The National BasketballLeague seemed finished, but it was not ready to give up the fight. During the summer of 1949, NBL commissioner Doxie Moore scored a major coup by signing, as a unit, the famed University of Kentucky team. In four years, the Wildcats had won the NIT once and the NCCA championship twice and had also performed as members of the 1948 Olympic team. Star players Alex Groza, Ralph Jones and Ralph Beard had all been named to All-American squads. The signing turned out to be the last shot in the three-year war between the NBL and Basketball Association of America. By mid summer, the two leagues completed merger talks and the new National Basketball Association was born.
Five teams were shuttled aside in the merger: the BAA teams in Indianapolis and Providence, and the NBL clubs in Dayton, Hammond and Oshkosh. The surviving seventeen teams were divided into three divisions. The new Indianapolis team and five former NBL teams formed the Western Division. The young Indianapolis Olympians finished first with a 39-25 record. Alex Groza was second only to Mikan in scoring with an average of 23.4 point per game. He was big, fast and mobile, equally adept at popping a jumper from the top of the key or driving around bulkier centers to the basket for a layup. The Anderson Packers finished second with a small, fast-breaking team led by guards Frank Brian and John Hargis. Tri-Cities, after losing six of their first seven games, hired Red Auerbach, who had left Washington after a salary dispute. He coaxed the Blackhawks to play .500 ball the rest of the season, good enough to capture third place. Sheboygan finished fourth and moved on to the playoffs, despite a dreadful 22-40 record.
Rochester closed out the season with 15 consecutive wins to tie Minneapolis for first place in the Central Division with identical 51-17 records. In a one game playoff for first place in the Central Division, the Lakers, with 35 points by George Mikan, came from behind to win 78-76. Mikan again led the league in scoring, averaging 27.4 points per game. Two rookies broke into the Lakers starting lineup, Slater Martin, a speedy playmaker from the University of Texas, and Vern Mikkelsen, a bruising rebounder from tiny Hamline College in nearby St.Paul. The Lakers now had in place a club that perfected the ideal modern pro offense. It featured a powerful center (Mikan), a strong rebounding and defensive forward (Mikkelsen) with an agile outside shooter who could drive to the basket (Jim Pollard) in the other slot. In the backcourt a small quick guard, who was a pinpoint passer (Martin) ran the offense. The off guard (Herm Schaefer) was a strong shooter.
Rochester still relied on backcourt aces Bob Davies and Bobby Wanzer and the league’s stingiest defense. Fort Wayne and Chicago tied for third place. The Pistons rebounded from last years miserable season with the help of a rebuilt frontline featuring veteran Bob Carpenter and rookie Freddie Schaus from West Virginia, while Chicago relied on the talented backcourt tandem of Max Zaslofsky and Andy Phillip. St.Louis finished last in the Central Division despite the promising debut of hometown star Ed Macauley, a rookie from St.Louis University.
In one of the oddities of the league’s very convoluted schedule, Syracuse finished first in the East, while playing most of its schedule against former NBL rivals, now in the Western Division. Dolph Schayes had blossomed into one of the league’s top performers and player-coach Al Cervi still had plenty of punch. New York, featuring the strong rookie contingent of Vince Boryla, Dick McGuire and Ernie Vandeweghe, finished in second place. Washington, with Bob Feerick taking over as player-coach for the departed Red Auerbach, landed in third place. Philadelphia continued to slide because of problems at center and the increasingly erratic play of star Joe Fulks.
Division winners Syracuse and Minneapolis emerged unscathed from the first two rounds of the playoffs. In the Western Division action, Anderson eliminated first-place Indianapolis 67-65 in the deciding third game of their series. Anderson was no match, however, for Minneapolis suffering two lopsided loses. The championship series matched the Lakers, who had traveled through three rounds of the playoffs undefeated against the Syracuse Nationals who had lost only one game in the playoffs. Minneapolis took the series opener 68-66 to stretch the Lakers playoff win streak to seven games, but Syracuse fought back with two wins in the next four games. Mikan scored 40 points in game six to lead the Lakers to their second consecutive championship.