Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons
The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons began as a National Basketball League (NBL) team in 1941, formed from the corps of an industrial league team made up of Zollner Piston Company employees. They met with immediate success, advancing to the league championship series their first four years in the league. They came up short in 1942 and 1943, but took the title in 1944 and 1945. They remained an NBL power through 1948, but never won another NBL title.
1941-42 Inaugural Season
The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons was founded by Fred Zollner, owner of the Zollner Corporation, which was a foundry, manufacturing pistons, primarily for car, truck and locomotive engines. The company was flush from its World War II production work, and decided to sponsor a basketball team, joining the NBL in the 1941-42 season. The team played in the gym of the North Side High School, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The team did well, behind the work of star Bobby McDermott, finishing tied for second in the regular season, with a 15-9 record. In the playoffs, the Pistons eliminated the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots in the semifinals, two games to one, but lost to the Oshkosh All-Stars in the title series, two games to one. McDermott was second among the league’s scoring leaders, with a 13.2 average, and was also selected as first-team all-league. Herm Schaefer was selected for the second team.
The Pistons had an even better season in their sophomore season, finishing atop the league standings with a 17-6 record. The playoff results were the same, whereby the Piston advanced to the title game after beating the Chicago Studebakers in the semifinals, two games to one, but then lost the final, to the Sheboygan Red Skins, two games to one. McDermott finished first in season scoring with a 13.2 average, and again made first-team all-league, but was also selected MVP. Jerry Bush made second team.
1943-44 First Championship Season
The Pistons was one of only four teams in war-depleted NBL in the 1943-44 season. The team continued its excellence, finishing the regular season again on top of the standings, with an 18-4 record. The Pistons dispatched Cleveland Chase Brass in the semifinals in two games, and then seized its first NBL championship, defeating the Sheboygan Red Skins in three consecutive games. The team was paced by McDermott, who finished second in the league scoring with a 13.9 average and Buddy Jeannette who finished fifth with an 8.4 average. McDermott was again chosen first team and MVP. Jeannette was also chosen first-team all-league, and two other Piston players made second team, Jerry Bush and John Pelkington.
The NBL championship was not the Pistons only title in 1944. In March, the team went to Chicago to play in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, and returned home with the championship trophy. The Piston road to the title began with a 59-34 win over the Dayton Acme Aviators, followed by a 42-38 win over the New York Rennaisance, and then a 50-33 championship game win over the Brooklyn Eagles.
1944-45 Second Championship Season
In the 1944-45 season, the NBL expanded and divided the league into two divisions, Eastern and Western. The Pistons dominated the Eastern Division, with a extraordinary 25-5 record. The Pistons romped through the semifinals, brushing off Cleveland Allman Travelers in two games, and but had a harder time in the championship series against the Sheboygan Red Skins, struggling to prevail in a three games to two series. McDermott was again the scoring mainstay, taking second in the league with a robust 20.3 average, and chosen for the third year in a row first team and MVP. Jeannette repeated as first-team all-league as well, as did Bush and Pelkington as second team selections.
As in the previous season, the Pistons also won the World Professional Basketball Tournament, beating NBL rival Oshkosh All-Stars 63-52 in the quarterfinals, the New York Renaissance 68-45 in the semifinals, and the Dayton Acmes in the finals, 78-52.
The Pistons for a the fourth year in a row finished on the top of the standings, finishing the Eastern Division with a 26-8, but barely ahead a new power, Rochester Royals, which finished with a 24-10 record. The playoffs proved that Rochester was too much for the Pistons, as the team succumbed to the much hotter Royals, three games to one. McDermott was again the biggest scorer for the Pistons, taking second in the league with a 13.5 average, and for the fourth year in a row was selected as first-team all-league and MVP. Jeannette likewise for the third year in a row was selected for the first-team.
The season was somewhat redeemed in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, which the Zollner Pistons won for the third consecutive year, albeit with a bit of a struggle. The Pistons beat the Midland Dows, 65-62, in a close quarterfinal game; then narrowly got by the Baltimore Bullets, 50-49, in the semifinals. The tournament in 1946 made the title contest a best two out of three series, in which Fort Wayne prevailed over the Oshkosh All-Stars, 59-61, 56-47, and 73-57.
The Royals defeat in the NBL playoffs of the previous season proved to be no fluke, as the Pistons found themselves for the first time in second place in the Eastern Division to the Royals with a 25-19 record. The team was in decline, part of the reason being the loss Buddy Jeanette and the great Bobby McDermott. The latter got into an altercation with teammates in December, and was given his release (he signed as player-coach with the Chicago American Gears. In the expanded playoffs, the Zollner’s team struggled to get by the Toledo Jeeps in the Eastern Division semifinals, three games to two, and then was eliminated by the Royals in the Eastern Division finals, two games to one. Fort Wayne players earned no individual awards at the end of the season.
In the World Professional Basketball Tournament, Fort Wayne won their quarterfinal contest over the Anderson Duffey Packers,52-40; but were eliminated in an upset in the semifinal game by the Toledo Jeeps, 61-56. The team left the tournament on a winning note, however, defeating Oshkosh in the third place game, 86-67.
The Zollner Pistons’ fortunes continued to decline in the 1947-48 season, as the team ended the regular season third in the Eastern Division with a 40-20 record, behind the Rochester Royals and Anderson Duffey Packers respectively. In the playoffs, the team was eliminated in the first round by the Royals, three games to one. The team’s continued its dismal performance in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, where they were eliminated in the first round (the quarterfinals), 57-50, by the Tri-City Blackhawks.
The NBA, 1949 to 1957-
Fort Wayne was among the four NBL teams (the others being Minneapolis, Rochester, and Indianapolis) lured by Commissioner Maurice Podoloff of the rival league, the Basketball Association of American (BBA) in 1948. The BAA had most of the big city franchises, but the NBL had the top players. The addition of the four NBL franchises provided most of NBL’s top players to the BAA. The team dropped the Zollner part of the name and became simply the “Fort Wayne Pistons.”
In 1949, Fred Zollner brokered the formation of the National Basketball Association, from the merger of the BAA and the remaining NBL teams at his kitchen table.
Pistons players are believed to have conspired with gamblers to shave points and throw various games during the 1953–54 and 1954–55 seasons. In particular, they are believed to have thrown the 1955 NBA finals to the Syracuse Nationals. In the decisive game 7, the Pistons led Syracuse 41–24 early in the second quarter, then allowed the Nationals to rally to win the game. Syracuse won on a free throw by George King with twelve seconds left in the game. The closing moments included a turnover by the Pistons' George Yardley with 18 seconds left, a foul by Frankie Brian with 12 seconds left that enabled King's winning free throw, and a turnover by the Pistons' Andy Phillip with three seconds left which cost Fort Wayne a chance to attempt the game-winning shot.
Though the Pistons enjoyed a solid local following, their city's small size made it difficult for them to be profitable. In 1957, Zollner moved the team to Detroit, a much larger city which had not seen professional basketball in a decade. Due to Detroit's economy being extremely reliant on the manufacturing of cars, they decided to keep the Pistons name.
Fred Zollner* (Owner)