, with more good shooters, it was self-defeating to wait for a perfect shot.

During the 1940-41 season, the NBL averaged 30 points per game.  By the end of the war the average was up to 51 points a game.  In the American League, teams averaged 36 points per game in the first year of the war.  By the 1945-46 season, the average was up to 56 points a game; a jump of twenty points a game in just five seasons. It was the dawning of a new age in professional basketball.