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Relocated NBA Teams: The Fort Wayne Pistons

NBA franchise Detroit Pistons were located in Fort Wayne, Indiana from the franchise’s formation in 1941 to 1957 when they relocated to their current home in Detroit. The Pistons formed as an expansion franchise for the NBL by automobile parts business man Fred Zollner. The team was initially named Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons but they would drop Zollner from their name in 1948 as they joined the BAA. Zollner owned piston manufacturing plant in Fort Wayne. The piston, a small but critical component of an automobile seemed to him like an ideal piece from which to borrow a name for his team. There were several other NBA teams named after auto parts including the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets and Akron Firestone Non-Skids. Between 1941 and 1952 the team was based at the North Side High School Gym and the Memorial Coliseum from 1952 to 1957.

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The Pistons’ exploits in competition were rather enviable. They won two NBL championships and were champions in their division a total of six times in both the NBL and NBA. They also made 2 NBA finals in addition to four NBL finals they had won before the merger. The Pistons appeared in the playoffs a total of 15 times during their 16 years in Fort Wayne. After early success in the form of back-to-back NBL Championships in 1944 and 1945, the Pistons would have to wait till 1955 to return to a league final. They however lost both the 1955 and 1956 NBA Finals to the Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia Warriors respectively. The 1955 near miss was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for Pistons fans. In game 7, the Pistons found themselves leading 41-24 as the second quarter started. The Nats however assaulted the Pistons lead furiously and tied the game 91-91 with 12 seconds left. A George king free throw would then put the Nationals in front before Andy Phillip committed a costly turnover with three seconds left, to confirm the heartbreak.

On November 22, 1950, the Pistons were to face the formidable Minneapolis Lakers led by the unstoppable George Mikan. The 6-10 center was backed by future Hall of Famer Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard making the Lakers one of the fiercest teams in NBA history. Pistons coach Mendenhall was well aware of the gulf in quality between the two sides and had a plan to eke out a win by all means. From the outset the Pistons players did nothing but pass the ball back and forth to ensure the Lakers and particularly Mikan did not touch the ball. Lakers fans and players alike were frustrated but the Pistons cared less. The first half ended 13-11 in favor of the Lakers but the second half was even worse. only 13 points were scored between the two teams as LA also adopted the Pistons’ negative tactics. As the game drew to a close the Pistons held a 19-18 lead which they preserved till the end as the Lakers missed a shot at the buzzer. To date, this remains the lowest scoring game in NBA history and it necessitated the league to introduce the 24 second shot clock to force teams to go into offense and score more points. Effectively, this game saved the NBA from collapse. The increased offensive nature of games following the shot clock introduction made basketball much more exciting for fans who turned out in greater numbers to watch the now free scoring league.

Why the Fort Wayne Pistons were Relocated

As the 50s progressed, the financial gulf between small town teams and teams in large metropolises grew ever wider. A large city like Boston, New York or Chicago could generate a consistent oasis of fans and enhance the team’s image and attendance figures. Ultimately, the Pistons suffered a fate common with small town teams; despite remaining immensely popular with local fans there was little avenue for growth, and survival in times of sky rocketing player wages would be virtually impossible. Zollner started shopping for a new host city. Detroit presented itself as an attractive prospect for Zollner. The Motor City was the destination for countless units of the pistons his company produced and was only 150 miles from Fort Wayne. The Pistons name also fit perfectly with Detroit’s motor industry image. The team was relocated at the conclusion of the 1956/57 season to become the “Detroit Pistons.” Meanwhile ABA outfit Pacers would come calling, returning professional basketball to the State of Indiana.

Fort Wayne Pistons Notable Players

George Yardley F 1953-1957

Bob Houbregs C 1955-1957

Andy Phillip G 1952-1956

Robert McDermott G 1943-1946

Larry Foust C 1950-1957

Fred Schaus SF 1949-1954

Bob Houbregs C 1955-1957

Frankie Brian G 1951-1956

Don Meineke C/PF 1952-1955

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