Wartime conditions continued to handicap professional basketball as the 1943-44 season began. All minor-league activity was shut down and the two major leagues could count only nine teams between them.
Four of the five American Basketball League teams that finished last season returned. The weak Harrisburg franchise was transferred to Wilmington. As the season began it was nearly impossible to gauge the strengths of the teams because of personnel shifts. The Trenton Tigers and the Philadelphia Sphas seemed to be the strongest on paper, but even they had serious problems. The Tigers, led by high-scoring Mike Bloom, returned with most of their squad intact, but the loss of starter Allie Esposito and key reserve Bill Zubic to military service was damaging. The Sphas lost Ossie Schectman to the Brooklyn Indians, but signed highly regarded former St.John’s University star Dutch Garfinkel as a replacement. Three-time Notre Dame All-American center Paul Nowak was also signed, but military duties limited his effectiveness. Rebounding remained a problem, and the bench was so thin that 38-year old Red Wolfe was pressed into action.
Instead of the favorites, the early season powerhouse turned out to be the resurrected Wilmington Blue Bombers who signed Ed Sadowski and Dutch Hoefer, standouts on the 1941-42 championship Bomber squad. They combined with holdovers Ben Goldfaden and Steve Juenger, from the erstwhile Harrisburg club, to form a powerful nucleus. Newcomers Angelo Musi, a standout rookie from Temple, and Paul Chaddick, a homegrown youngster who had played at St.Joseph’s, completed the important acquisitions.
Wilmington, relying on the league’s best defense, finished on top of the first-half standings followed closely by another surprise team, the New York Americans, who were led by second-year star Sonny Hertzberg. Trenton finished third, while Philadelphia and Brooklyn trailed far behind. Brooklyn dropped out before the beginning of the second half of the season, freeing half dozen veteran players to sign with other teams. Philadelphia and Trenton benefited the most. Trenton signed Bob Tough, a rugged young player out of St.John’s, but the biggest prize was Ossie Schectman. who joined Philadelphia. With Schectman guiding the offense, the Sphas captured first-place by a game over Trenton.
Philadelphia jumped out to a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven game playoffs against Wilmington. The Bombers won the fifth game at home and then surprised Philadelphia with a lopsided 57-36 win on the Sphas’ homecourt to tie the series at three games all. Moe Frankel, with 17 points, was the key to the seventh game as he led Wilmington to its third straight victory to emerge as the surprising champions of the ABL.
The National Basketball League limped into the season with just four teams, holdovers Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, Sheboygan Redskins and Oshkosh All-Stars and a new team, the Cleveland Chase Brass, recruited to fill the fourth spot vacated by the ill-fated Chicago franchise. The only question from the opening day of the season was whether anyone could stand up to the Fort Wayne juggernaut. The Pistons lost Curly Armstrong and Herm Schaefer to the military, but bolstered their roster by signing Buddy Jeannette from Sheboygan and Chick Reiser from Brooklyn of the ABL. Forwards Jerry Bush and Blackie Towery were strong rebounders and able defenders. Center John Pelkington at age 26 was ten-year pro veteran. In Buddy Jeannette and Bobby McDermott the Pistons possessed the best two guards in all of professional basketball. Jeannette, the best passer and ball handler in the game, brilliantly complimented the offensive wizardry of McDermott. Reiser served as a valuable swingman. The Pistons won eighteen of twenty-two games on their march to a first place finish.
Sheboygan hopes of seriously challenging Fort Wayne seemed lost along with Buddy Jeannette’s departure to the Indiana club, but Redskins’ coach Carl Roth had other ideas. He couldn’t matchup to Fort Wayne’s talent, but he could make them play his game. He beefed up his club by signing 6’9” Mike Novak and 6’6” Elmer Gainer from the defunct Chicago team to join 6’7” holdover Ed Dancker up front. Roth slowed the Redskins offense to a crawl to take advantage of his behemoth front line. Sheboygan improved its record to 14-8 and finished only four games behind the mighty Pistons.
The Oshkosh All-Stars finished a distant third with a woeful 7-15 record. Oshkosh’s fortunes deteriorated badly as they continued to lose players to the war effort. Rookie Clint Wagner, who played professional football for the Chicago Bears, was a pleasant surprise, but only aging stars Leroy Edwards and Charlie Shipp were still around as reminders of the once-powerful All-Stars’ championship squads. The new Cleveland Chase Brass team won only three of eighteen games. Mel Riebe, a former local high-school star, was an outstanding scorer and he led the league with an average of almost eighteen points a game.
In the best-of-three game playoff semi-finals, Fort Wayne buried the inept Cleveland club in two quick games, but Sheboygan had to struggle to defeat intrastate rival Oshkosh in three games. In the finals, Ft.Wayne continued to roll, taking three straight games to quickly wrap up the best-of-five series and win their first NBL title.
The Pistons moved on to the 1944 World Pro Tournament in Chicago as heavy favorites to win it all. Their main roadblock appeared to be the New York Rens, who had won the championship in 1943 playing under the banner of the Washington Bears. Meeting in the semifinals, the Pistons jumped off to a 19-7 first quarter lead, and then hung on to withstand a furious comeback by the Rens before winning 42-38. In the finals, Fort Wayne faced the surprising Brooklyn Eagles, a team composed of American League stars. On route to the championship game, the Eagles had ousted the Sheboygan Redskins and the Harlem Globetrotters. The championship game was a contest for only one quarter, however, as it quickly became apparent that the Pistons were too tall and too strong for the upset-minded Brooklyn team. Fort Wayne took a 28-11 halftime lead and eventually ran up the score to 40-15 before coasting home to a 50-33 victory.