The byword for the 1939-40 season was change. War had erupted in Europe and though the United States was not involved, the war occupied the newspapers, and through the papers the minds of their American readers. Also, though the NBL teams were still largely owned and operated by business interests, more players were now able to make basketball their main and sometimes only profession - a fact borne out by the fact that of the NBL's member teams in 1939-40, only the two Akron clubs still employed their players as anything other than just basketball players. And this distinction would continue to change the sport.
The game itself also continued to grow in popularity - a "World Professional Tournament" had taken place after the conclusion of the NBL's 1938-39 season and though only the Wisconsin teams (Oshkosh and Sheboygan) participated, the All-Stars made it to the final where they lost to the New York Rens. The disappointment of coming so close weighed heavily upon the Oshkosh squad and possibly provided a bit of a spark as the club prepared for the '39-40 NBL campaign.
Both Pittsburgh and Cleveland dropped out of the league. Their replacements would also be a sign of change - the new clubs came from Chicago and Detroit, two large and heavily populated cities with long-time member clubs in Major League Baseball and also in the NFL. Detroit's Eagles in particular were expected to be a strong contender in the Eastern division. Chicago's Bruins however found themselves stuck in the West with very strong - and hungry - teams in Sheboygan and Oshkosh.
THE 1939-40 SEASON
The Akron Firestones found themselves in a dogfight immediately. Not only were the Detroit Eagles competitive - they were in fact very strong. Led by guard Lenny Hendrix and bolstered by a trio of the best players from the defunct Cleveland White Horse club (Ed Barnes, Freddie Thomas and Frank Moline), the Eagles were front-runners for the entirety of the season and won the East with an 18-10 mark, three games better than the Wingfoots. Akron Goodyear (despite having Joe Palladino again lead the league in scoring) actually dropped into a last-place tie with the Kautskys, but with 13-15 records, the East was a very balanced division.
The same could not be said of the West where the All-Stars and Redskins were good and the Bruins and Ciesars were not. Oshkosh powered to a 19-9 mark with Sheboygan right behind them at 18-10. As usual Charlie Moss and Izzy Feingold did fine work for Oshkosh but it was the emergence of guard Hobie Adams that really put Oshkosh over the top. Adams provided a third scoring option beside Moss and Feingold and made the All-Stars very difficult to contain. Sheboygan point guard Jim Smith led the league in assists with a robust 7.2 per game (and added a very strong 8.8 rpg as well) and first-year forward Frank McCue led the Redskins with 8.3 points per game.
Oshkosh continued their strong play in the playoffs - easily defeating first Sheboygan and then the Firestones to capture their first NBL title. Charlie Moss captured playoff MVP honors.
Low scores continued to be the norm and only three players: Palladino (13.4), Moline (12.4) and Firestone's guard Larry Gladstone (10.2) averaged double-figures in scoring.
The seasonal awards went to:
MVP: PF Al Ceron, Akron Firestone Non-Skids (repeat winner)
Rookie of the Year: C Red Reilley, Ciesar
Coach of the Year: Tony Phillips, Sheboygan Redskins (repeat winner)
All-League Team: C Al Ceron, F Frank Moline (Detroit), F Pat Grogan (Akron Firestone), G Jim Smith (Sheboygan), G Alphonse Berube (Firestone)
The NBL's first season had been a success - however, it had not been without problems. Financial issues were the largest of these and led to a contraction in size. Several squads had sunk in red ink the previous season and were not returning, announcing as such at the league's post-season meeting. These clubs were Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Fort Wayne and Kankakee. In most cases the players from these clubs would sink into obscurity, but a few were taking their professionalism seriously, and had suitors for the services which allowed their careers to continue in new locales in 1938-39.
There was one addition to the circuit for its second year - the Sheboygan Redskins. Sheboygan was a city in Wisconsin, located on the shores of Lake Michigan and home to about 40,000 people. Sheboygan was also only 65 miles from Oshkosh, creating an instant rivalry between these two midsize Wisconsin cities. The Sheboygan team had been around since 1933 and had originally been formed by a local florist and funeral parlor before being taken over by a local laundry cleaner and eventually a gelatin manufacturer. Ultimately the club was taken over by a local syndicate of private owners, and by that time had been a solid reputation as a competitive club on the barnstorming circuit. How they would handle the NBL's theoretically stiffer competition would be the biggest question entering the season.
In other business, the league made its divisional alignment (East and West) official - this hadn't been the case the season before, although everyone had just assumed it. The league had a balanced schedule and would follow collegiate rules with the exception of the foul out rule. And the biggest change, and a sign of stability, was that the league would now hire and manage the referees, assuring fair officiating.
THE 1938-39 SEASON
With the defending champion Electrics no longer participating in the NBL, the favorites entering the second season were the runners-up from Akron. The Non-Skids looked better - on paper - than the club that had gone to a third and deciding game with Fort Wayne the year before. They had added center Big Ed Rutkowski from the folded Buffalo club and promising rookie point guard Irv Lewis was also on board. Neither would unseat the incumbent starters, but both added depth that the team had not had in 1937-38. The other Akron team, the Goodyears, was also expected to be strong - and this time it looked like a sure bet. The Goodyears had gone the extra mile in recruiting star Joe Palladino to the squad. Palladino, a smooth guard who had been the star of the Kankakee club, gave the Goodyears a proven scorer and distributor as well as a tough defensive mind-set.
Oshkosh was again the favorites in the west with Charlie Moss and Izzy Feingold both returning. How the newcomers from Sheboygan would change the western equation was a big question. The Redskins certainly looked strong based upon their showings against top touring clubs. Guard Jim Smith looked like their best player, a flashy ballhandler who could pass and score - a good foil for Feingold.
Once things tipped off it became evident that Sheboygan was a good team and they did ultimately win the west with a record of 20-8, two games better than Oshkosh's 18-10 mark. Smith was a legitimate star and the supporting cast was solid, though not flashy. The East was a battle between the two Akron clubs, with the Non-Skids eventually opening up a lead and repeating as Eastern champs with a 20-8 mark while the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots went 17-11. Palladino blossomed for the Wingfoots, leading the league with 11.4 points per game. Charlie Moss of Oshkosh took second with 9.4. Al Ceron of the Non-Skids was the top rebounder with an even 13 per contest. Sheboygan's Smith led the league in assists by a good distance, tallying 5.7 per game - runner-up Ed Barnes of the White Horses was second at 4.3 per contest.
The postseason was anti-climactic as the Non-Skids easily handled the Redskins, sweeping three contests to earn their first NBL title and gain redemption for the disappointing end of the 1937-38 campaign.
The seasonal awards went to:
MVP: PF Al Ceron, Akron Firestone Non-Skids
Rookie of the Year: C Maynard Wilkinson, Pittsburgh Pirates
Coach of the Year: Tony Phillips, Sheboygan Redskins
All-League Team: C Charlie Moss, F Al Ceron (Firestone Non-Skids), F Arthur Miller (Firestone), G Benny Francis (Cleveland White Horses), G Alphonse Berube (Firestone)