The 1945-46 season saw a revitalized American Basketball League. Rosters were stabilizing and the league enjoyed its best race in over a decade. At the midway point in the season, only two games separated the first and sixth place team. Fan interest blossomed and attendance was up substantially.
Philadelphia was the first to break out of the pack. The Sphas were talented (four of the five starters had been college All-Americans) and deep. The high-scoring frontline of Ralph Kaplowitz, Inky Lautman and Art Hillhouse was the league’s best, while guards Ossie Schectman and Bernie Opper were top-notch. As powerful as the Sphas were, the Baltimore Bullets tied them for first place with a late-season 15-5 rush to the finish line. Baltimore’s resurgence was generated by the acquisition of Mike Bloom from Trenton in a trade for Art Spector. The Bullets relied on superior teamwork and good ball handling to outmaneuver quicker foes. Bloom and Stan Stutz, who blossomed into the league’s leading scorer after two mediocre seasons, powered the Bullets’ offense.
The New York Gothams finished a strong third. Coach Barney Sedran discarded all of last year’s veterans except top scorer Sonny Hertzberg. He put together a young, fast-breaking squad that featured New York City players, most of them just out of the service. Rookies Leo Gottleib, Tony Kappen, and Frido Frey added enthusiasm and solid play to the Gothams. Wilmington captured fourth place, and the last playoff spot, with the league’s stingiest defense. The two New Jersey clubs, Trenton and Paterson, finished at the bottom of the standings.
After Baltimore defeated Philadelphia 63-61 to claim the regular season title, the two clubs quickly brushed aside New York and Wilmington respectively in the playoffs, for the right to face off again in the best-of-five game championship series. The Sphas opened with a convincing 15-point win at home, but the Bullets countered with an equally crushing 17-point conquest on their homecourt. The scene for the third game shifted back to the cozy Broadwood Hotel in Philadelphia, but the homecourt advantage proved meaningless as the Bullets exploded for a shocking 68-45 win over the Sphas. The next day in Baltimore, the Bullets closed out the series with a 54-39 victory to claim their first ABL. championship. The American League enjoyed its best season on the court and at the box office in nearly a decade. The future of the league looked very bright.
In the National Basketball League, the six holdover teams returned with the Pittsburgh club migrating seventy miles west to Youngstown, Ohio. A strong independent team from Rochester was added, and the Indianapolis Kautskys were back in NBL action after a three-year layoff due to the war.
The Fort Wayne Pistons kept the engine running smoothly in their powerful offensive machine to post the league’s best overall record on their way to first place in the Eastern division, Buddy Jeannette and Bobby McDermott were still at the peak of their game, and holdovers Chick Reiser, John Pelkington, and Jerry Bush continued to play well. In addition, the Pistons loaded up with additional talent returning from the military. Ed Sadowski was back on a full-time basis, Bob Kenney, a pre-war Rice Institute All-American was signed and late in the season Bob Tough was plucked out of the ABL.
The season’s biggest surprise was the strength of the new Rochester Royals, who finished in second place, just two games behind the Pistons. Owner-coach Les Harrison built his club with service veterans, many of whom had been major college stars before the war. Bob Davies of Seton Hall, John Mahnken of Georgetown, George Glamack of North Carolina State and Otto Graham of Northwestern all had been collegian All-Americans. The Royals backcourt was manned by former CCNY star Red Holzman and veteran upstate New York pro star Al Cervi. Youngstown, behind the fine play from Leo Mogus and major league baseballer Frankie Baumholtz, finished third, while Cleveland, with leading scorer Mel Riebe in the service for most of the season, was doomed to fourth.
The Sheboygan Redskins won the Western Division for the second year in a row with their patented grind it out offense featuring big men Ed Dancker and Mike Novak. The Redskins’ success did not come without a stiff challenge from a revitalized Oshkosh All-Stars that finished just two games behind in second place. The All-Stars, who had suffered through three straight losing seasons due to manpower shortages, reclaimed their pre-war status as a serious contender with the return of their veteran stars including Bob Carpenter and Gene Englund. Rookie Bob Ferrick, from Santa Clara, proved to be a valuable addition. The Chicago American Gears displayed a well-balanced team, but could only play .500 ball, which landed them in third-place. The Indianapolis Kautskys, who finished fourth, experienced a painful return to the NBL. Rookie center Arnie Risen was as the only bright spot in the Kautskys’ gloomy season.
The first two teams in each division met in a best-of-five game semi-final playoff series. The Sheboygan Redskins needed all five games to subdue their stubborn cross state rival Oshkosh and advance to the finals. Another interesting matchup took place in the East where Rochester managed to get a split of the first two games in Fort Wayne, before taking two convincing homecourt victories to upset the defending champion Pistons. In the finals, the upstart Royals dashed by the slow-moving Redskins in three straight lopsided victories to claim the NBL title in their very first season.
The Chicago Pro Tournament, which had become a major event during the past half-dozen years, took on an added significance in the spring of 1946 with the appearance of much-heralded DePaul rookie George Mikan with the Chicago Gears. After victories in the preliminary rounds, the Gears lost Mikan on fouls early in the third period of their semi-final game against Sheboygan. Chicago was in control of the game 48-40 at the time of Mikan’s departure, but without the big man lost 72-66. In the other semifinal, Fort Wayne eked out a 50-49 win over ABL champion Baltimore by going into a stall late in the contest. Fort Wayne then claimed its third straight Pro title by taking two of three games from NBL rival Sheboygan.