As the fall of 1944 came around there was a general sense that the war's end was in sight and perhaps a return to normalcy would soon be coming. That positive outlook took a couple of dents in the winter and early spring, but proved to be the case as the 1944-45 season would be the last to be heavily impacted by the Second World War. The National Basketball League reflected the positive outlook of the nation at large as it began to rebound from the ravages of war that had reduced it to a mere four teams in the previous season.
1944-45 would see the NBL expand back to six teams adding the Pittsburgh Raiders and the Chicago American Gears to the fold. The Cleveland club changed sponsors and the Chase Brassmen simply became the Allman Transfers while the trio of Oshkosh, Sheboygan and defending champion Fort Wayne held fast as the core of the circuit. One major rules change occurred as goaltending was outlawed. The rule hadn't been needed before but a new generation of big and agile centers was starting to appear and these men were able to play above the rim.
The Zollner Pistons were expected to repeat as league champions following a season that saw them dominate league play, win the postseason series and then go on to defeat the Philadelphia SPHAs of the American Basketball League in the "World's Championship." True, the team would miss star guard Larry Gladstone who was inducted into the Army in June and got to Europe in time to participate in the final part of the Battle of the Bulge in early January. They were favored to repeat due to the addition of promising guard Fritz Haslsteiner (who had been born in Germany before emigrating to the U.S. with his parents in 1933) and the emergence of fellow guard Gus Pierce to support the stellar frontcourt of Abe Zinkoff, Al Ceron and Freddie Thomas.
The American Gears looked like a promising addition. Team management had built a largely local roster and had found a hidden gem in 28-year-old Marv Albertson. They also pounced on Mack Smith, a former Zollner Piston who was fresh out of the Navy and though not much of a defender had very good scoring ability. What's more, the Chicago owner Maurice White was, like Fred Zollner, willing to open his wallet to get good players and wasn't afraid to tell everyone exactly that.
THE 1944-45 SEASON
Those predicting success for Fort Wayne probably didn't quite expect things to unfold exactly as they did - the Zollner Pistons won 27 of 30 games and ran away with the regular season title. Abe Zinkoff continued to emerge as the league's brightest young star, posting a 13.1 average (good for 2nd in the NBL) and grabbing 8.6 rebounds per game as well en route to winning his first Most Valuable Player Award. With Lenny Hendrix back from the Army and adding 10.2 ppg and rookie Fritz Haslsteiner chipping in with 9.4 per game, the Pistons scored a robust 53 points as team and though Sheboygan was slightly better in that regard (average 53.6) the Pistons allowed a measly 40.6 per game, by far the fewest in the league (a full six points per game fewer than the Redskins whose 46.6 mark was second-best).
Sheboygan won the West, where their 20-10 mark easily bettered the American Gears' 13-17 and the surprisingly weak showing by Oshkosh (12-18). The East also had no other teams over the .500 mark with Cleveland going 13-17 and Pittsburgh struggling mightily and finishing with an anemic 5-25 record. A new star was emerging in Cleveland, where pivot Theo Bastian led the league with 14.7 points per game (largely due to there being no other offensive options on the Allmen Transfers).
For Joe Palladino, long the league's most accomplished player, the season saw his scoring average dip into single-digits for the first time since the league's first season as he finished with 8.9 points per game. At 33 years of age, the Sheboygan star was finally starting to show his age, though he remained the league's all-time leading scorer, finishing the season over 400 points ahead of Larry Gladstone.
The Redskins put up a fight in the Championship series, pushing the Zollners to five games before finally falling 3 games to 2. Pistons center Freddie Thomas won the playoff MVP.
The seasonal awards went to:
MVP: F Abe Zinkoff (Fort Wayne)
Rookie of the Year: G Norbert Robinson (Chicago)
Coach of the Year: Kenneth White (Fort Wayne)
All-League Team: C Theo Bastian (Cleveland), F Al Ceron (Fort Wayne), F Abe Zinkoff (Fort Wayne), G Jim Smith (Sheboygan), G Lenny Hendrix (Fort Wayne)