After three seasons (two under the Midwest Conference banner) as a loosely knit organization, the National League developed into a tighter, more professionally run league. The weakest franchises, Buffalo, Columbus, Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, Kankakee, and Dayton were dropped. Whiting shifted to Hammond and a strong independent team, the Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Redskins, was added. Rules were modernized and each team was assigned a regular 28-game schedule. A fine array of new collegiate talent was also added including Buddy Jeannette of Washington and Jefferson, Jewell Young of Purdue, Paul Nowak and Johnny Moir of Notre Dame and Jerry Bush of St.John’s.
The Akron Firestone team won its first seventeen games to completely swamp their Eastern Division opponents. Rookies Bush, Moir and Nowak complemented veteran stars Jack Ozburn and Soup Cable. In the West, it was a three-team race for most of the season before Oshkosh pulled away from Indianapolis and the new Sheboygan entry in mid-February.
Oshkosh and Firestone then squared off in a best-off-five series for the NBL title. Firestone was at a disadvantage because of the loss of starting center Paul Nowak with injuries. His replacement, veteran Slim Shoun, was helpless to withstand the offense thrusts of Oshkosh center Leroy Edwards who dominated play in the middle. Edwards’ 25-point outburst in game four helped Oshkosh knot the series at two games apiece. Firestone’s overall depth proved to be the deciding factor in game five when the tire company players held Edwards to just nine points and won 37-30 to capture the NBL title.
John O’Brien worked hard in the off-season to restore some vitality to the American League. He added new teams in Troy, New York, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and a team in Washington, D.C. backed by the Heurich Brewery, the first company-sponsored team in the league. The league president did away with the split-season format of the past five seasons, and placed all eight teams in a single season competition for four playoff spots.
In a final move just before the season began, the New York Celtics squad was transferred to Kingston, NewYork where longtime owner-coach Pop Morgenweck had been forced to give up his franchise because of ill health. The change in address proved invigorating. With virtually the same team that had sleepwalked through the 1937-38 season with two fifth-place finishes, the Colonials won 28 of 35 games. Playing under the tutelage of veteran pro Barney Sedran and behind the strong rebounding of Nat Frankel and CCNY rookie Bernie Fliegel, Kingston handily won first place. The Philadelphia Sphas finished second with a team that featured rookies Pete Rosenberg and Mike Bloom, an All American from the NIT champion Temple University team. Jersey took third place, despite being burdened by a bitter season-long feud between stars Moe Spahn and Phil Rabin. In New York, the Jewels performed listlessly for most of the season, but still easily captured fourth place and the final playoff spot.
First and second place Kingston and Philadelphia entered the playoffs as strong favorites to meet in the post-season finale, but both were unexpectedly derailed. Kingston was ousted 39-36 in the deciding third game of a semi-final series by the defending champion Jersey Reds, while the Sphas went down in two straight games to a suddenly tenacious New York squad. The Reds faced the finals handicapped by the loss of their leading scorer Phil Rabin, who was out with a wrist injury. In the opener of the best-of-five game championship series, Jersey took a 28-19 lead into the third period, but the Jewels outscored them 15-2 down the stretch to capture a four-point victory. The Jewels wrapped up the series with two straight three-point homecourt victories to capture their first ABL championship.
Eleven teams entered the new World Pro Basketball Tournament in Chicago. The highlight of the tournament was the semi-final face off of the nation’s two best black teams, the New York Rens and the (Chicago-based) Harlem Globetrotters. The Rens totally controlled the game until late in the fourth quarter when the Trotters made six straight points to cut the lead to just two points. The Rens’ defense stiffened, however, and the New Yorkers won the game 27-23. In the finals, Pop Gates, with twelve points, led the Rens to a convincing 34-25 victory over the Oshkosh All-Stars.