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National Basketball League
Sport Basketball
Founded 1937
No. of teams 38
Country(ies)  United States
Ceased 1949
Last champion(s) Anderson Packers

The National Basketball League (NBL) was a professional basketball league in the United States, founded in 1937. The league merged with the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in 1949, forming the National Basketball Association (NBA).


League history

The NBL started with thirteen previously independent teams in 1937. The league began as the Midwest Basketball Conference in 1935, but changed its name in 1937 in an attempt to attract a larger audience. The league was created by three corporations: General Electric, Firestone and Goodyear. It was comprised primarily of Great Lakes area small-market and corporate teams. The NBL lasted twelve years before merging with the three-year-old Basketball Association of America in 1949, with the resulting combination being renamed the National Basketball Association.

The league began rather informally. Scheduling was left to the discretion of each of the nine teams, as long as the team played at least ten games and four of them were on the road. Games consisted either of four ten-minute quarters or three fifteen-minute periods. The choice was made by the home team. Some of the teams were independent, while others were owned by companies that also found jobs for their players.

The history of the NBL falls into three eras, each contributing significantly to the growth of professional basketball and the emergence of the NBA. The first dynasty centered on the Oshkosh All-Stars. The middle years saw the emergence of the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, who were later instrumental in the survival of the NBA during its infancy. The final period of note during the NBL's existence centered around George Mikan and the emergence of the big man in basketball.[1]


Early years

The Oshkosh All-Stars, who appeared in the championship series five consecutive years (1938–42) and won two titles, were led by rugged 6' 4" center Leroy "Cowboy" Edwards. He led the NBL in scoring three consecutive years (1937–40).

Middle years

The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons—so nicknamed because they were owned by Fred Zollner, whose company made pistons for engines—were led by tough veteran Bobby McDermott. The Pistons finished second in 1942 and 1943 and won the league title in 1944 and 1945. Like many teams of that era, it wasn't uncommon for Fort Wayne to play its games in taverns, armories, high-school gyms or ballrooms.

Under Zollner, the Pistons would eventually play an important role in the survival and growth of the NBA. Zollner's financial support of the NBA helped the league stay afloat during its tumultuous formative years.

Challenging the Zollner Pistons for supremacy were the Sheboygan Red Skins. Beginning in 1941, the season before Fort Wayne joined the NBL, Sheboygan appeared in five championship series in six seasons. They lost to Oshkosh in the 1941 finals, beat Fort Wayne for the title in 1943, but lost to the Zollner Pistons in 1944 and 1945. In 1946, Sheboygan was swept in the finals by the league's newest member, the powerhouse Rochester Royals, who boasted Hall of Famers Al Cervi, Bob Davies and Red Holzman.

Later years

The NBL's third era was dominated by Mikan, the 6–10, three-time All-American center from DePaul who would emerge as the dominant player in the game. As a rookie, Mikan led the Chicago American Gears to the 1947 NBL title, but before the next season, owner Maurice White pulled his team out of the league and formed his own 24-team circuit called the National Professional Basketball League. That venture quickly failed, and Mikan was signed by the NBL's Minneapolis Lakers, where he teamed with the versatile Jim Pollard to win the 1948 championship.

But after the 1947–48 season, Mikan's Lakers and three other NBL clubs left to join the Basketball Association of America. After the Detroit Vagabond Kings folded in midseason, their franchise was awarded to one of the most famous of the barnstorming teams, the New York Rens composed entirely of African-Americans. The team finished the year as the Dayton Rens, marking the first time that an all-black team competed in an all-white league. The NBL, stripped of its best teams and prime gate attraction, lasted only one more season, the Anderson Duffey Packers winning the league's last championship before six of its members were absorbed by the BAA, which changed its name to the National Basketball Association.


The NBL obviously contributed significantly to the foundation of the NBA, but it also had major accomplishments in other areas, most notably in offering opportunities for African-American players. In the 1942–43 season, with many players in the armed forces, two NBL clubs, the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets and the Chicago Studebakers, filled their rosters by signing African-Americans—five years before Jackie Robinson would break baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Neither team fared well. Toledo signed several black players to start the season, including Bill Jones, who had starred at the University of Toledo, but the team lost its first four games and folded due to financial difficulties. Chicago stocked its roster with several members of the Harlem Globetrotters, who worked during the week at the Studebaker plant, but it also folded after compiling an 8–15 record.

Five current NBA teams trace their history back to the NBL. Three teams joined the NBA in 1948: the Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers), the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), and the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons). Two more teams joined the NBA in 1949: the Buffalo Bisons/Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks), and the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers).

Five former NBA teams also trace their history back to the NBL: the Anderson Packers, Denver Nuggets, Indianapolis Jets (as the Kautskys), Sheboygan Red Skins and Waterloo Hawks played in the BAA/NBA.

The NBL also created the Indianapolis Olympians for the 1949-50 NBA season. When the NBL and BAA merged, this team joined the NBA without playing a single NBL game.

Also still surviving are the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, the initial NBL Champion in 1938. The Wingfoots suspended operations for World War II and were not included in the NBL/BAA merger. Instead, they remained in the National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL), which in 1961 became the National AAU Basketball League (NABL). The Wingfoots are still an AAU Elite team in the NABL.

List of NBL championships

Year Winner Finals Loser Games
1937–1938 Akron Goodyear Wingfoots Oshkosh All-Stars 2-1
1938–1939 Akron Firestone Non-Skids Oshkosh All-Stars 3-2
1939–1940 Akron Firestone Non-Skids Oshkosh All-Stars 3-2
1940–1941 Oshkosh All-Stars Sheboygan Red Skins 3-0
1941–1942 Oshkosh All-Stars Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons 2-1
1942–1943 Sheboygan Red Skins Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons 2-1
1943–1944 Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons Sheboygan Red Skins 3-0
1944–1945 Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons Sheboygan Red Skins 3-2
1945–1946 Rochester Royals Sheboygan Red Skins 3-0
1946–1947 Chicago American Gears Rochester Royals 3-2
1947–1948 Minneapolis Lakers Rochester Royals 3-1
1948–1949 Anderson Packers Oshkosh All-Stars 3-0

List of NBL teams

Note: * denotes a team currently playing in the NBA.



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