Shrinking rosters, mounting travel problems, and growing uncertainties about the war were the backdrop to the new 1942-43 season.
In the American Basketball League’s annual game of musical franchises, the Washington club transferred to Harrisburg, Pa. and defending-champion Wilmington, which lost the use of its playing site to the military, was forced to transfer to Camden, New Jersey. In New York, Eddie Wilde revived the Jewels after a one-year absence. The holdover teams in Philadelphia and Trenton were the only financially viable franchises. After a few weeks of sparse attendance elsewhere, almost all of the remaining games of the season were played in these two cities.
The Trenton roster, still untouched by the war, was talented and more even more importantly –- stable. The Tigers had five solid performers including two tall, mobile centers, Mike Bloom and Bill Zubic, two steady guards, Herbie Gershon and Allie Esposito, and an excellent swingman in Fordham rookie Dick Fitzgerald. The Tigers, by substituting freely and moving the ball well, ran off to eleven wins in thirteen games to quickly wrap up first place. Philadelphia, with its ranks thinned by the war, finished a distant second. The Sphas lost their starting backcourt, Ossie Schectman and Pete Rosenberg, to the military. Veteran Red Rosen and 5’7″ Villanova rookie Red Klotz filled in as best they could. Irv Torgoff and Inky Lautman remained formidable combination up front, but a lack a height handicapped team rebounding.
The remaining three clubs, Camden, Harrisburg, and New York were strictly window-dressing. Honey Russell’s Camden Indians were the biggest disappointment. Virtually intact from last year’s Wilmington-based championship team, the Indians won three of their first four games, but were winless the remainder of the abbreviated season. A mid-January shift of the team to Brooklyn did nothing to ebb the flow of defeats. Big Ed Sadowski remained the league’s dominate center and Chick Reiser performed admirably up front, but the team was saddled with the league’s worst defense. The new Harrisburg club, coached by ex-Celtic great Dutch Dehnert, was stocked with a collection of frayed ABL veterans. Steve Juenger, a former Temple University player had who performed without distinction for five seasons in the minors, emerged as the key performer and went on to lead the league in scoring. Eddie Wilde’s New York Jewels were little more than a punching bag, despite the enthusiastic play of talented rookies Sonny Hertzberg of NYU and Bobby Holm of Seton Hall.
When the regular-season race turned out to be lopsided, league president John O’Brien abbreviated the season by lopping off the last three weeks of the schedule, and moving right into the playoffs. Trenton and Philadelphia split the first six games of the best-of-seven game playoff for the league championship. The deciding seventh game was played in Philadelphia before a packed house of 4,000 fans at the Sphas’ Broadwood Hotel court. Irv Torgoff swished a seventy-foot heave through the net as the buzzer went off ending the second period to give Philadelphia a 25-24 lead. The Sphas built the lead up to seven points in the third and final period before Trenton rallied to get within a point in the final seconds of the contest. A Sphas’ free-throw, however, sealed the Tigers’ fate. Philadelphia was the ABL champion for the sixth time in ten years.
The National Basketball League’s ranks were also thinned out by the war. The Indianapolis Kautskys and the Akron Goodyears dropped out. George Halas, who entered the service, gave up his Chicago franchise, but a new team under different ownership was placed in the city.
The Fort Wayne Pistons moved to the forefront of the league, a position they would retain for the duration of the war. Fred Zollner, the wealthy owner of the Zollner Machine Company, could afford to provide his players with positions in his company that paid well and qualified as war-related work. Fort Wayne’s Bobby McDermott solidified his position as the best player in the game with his adroit play making, and league-leading 13.7 points per game. In addition to McDermott, the Pistons had some of the best young talent in the league, including Blackie Towery and Curly Armstrong. Towery, who had started at center the previous season, was moved to forward to make way for ex-Akron Goodyear star John Pelkington. The addition of the well-muscled 6’6”, 220-pounder brought strong rebounding and defense to the team and eliminated the Pistons’ last weakness. Fort Wayne easily finished first in the National League.
Sheboygan bounced back from last year’s off-season to land in second place ahead of Oshkosh and Chicago. Veteran pivot man Eddie Dancker had his most impressive season to date and rookie Ken Buehler proved to be a helpful addition. Two weeks prior to the conclusion of the season veteran star Buddy Jeannette was signed to increase the Redskins hopes of seriously challenging Fort Wayne in the playoffs.
Defending champion Oshkosh, winner of twenty of twenty-four games the previous season, was a major disappointment. Starters Lou Beale and Herm Witasek were in the service, but the nucleus of the team, Leroy Edwards, Gene Englund and Charlie Shipp remained in place, and talented guard Ralph Vaughn had been acquired from Chicago. Lon Darling’s club never could get going, however, and finished under .500 in third place. The new Chicago team experimented with the league’s first fully integrated squad. Unfortunately, the team, despite a talented roster, never found cohesiveness and posted a miserable 8-15 record. An undermanned Toledo club dropped out of the league after just four games.
The four surviving teams all moved into the playoffs. Chicago showed spurts of what the club might have accomplished in a tough series against Fort Wayne, but eventually fell to the Pistons in three games. Sheboygan, behind the sterling play of Buddy Jeannette, took two straight games from Oshkosh for the right to face Fort Wayne in the championship series. Jeannette continued his inspirational play in the championship series as he led the Redskins to opening game 55-50 upset of the Pistons in Fort Wayne. He sank a long set shot to force the second game in to overtime, before Fort Wayne rallied to take the win. Back in Fort Wayne for the deciding third game, Sheboygan pulled off the seemingly impossible, upsetting Fort Wayne for a second time on its homecourt. The bruising 30-29 win allowed Sheboygan to capture its first National League crown.
Fort Wayne quickly gained its revenge by ousting Sheboygan in the quarterfinals of the Chicago Pro Championship Tournament, but National League rival Oshkosh, then upset the Pistons themselves, 40-39. The other finalists were the all-black Washington Bears who had lost only once in over fifty games. The Bears roster was loaded with members of the fabled New York Rens. Washington’s precision passing attack kept the All-Stars off balance throughout the game. Johnny Issacs led the Bears to a relatively easy 43-31 win and the World Pro championship.