By December of l944 the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. With peace not far off, professional basketball entered the new season with a renewed vigor.
The American Basketball League returned with holdover teams in New York, Philadelphia, Trenton and Wilmington and added new teams in Baltimore and Washington. For the first time in three seasons, the pennant race meant something. Two months into the season, five of the six teams were still in contention. Only the new entry in Washington struggled from the beginning. After dropping eight of its first ten games, the club was transferred to Paterson, New Jersey were it managed to win just one more game in fourteen attempts.
The defending champion Wilmington Blue Bombers lost their entire starting lineup to the military, but coach Barney Sedran kept the club competitive with a patchwork lineup of ABL veterans such as Cy Boardman and Moe Frankel with occasional support from some NBL pros playing on weekend passes from nearby military bases. The Philadelphia Sphas were hurt by the early season absences of Ossie Schectman and Irv Torgoff due to military commitments, but Eddie Gottlieb plugged the holes with some talented replacements. Former Kentucky All-American Bernie Opper, who had played briefly in the NBL, brought the Sphas a defensive toughness that had been lacking in recent seasons. Another strong addition came in the form of 6’7” Art Hillhouse, a pre-war star at Long Island University, who helped restore some rebounding and scoring punch to the frontline.
The Trenton Tigers featured the same strong starting five as last year. Matt Guokas, Mike Bloom, Ace Abbott, and Herbie Gershon were in their fourth season as a unit. The fifth starter was Bob Tough in his second year out of St.John’s University. The Tigers were not without problems, however. Their bench was non-existent and Bloom despite his 6’6” height and explosive scoring abilities, was a disinterested rebounder and defender. The new Baltimore Bullets, sparked by former All-Americans Stan Stutz and Moe Becker, were surprisingly competitive despite a lack of experienced players. The New York Americans were a little too experienced for their own good. The roster including starting center Howie Bollerman, 37, and such early-thirties luminaries as Lou Spindell, 36, and Allie Schuckman, 35. Even 41-year-old coach Honey Russell played in a half-dozen games.
The five contenders remained tightly bunched until late January when Philadelphia and Trenton caught fire and pulled away from the pack. Philadelphia won fourteen of its last fifteen games to capture first place, while Trenton compiled an almost as impressive 14-3 record to take second place, a game and half back. Wilmington and Baltimore captured the next two spots to qualify for the playoffs.
With the best-of-three game series with Baltimore tied at one game apiece, Trenton took a week off to compete in the Chicago Pro Tournament. It turned out to be a disastrous decision. The Tigers lost in the first round in Chicago and after the long trek home succumbed to the upset-minded Baltimore in the deciding third of their series. In the other semifinal, Philadelphia deposed of Wilmington as expected, to move into the finals against the surprising Bullets. Baltimore was totally outclassed in opening game of championship series absorbing a brutal 25-point loss at home, but the spunky Bullets regrouped in game two and upset the Sphas 47-46 on their homecourt in Philadelphia to tie the series. In the deciding third came, Art Hillhouse swished six looping one-handed hook shots to pave the way for the Sphas 46-40 victory and their claim to their seventh American League title.
The National Basketball League opened the season with new teams in Chicago and Pittsburgh joining holdover squads in Cleveland, Fort Wayne, Oshkosh, and Sheboygan. The six-team league was divided into two divisions, with the top two finishers in each division advancing to the playoffs.
In the east, Fort Wayne dominated as expected, winning fourteen straight games early in the season and twenty-five of thirty overall. With starting forward Blackie Towery lost to the military, Chick Reiser was added to the starting five. The change resulted in a loss of rebounding, but added greater speed and scoring punch. Bobby McDermott led the Pistons with twenty points per game, while Buddy Jeannette maintained his status as the league’s best floor general. Cleveland took the second spot in the division behind the remarkable scoring of Mel Riebe, who captured the league individual scoring honors for the second consecutive season. The new Pittsburgh club could win only seven of thirty games.
In the west, Sheboygan changed coaches but not philosophies. Former Original Celtic star Dutch Dehnert replaced Carl Roth, but retained his deliberate offense. Dehnert’s influence was felt in the area of player procurement as he signed New Yorkers, Bobby Holm, Al Lucas and Al Moschetti to bolster the Redskins depth. Sheboygan posted a fine 19-11 and took first place honors. Lon Darling’s Oshkosh All Stars faced a serious threat for the final playoff spot with the new well-financed Chicago American Gears entry. The Gears signed a half-dozen journeyman pros and two outstanding local rookies, Dick Triptow from DePaul and Stan Patrick from Illinois to form a surprisingly strong first-year club that posted a 14-16 record. In Oshkosh, the war had stripped Darling of every well-known player but Leroy Edwards. The veteran center responded with his best scoring effort since 1938, but it was not enough to keep the All-Stars from finishing in third place and out of the playoffs for the first time since they joined the league in 1938.
In the playoffs, Fort Wayne brushed aside Cleveland in two straight games as expected to win in the East. In the west, however, Sheboygan had to come back from an opening game homecourt loss to Chicago to subdue the stubborn Gears in three games. Sheboygan captured the first two games of the best-of-five game championship series from highly favored Fort Wayne, leaving the Redskins just one victory away from the NBL title. Fort Wayne fought back determinedly. The Pistons posted three straight victories over Sheboygan, all by at least ten point margins, to retain their NBL title.
Fort Wayne moved into Chicago, heavily-favored to complete the sweep of the National League and Chicago Pro Tourney titles for the second consecutive year. The Pistons proceeded to the finals without any serious competition where they faced the Dayton Acmes, a dark horse challenger, comprised of servicemen stationed at Wright Field. The Acmes, featuring the scoring of Bruce Hale and rebounding of John Mahnken, were the surprise team of the tournament moving into the finals by routing the Chicago Gears 80-51. The Pistons were unimpressed and with their fast-break working to perfection, crushed the servicemen 78-52. The Pistons were firmly established as the best team in professional basketball.