Twenty-seven years after the first league was organized in Philadelphia, a professional basketball league of truly national scope was formed. Wealthy businessmen George Preston Marshall and Max Rosenblum, along with pioneer sports’ promoter George Halas were the major forces behind the new organization. Marshall and Rosenbloom provided the business acumen while the blunt, hard-driving Halas provided the experience and contacts in the sports world. From the beginning, the triumvirate was determined that the new circuit would be run as a strictly “major league” basis unlike any basketball league that had preceded it. They were convinced that they could make professional basketball a viable, profitable venture if it was run as a business with strict guidelines under a strong, well-managed league office. To accomplish this, the founders adopted criteria that would insure only serious investors would be granted franchises: Only cities of substantial population would be admitted; owners would be obligated to sign the best available players; a strong league office would closely monitor operations under a “commissioner” system similar to professional baseball; and the teams would play in first-class facilities.
To a large degree the new American Basketball League did adhere in the early years to its original goals. The cities were big league: Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington all had major league baseball teams, while Buffalo and Rochester were of sufficient size to warrant admission. Only Fort Wayne did not fit the original framework, but the Indiana community had a strong history of support for the game. Two notable cities missing from the opening-day lineup were New York and Philadelphia. The obvious choice for the New York franchise, the Original Celtics, had declined an invitation to join the new circuit because owner Jim Furey preferred to keep his high-priced team on lucrative barnstorming junkets. In Philadelphia, Eddie Gottlieb and the Sphas chose to support the reorganization of the once-powerful Eastern League rather than join the new circuit.
Most of the teams had been in existence for many years as the dominant independent club in their area. The clubs added to an already strong nucleus by signing the best available players in their region. The wealthier owners, such as Marshall and Rosenblum, did not limit themselves to local talent and spent freely to sign well-known New York City stars.
To run the league, Halas, who was owner of the professional football Chicago Bears, suggested veteran sports administrator Joe Carr, who was also president of the National Football League. Carr quickly moved to set up a professional, well-run organization. Rules in different sections of the country still varied considerably, and so the first task of the new league was to standardize play. The two-handed dribble was banned, as were cages around the court. All players were signed to exclusive contract eliminating the debilitating practice of stars performing with multiple teams. Carr also placed a high priority on seeing that teams appeared on schedule and with their full roster of players. The ABL was least successful in its attempt to enforce minimum standards for playing facilities. Cleveland’s Public Hall and Chicago’s Coliseum were first-rate sites, but the majority of teams had to settle for considerably less than inspiring places, such as armories (Detroit, Rochester), dance or recreation halls (Brooklyn, Boston), a high school gym (Ft.Wayne), or Y.M.C.A. gym (Buffalo). Even Washington owner Marshall, who announced plans to build his own arena, never lived up to the promise.
When competition got underway in mid-November, an immediate pattern was discernible. The best players, with few exceptions, were from the metropolitan areas of New York or Philadelphia. The teams that relied solely on local talent such as Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, and Fort Wayne were in trouble. The three teams with predominantly New York City area rosters, Brooklyn, Cleveland, and Washington dominated play. Cleveland, coached by old pro Marty Friedman, and featuring young stars Carl Husta, Nat Hickey and Honey Russell jumped out to an early lead. Just a few weeks into the season, the other two powerhouses, Brooklyn and Washington, made an important player trade. Brooklyn sent former Trenton stars Rusty Saunders and George Glasco to Washington in exchange for two hometown Brooklyn youngsters, Rody Cooney and Red Conaty. The infusion of speed and offensive punch provided by Cooney and Conaty helped Brooklyn capture first place by a single game over Washington, while Cleveland landed in third place just two games back.
As the ABL’s first season unfolded, the reviews were consistently good. The games on the court were attractive and well played. Box scores appeared in most big city newspapers and press coverage was generally favorable. Attendance was good in most cities, with only Boston in any immediate financial trouble, forcing them to drop out at the conclusion of the first half of play.
Cleveland won eight consecutive games to start the second half of the season and then managed to hold off a strong late-season surge by Washington to claim the second half title. The Brooklyn Arcadians, who had played poorly in the second half, were considered the underdogs against Cleveland in the best-of-five game playoff series for the championship. But in the opener, the Arcadians performed coolly in front of 10,000 hostile Cleveland fans to take a seemingly insurmountable 27-17 lead. Behind Nat Hickey’s hot set shooting and Honey Russell’s inspired leadership, the Rosenblums staged a frenzied late game rally to take a come from behind 36-33 win. The frustrating loss crushed Brooklyn’s spirit and they quickly bowed out of the series with two more losses to give Cleveland the initial ABL title.
Despite significant inroads into player personnel by the ABL, the Metropolitan Basketball League completed its season without difficulty. Many of the best players in the New York City area (which was to say the country), such as Davey Banks, Joe Brennan, Harry Riconda, and Stretch Meehan, remained in the league. Greenpoint, featuring veterans Tom Barlow and Cliff Anderson, defeated Yonkers in a playoff for the league title.
The Eastern Basketball League reorganized and began play in late November, but old antagonisms soon surfaced, and by the end of the first half of the season, the league was in shreds. Teams dropped out and the better players migrated to the ABL.