The big news, of course, was the war that was raging across the globe. With many of its players now continuing to serve in the military in far-off locales as the Allies began to push back Axis forces in both the Pacific and European theaters, the NBL prepared for a 1943-44 season that would see just three teams continue from the previous campaign. The 1942-43 season had ended badly for the Chicago Studebaker Flyers and the resulting acrimony and backbiting ultimately led the UAW to pull its support, meaning the team could no longer continue. The Jim Whites, despite playing for the championship against powerhouse Sheboygan, also could not continue due to financial issues. Both Sheboygan and Oshkosh were municipally owned teams, similar to the Packers of the NFL, and this "community" support enabled them to survive in the lean years of the war. The Zollner Pistons survived on the willpower and financial acumen of owner Fred Zollner, who kept the team going despite a tough end to the 1942-43 season. Rounding out the quartet of teams for '43-44 would be a new entry from Cleveland, Ohio - the Chase Brassmen (sponsored unsurprisingly by the Chase Brass Company).
THE 1943-44 SEASON
The Zollner Pistons rose to the top of the heap with a 15-7 mark in league play. The team had found a gem in rookie forward Abe Zinkoff who fetched the Rookie of the Year award at year's end and teamed with pivot Freddie Thomas, veteran forward Al Ceron and guards Larry Gladstone & Gus Pierce to give Fort Wayne the league's strongest starting quintet. Zinkoff's emergence filled the massive void left when the team's former star Joe Novak shipped out with the U.S. Army prior to the previous campaign.
Second-place was a familiar place for Oshkosh - but this time they were looking up at Fort Wayne and down at Sheboygan, which was news. The All-Stars finished at 13-9 with old standout Mo Feingold leading the way once again. Feingold's 12.7 ppg were tops in the league, beating out Larry Gladstone by two-tenths of a point for the scoring title. Forward Billy Nock somewhat controversially earned Most Valuable Player honors for his solid all-around play, but there were plenty of candidates to be found and perhaps the voters just felt it was Nock's "turn" to grab the MVP trophy.
The Sheboygan Redskins finished third and that disappointing 11-11 mark meant they would not have a chance to earn a fourth-straight postseason championship. Joe Palladino was again the best player for the Redskins, but his 12 points and nearly 7 rebounds per game weren't enough for a team that was missing several key components of their title teams of the past due to military call-ups.
Cleveland attempted to build its roster on retreads from the league's powers. Theo Bastian came on board as a castoff in Oshkosh (where he had been stuck behind established stars) and rose to the occasion in Cleveland, giving them 10.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game from the big forward position. But injuries and inconsistent play doomed the other two players the Brassmen had claimed off the rubbish heap in Alphonse Berube and Hank Watkins. Rookie Don Richards showed glimpses of a promising future, but overwhelmed by the NBL's core of quick small forwards.
The Zollner Pistons capped their stellar season with a two-game sweep of Oshkosh for their first-ever NBL championship. Rookie Zinkoff claimed the MVP award in the championship series.
The seasonal awards went to:
MVP: F Billy Nock (Oshkosh)
Rookie of the Year: F Abe Zinkoff (Fort Wayne)
Coach of the Year: Kenneth White (Fort Wayne)
All-League Team: C Charlie Moss (Oshkosh), F Billy Nock (Oshkosh), F Abe Zinkoff (Fort Wayne), G Jim Smith (Sheboygan), G Joe Palladino (Sheboygan)