FORT WAYNE, IND.
Fort wayne, Indiana (pop. 135,000) is a hustling town. It is the site of the second night baseball game played under lights (1883), the longtime residence of Gene Stratton Porter, author of A Girl of the Limberlost and 16 other books, the world center of the gasoline-pump industry, and the home of the Zollner Machine Works, a company devoted, in the words of its head, Fred Zollner, to the "design, development, and manufacture of pistons." On the payroll of the Zollner Machine Works are 10 long, loose-limbed fellows who, on the surface of the matter, have little to do with the design, development and manufacture of pistons. These men do operate, however—and mighty effectively—as the Zollner Machine Works' basketball division. Currently they are the top team in U.S. pro basketball.
At the end of last week the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons held a six-game lead over their nearest rivals in the National Basketball Association's Western Division, the Minneapolis Lakers. Playing against the prideful pro teams of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, the Pistons have more than held their own. Their defense has been the tightest in the league and in offensive statistics the Pistons have been third.
The Pistons, or the Z's as the natives know them, finished a poor third in their division last year. The playing personnel today is roughly the same as last year's. But the Pistons have one new asset and it has made the difference between a poor third and a front runner. The addition: a refereeturned-coach named Charley Eckman who professes to know less about basketball than his players (a patch of modesty which is entirely unjustified).
Profits in the NBA have been almost nonexistent, even for the big-city teams, but the Pistons this year stand to make money. One reason is the winning team. The Pistons have caught the fancy of the local citizens, who root for the Z's in Fort Wayne's imposing 9,500-seat Coliseum with the passionate intensity of undergraduates. Another spur towards the black ink has been the playing of "home" games in cities other than Fort Wayne. The Pistons drew 6,000 at Elkhart, Ind., have performed in Kokomo, Ind., and are scheduled to play two games in Miami with New York. Other clubs are using the same gimmick.
A third factor in the good gate drawn by Fort Wayne is the improvement of the professional game through some new rules.
Stalling, fouling and arguing slowed the tempo of the game last year—as millions who watched it in person and on television well remember—spectators were mistreated to the dreary sight of the leading team freezing the ball while the trailing team resorted to deliberate fouls to get a chance at ball-control. Frequent hassles over who fouled whom dragged out the game.
Ned Irish, bwana sahib of basketball at Madison Square Garden and head of the NBA's New York Knickerbockers, says now: "We had to do something. The league couldn't have survived another season like that."
The old stalling tactics are eliminated by a new pro rule which requires a team to shoot within 24 seconds of gaining possession of the ball. Thus, a 10-point lead with two minutes to play is not safe, cannot be played safe.
Moreover, deliberate fouling has lost most of its attraction because of a new proviso that limits each team to six personal fouls per 12-minute period. Each foul after six carries with it the expensive penalty of a bonus shot.
The third new rule can best be explained by describing a recent incident at Madison Square Garden. Dolph Schayes of the Syracuse Nationals made a desperate attempt to block an opponent's shot. Schayes thought he had succeeded in legitimately deflecting the ball. Referee Sid Borgia thought differently. He blew his whistle, called a hacking penalty on Schayes.
Livid, Schayes whirled on Borgia. "What the____" Schayes began. But he broke off in mid-bellow. Like a medieval cabalist, Referee Borgia had brought his right arm up to a vertical position and crossed it at the top with his left palm. It was professional basketball's new—and respected—"sign of the T," i.e., a technical foul for arguing with the referee. Its cost to Schayes's team: another free shot for the opponent and control of the ball. Its cost to Schayes: a $25 fine.
The disappearance of the time-honored privilege of arguing with an official may seem to be a lamentable loss of free speech to many but this harsh rule, harshly applied this year, has ended those awful debates which would have tried the patience of a U.N. parliamentarian.
The rule changes made the brand of basketball played today the best in the history of the NBA, but the metamorphosis of the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons is a more complicated story.
When the season ended last year, Fred Zollner, who can truly be classified as a millionaire sportsman, decided he needed a new coach. Zollner recalled a conversation he had three years ago with a top NBA referee Charley Eckman. An official since the age of 17, Eckman had told Zollner that he would like to coach pro ball some day.
Pro basketball differs from the college game in that every player is an all-star. Every man can drive, play the pivot, make jump shots, set shots and lay-ups—maybe not all equally well but sufficiently so as to be a threat at all times and to be able to exchange roles with teammates instantaneously. Coaches in the NBA do not teach their men specific offensive plays aimed at setting up shots for the one or two top players as in college. Pro ball is a matter of patterns rather than clearly defined plays as in college.
For both offense and defense the important thing to know is how the opposition plays, and Charley Eckman, an NBA referee for seven years, gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the players in the league. Zollner hired him. Says Eckman: "I'm no coaching genius. Basketball is mainly the matching of personnel. I've been around and I know how the other guys play."
The 33-year-old Eckman's expert knowledge has paid off: when to substitute, who to play against whom (the zone defense is outlawed by the pros), how to capitalize on shifts in patterns.
The Pistons under Eckman play deliberate ball, shooting when they have a good shot instead of at the first opening. Under this style, Center Larry Foust, 6 feet 9 inches, has registered the best field-goal percentage in the league. Playmaker Andy Phillip works the ball down court deliberately while the Piston forwards jockey for position. "You can't win this game unless you have a good defense, and you can't defend if you just run and shoot, run and shoot. Our style is to pick and pop," Eckman says in his throaty voice. The pick-off play is a Fort Wayne favorite. Phillip will pass to his forward, George Yardley; break between Yardley and brush block the man guarding George, thus enabling Yardley to drive in behind the screen for a shot, or pass off to his opposite number, Mel Hutchins.
Fort Wayne got something else in Eckman besides a man who knows his basketball and the league personnel. An unabashed "holler guy," Eckman has ignited the Z's into a hustling team with as much spirit as any college squad. Coach Eckman whoops encouragement and shouts instructions constantly from the bench: "C'mon Whizz!" (to Andy Phillip, former Illinois star). "Defense! Git back there, let'm shoot from out there!" "Atta boy, Zazzy!" (Max Zaslofsky). "Let's crash those boards!"
Running behind Fort Wayne in the Western Division are the onetime perennial champions of the NBA, the Minneapolis Lakers. The Lakers sadly miss George Mikan who retired to the front office. Jim Pollard, Slater Martin and Vern Mikkelsen sadly miss the big fellow in the post.
Both Rochester and Milwaukee are due for rebuilding; the latter has two of the hottest rookies in Bob Pettit and Frank Selvy whom the Hawks picked up when the Baltimore Bullets fizzled out early this season.
The Eastern Division has a far closer race. The Boston Celtics and the Syracuse Nationals are battling for top honors with the New York Knickerbockers not far behind. Philadelphia's Warriors bring up the rear.
The chief attraction of the Celtics is Bob Cousy, showiest player in the league, possibly the best all-round star and certainly the highest paid (around $18,000). The Celtics play fast-breaking basketball and it is Cousy who gets them off winging. Cousy on offense presents a guileless, candid face, eyes resolutely fixed straight ahead, his path of movement clearly indicated. Suddenly the ball whips around from behind his back to a teammate in the clear. Before the defense can recover the ball is through the basket. Or maybe Cousy innocently sets himself for a shot from outside; he springs, but instead of the ball going up to the basket he drops it behind him to a colleague who drives in behind the screen. Prettiest sight to watch is Cousy the dribbler. Changing hands, moving the ball behind his back, incredibly keeping control of the ball while dodging defenders at high speed, Cousy often drives past two or even three opponents to put the ball up.
On defense Cousy has the furtive look of a hold-up man on his first job, stalking his prey on the balls of his feet, eyes scanning right and left like a radarscope seeking potential threats, blocking shots, intercepting passes.
The other big guns on the Celtics are Bill Sharman, a sharp-shooting guard and very able foil for Cousy in working the ball up, and Don Barksdale and "Easy Ed" Macauley, both can play the pivot, hit the boards.
Syracuse depends on Dolph Schayes, third high scorer in the league, and playmaker Paul Seymour. The New York Knickerbockers continue to play spotty ball despite the presence of such veterans as Harry Gallatin, Nat Clifton, Dick McGuire and Carl Braun.
The Warriors from Philadelphia get plenty of scoring from Neil Johnston and Paul Arizin, but pro teams need five top players.
The future of the NBA is still a clouded one. The collapse of the Baltimore Bullets left a tangle of financial obligations, not the least of which is several weeks' salary owed the players. A players' council has organized and seeks a rise in the minimum salaries (now as low as $3,500); a guarantee that the Baltimore players will get the money owed them and a review of the fine situation. Several players, including Cousy, have contributed as much as $200 as a result of the "sign-of-the-T" rule, and the NBA has collected a total of $2,800 in fines. The contributors feel some curb was and is necessary on arguments with referees, but as one player grumbled, "This is ridiculous. You give a guy a little authority and he goes wild. The same thing could be accomplished by handing out two personals for arguing."
On the bright side, attendance figures around the league are beginning to creep up and several cities, notably Pittsburgh and Cleveland, might field teams in the near future.
Sportsman Fred Zollner views the situation this way. "I'm a teetotaler by choice. For me basketball also takes the place of golf or bridge. If we lose money I regard it as a normal deficit for value received—spreading an odd name like Zollner around."
Businessman Ned Irish of Madison Square Garden looks at the NBA's future this way. "It's going to be a long, hard pull but there's money in pro basketball. The struggle will be worth it."
PISTON COACH Charley Eckman, 5 feet 9 inches, gives some last-minute instructions to Don Meineke, 6 feet 7 inches, before sending Meineke into the game.
CELTIC STAR Bob Cousy takes shot at Fort Wayne basket after driving up middle. Jumping to deflect ball is George Yardley while teammate Mel Hutchins (left) watches.
MILWAUKEE HAWKS' Bill Calhoun drives toward Rochester basket, passes ball off to unguarded Bob Pettit (right). Twelve-foot-wide alley in pro ball opens up game.
Syracuse Nationals forward, Schayes is 26 years old, 6 feet 8 inches tall and played college basketball at New York University. This is his 6th year in the NBA and as of last week he was third among leading scorers, fourth in rebounds.
Philadelphia Warriors center, Johnston is 25 years old, 6 feet 8 inches tall, and played college basketball at Ohio State. Winner of the individual scoring title for the past two years, Johnston was fifth in the race for this honor last week, led in points per game.
New York Knickerbockers guard, McGuire is 28 years old, 6 feet tall and played college basketball at St. John's. McGuire acts as Knickerbocker playmaker and is superb at working ball in. McGuire usually leads the Knickerbockers in assists.
Boston Celtics guard, Sharman is 27 years old, 6 feet 1 inch tall and played college basketball at Southern California. Sharman teams with Cousy to give Celtics top back-court combination. He is deadly shot, especially from outside.
Boston Celtics guard, Cousy is 27 years old, 6 feet 2 inches tall, and played college basketball at Holy Cross. Fourth in scoring leaders this year, Cousy is a wizard at ball handling, always a leader in assists, probably best all-round player in league.
Harry Gallatin, Nat Clifton of Knickerbockers; Ed Macauley, Don Barksdale of Celtics; Paul Seymour of Syracuse; Paul Arizin of Warriors.
Milwaukee Hawks center, Pettit is 22 years old, 6 feet 9 inches tall, and played college basketball at Louisiana State. Pettit, a rookie, has been fighting for top scoring honors with teammate Frank Selvy, averaging slightly better than 20 points a game.
Fort Wayne Pistons forward, Yardley is 24 years old, 6 feet 5 inches tall and played college basketball at Stanford where he broke records of great Hank Luisetti. Yardley also played AAU ball; specializes in jump shots, is Pistons' top scorer.
Fort Wayne Pistons center, Foust is 26 years old, 6 feet 9 inches tall and played college basketball at La Salle. Foust is pivot man for Pistons and a good one. He has been leading the league in field goal percentage, close to 50%, second high scorer for Pistons.
Rochester Royals guard, Wanzer is 29 years old, 6 feet tall, and played college basketball at Seton Hall. Playmaker for the Royals, the veteran Wanzer is top scorer for his team, relies often on a two-handed shot which is set up by a screen play.
Minneapolis Lakers center, Mikkelsen is 27 years old, 6 feet 7 inches tall and played college basketball at tiny Hamline (St. Paul, Minn.). Mikkelsen, leading scorer for the Lakers this year, is also a top defensive man, strong on backboards.
Andy Phillip, Max Zaslofsky of Pistons; Frank Selvy of Hawks; Bob Da vies, Arnie Risen of Royals; Jim Pollard, Slater Martin of Lakers.