Pro basketball went through its first great transition in the 1940s. The game stretched out vertically and horizontally. Forwards were beginning to play above the rim. Guards were becoming scorers. Outside shooting was opening up the middle for increasingly agile big men. The top star during this era, Bobby McDermott, was both a visionary and a throwback. The four-time league MVP was the first to master long-distance scoring, thrilling fans and creating havoc with his looping 30-footers. He was also the game’s final link to its rough-and-tumble past. Hailed as the greatest player in history during his time, Bobby was literally forgotten by his sport a few years after he retired—a wrong that wasn’t righted until 25 years after his death.

Robert McDermott was born on January 7, 1914, in the Whitestone neighborhood of Queens, New York. (Click here for today's sports birthday.) He was a basketball junkie in a borough where playground ball was king. Bobby was a scrappy backcourt player who practiced outside shooting in an era when the ball was slightly larger than it is today. Guards were “feeders” back then, not shooters.

Basketball was a rough game, and Bobby was known as a particularly rough player. He tried to gain an edge over his man at all times, and he did not appreciate when calls went against him. On the other hand, he demonstrated great finesse when needed. His fakes, feints and change-of-pace moves had defenders tripping over their own feet.

By his early teens, Bobby had reached his full height of six feet. As the Great Depression took hold, he began playing basketball for money—either winning bets on one-on-one matches or collecting a dollar or two from a team in need of a ringer. He decided to drop out of high school during his sophomore year and hustle basketball to make a living. Bobby played for local semipro teams, including the College Point Nomads and the Pro-Imps, a team from Long Island. He typically received around $5 a game for his services. The pay wasn't bad for a teenager. Day laborers made $10–$15 a week in this era, assuming they could find work at all.

In 1934, 20-year-old Bobby joined the Brooklyn Visitations of the newly re-formed American Basketball League. Prior to the Depression, the ABL had been a true national league, with teams from Chicago to Washington to New York. It suspended operations in 1931. The new ABL included just seven teams, all concentrated in the northeast corridor. Unlike their predecessors, they played in small gyms in front of tiny crowds; it was strictly minor league ball from then on.

Even so, the Visitations remained one of the stronger teams in the country. In 1934–35, led by ABL scoring champ Carl Johnson (at 7.2 ppg) and 6–7 Howie Bollerman, they finished third in the season’s first half behind the New York Jewels and Philadelphia Hebrews. In the second half, they tied the Hebrews with a 12–7 record. The two teams played a best-of-three series to determine who would play the Jewels for the league title. Philadelphia won the first game, 24–15, on Brooklyn’s home court. When the series moved to Philly, however, the Visitations took the next two games to advance.

The best-of-five ABL Finals went the distance, with the Visitations prevailing in a 26–10 “blowout” in Game 5. The Jewels were lucky not to be swept. Both of their wins came by a single point.

The Visitations continued to play good ball in 1935–36. They placed third again in the season’s first half, but they were the class of the league with a 14–5 record in the second half. Bobby was not only the team’s top player at this point—he was the most prolific scorer in the league by almost 100 points, averaging 9.6 per game in 40 appearances. In several games he topped the (then) magical 20-point mark.

The ABL Finals were expanded to a best-of-seven series in the spring of 1936. The Visitations played Philadelphia again. The team was now called the SPHAs, short for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. Their coach, Eddie Gottlieb, would become one of the architects of the NBA more than a decade later. The Finals featured home-and-home weekend games. The two teams split the first three weekend series, with each club winning on its homecourt. Game 7 was the only one that wasn’t close. The SPHAs triumphed in Philly, 47–34.

Bobby McDermott

Bobby was a busy man that season. Not only was he the ABL scoring champ, he also suited up for the Original Celtics, who played their games on Friday nights at New York’s Paramount Theatre. It was the first year that the popular movie house hosted live events; it would become the city’s most famous concert venue by the end of the decade. The Celtics were a reinvention of the famous squad of the 1920s. Their leader was the great Pete Barry.

Bobby was now a hot commodity—one of the few pros whose name could draw fans on a level with the top college stars. The ABL, meanwhile, was a sinking ship. The Visitations actually started the 1936–37 season in Paterson, New Jersey before moving back to Brooklyn. Bobby played only four games before jumping to the short-lived New York Professional League. Records are sketchy on Bobby’s time there, other than a newspaper account that describes a record 32-point performance in the playoffs. At a time when an entire team might not reach that mark, this must have been an eye-popping performance.

Bobby played the next three seasons with the barnstorming Celtics. With a cut of the gate, it seemed like the smartest financial move. The Celtics often played local "all-star" teams with varying levels of talent and organization. Against these opponents, Bobby had games that dwarfed his earlier efforts. Fans buying tickets to watch the Celtics knew there was always a chance their young star might eclipse 40 or 50 points—which he did on many occasions.

His other option might have been hooking up with one of the teams in the new National Basketball League. The NBL came to be after several large companies—including Firestone, Goodyear and General Electric—decided to field pro teams in the country’s industrial midsection. They hoped to lure graduating college stars with the promise of a business career. Bobby, who had quit school at 15, wasn’t exactly corporate material, but these teams tended to look past such a technicality and found day jobs for players during the week.

After two seasons on the road, the 1939–40 campaign found Bobby settled back in the ABL, with the Baltimore Clippers—the team formed after the Visitations folded. He was reunited with several former teammates, including Bollerman. Bobby was the league scoring champ at 11.0 ppg, and the Clippers played well enough to make it into the playoffs. The ABL adopted a round-robin postseason format that year. The SPHAs won the championship on the strength of their 7–0 record. The Clippers went in the opposite direction with a 1–7 mark.

Bobby began the 1940–41 season with the Clippers, but he stayed for only two games. Tired of low wages and empty gyms, he went back to the Celtics for a year. He used this time to refine his free throw shooting, as well as to improve the accuracy of his outside shot.

During the 1930s, Bobby was recognized for his long-distance prowess. However, he was also known for being a relentless player both on offense and defense. Watching a Depression-era game, one would have instantly picked Bobby out for his ultra-aggressive approach. Prior to the abolition of the center tap after each basket, his ability to jostle and shove a player at just the right moment was the rough equivalent of a “half-steal,” as it often resulted in his team regaining possession after a field goal.

In the 1940s, Bobby began to recognize that a more dependable outside shot could give his team a particular advantage. A handful of pros could go vertical, but for the most part basketball was still played horizontally, like a high-speed chess game where the piece used shoulders, knees and elbows to gain an edge. Typically, a guard would bring the ball across midcourt, signal a play to his teammates and then pass into the pivot—at which point the other four players would burst into a ballet of picks and screens to create an open shot close to the hoop. Defenses were set up to stop this strategy, often resorting to modified “zone” setups. The result was that fewer than a third of all possessions resulted in points for the offense. And with no shot clock, much energy was expended during each possession.

A player who could make a 30- or 40-foot shot even a third of the time had the opportunity to accomplish some important things. First, by superseding the status quo, his team would earn a welcome breather. Second, it would prevent the defense from collapsing around the pivot, thus freeing up the floor for teammates to get open. Third, the misses often turned into long rebounds, which were easier for the offense to control. And fourth, the demoralizing effect of a 35-foot basket could simply wear an opponent out.

Bobby McDermott,
Original Celtics photo


Bobby employed a long, looping two-handed set shot, fired up from chest level, with lots of backspin. Because the ball had laces, it was important to line them up with the basket, otherwise the ball might curve slightly in flight. Normally, this made the two-handed set shot fairly easy to defend. But the steady improvements Bobby made on this ancient technique enabled him to release the ball quickly, even with a man close by. He could “stop and pop” or launch his shot while moving left or right. His patented move was a quick fake to throw his man off balance, then a step back to give him room to release his shot. During the 1940s, when Bobby was feeling it, he thought nothing of firing up high-arcing missiles from just inside the halfcourt line. When the pros switched over to “laceless” balls in the late 1930s, his shot became deadly accurate.

A defender had to be within a body length of Bobby to shut him down. If he got any closer, Bobby would drive around him, creating a brief numbers advantage for his team. As Bobby’s set shot improved, defenders did stay close. But as he extended his range from 20 feet to 30 and 40 feet during the late 1930s and early 1940s, he began to change the game. By the war years, he was roundly hailed as the finest pro basketball player—then or ever.

Those years were spent in the NBL, which was maturing into a legitimate major league. By the 1940s, most of the top pros were playing for one of the NBL clubs. Their only other choice was to suit up for an amateur team sponsored by a large employer and compete in AAU games. Plenty of college stars did make this choice. Either way, the appeal was a full-time job, plus an opportunity to play high-level basketball.

The most generous NBL boss was Fred Zollner, who owned a piston factory in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. He gave his players factory jobs with good pay and health benefits. And because his company qualified as an essential wartime industry, his players were not compelled to join the military.

In the fall of 1941, Zollner’s team joined the NBL. He stocked it with the best basketball talent money could buy. He inked several local collegiate stars, including Herm Schaefer and Curly Armstrong of Indiana, Elmer Gainer of DePaul and Blackie Towery of Western Kentucky. The feather in Zollner‘s cap was signing the Bobby away from the Celtics. At 27, he was  truly in his prime. Bobby would be named the Most Valuable Player in the NBL in each of the next four seasons.

The Pistons finished the 1941–42 campaign tied for second with the Wingfoots, a Goodyear-sponsored team that played out of Akron, Ohio. The Oshkosh All-Stars finished first for the second year in a row, but they still had something to prove in the playoffs. One year earlier, after winning the NBL championship, they were defeated in the World Professional Basketball Tournament by the Detroit Eagles, an NBL club that had finished 12–12. Since this tournament opened its doors to all of the country’s top pro teams—including African American clubs like the Harlem Globetrotters and New York Rens—its champion was viewed by many fans as the “true” king of professional basketball.

The All-Stars were led by the most prolific scorer in the game, Cowboy Edwards, a 6-5 center who played like a modern power forward. He muscled his way to the basket for short hooks and layups. He was able to leap above opponents for rebounds and tip-ins. The three-second rule was instituted during Edwards’s college days in Kentucky, ostensibly to curtail rough play. Wildcats coach Adolph Rupp always suspected it was a way to keep Edwards from camping out under the rim. His NCAA record for the points in a season lasted well into the 1940s.

Neither Edwards nor Bobby won the 1941–42 NBL scoring title. That honor went to Chuck Chuckovitz, the lone star on Toledo’s 3–21 Jim White Chevrolets. The one-handed shooting specialist scored 18.3 ppg. Bobby finished second at 13.2.  Bobby was named First-Team All-NBL, along with Edwards, Chuckovitz, Ben Stephens and Charlie Shipp. Bobby’s teammate Herm Schaefer made Second-Team at guard.

The Pistons played Stephens and the Goodyears in the first round of the NBL’s two-tiered playoffs. In the crowded, claustrophobic gyms of the day, homecourt advantage was everything. Fans sat close enough to the court to trip players running down the sidelines and pelt them with coins and candies. Not surprisingly, the Goodyears beat the Pistons in Akron in the opening game of their best-of-three series. But Bobby’s team took the final two meetings in Ft. Wayne to advance.

The championship series against Oshkosh—which had easily handled the fourth-place Indianapolis Kautskys—opened in Ft. Wayne. Bobby scored 20 to give his club an easy 61–43 win. The Pistons had only moderate success stopping Edwards, however, as he netted 22. The final two games were played in Wisconsin. Edwards torched the Pistons for 35 points in a 68–60 win that knotted the series. In the deciding game, Ft. Wayne coach Carl Bennett ordered his players to blanket Edwards and “dare” his teammates to beat them. The Pistons limited Edwards to a single point, but the rest of the All-Stars lived up to their name, scoring 51 against Ft. Wayne’s 46.

The Pistons entered the World Tournament in Chicago hoping for another crack at Oshkosh. This dream ended in the first round, when they lost to a team sent by the Army Ordinance Training Center in Aberdeen, Maryland. The All-Stars, meanwhile, won the tournament in a rematch with the Eagles.

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The 1942–43 season presented the NBL with significant manpower challenges. Many top players were being drafted into the service, while others were leaving the game to enlist. The league contracted to four teams and reduced its schedule to 23 games. The Pistons, the All-Stars and the Sheboygan Redskins, led by Buddy Jeannette, remained. The NBL lost its Chicago club, the Bruins, who were owned by George Halas. But a different Chicago team stepped into the void. The local Studebaker plant was converted to wartime production, which exempted its employees from the draft. Several Chicago-based stars got jobs with Studebaker, including a few members of the Globetrotters. The United Auto Workers felt they had enough talent to sponsor an NBL club, and thus the Chicago Studebakers—the first truly integrated team in American pro sports—was born.

There was surprisingly little friction on the club, and what there was didn’t seem to be racial in nature. Most of the controversy stemmed from Mike Nowak, the former Loyola star, feeling ’Trotter Sonny Boswell was taking too many shots. Boswell had similar misgivings about Nowak. The Studebakers finished fourth in the standings and then split up to play in the 1943 World Tournament—never to reassemble again.

Oshkosh began the year by losing to a team of recent university grads in the College All-Star Game. They struggled to play .500 ball the rest of the year, leaving the path clear for the Pistons to rise to the top of pro basketball. Ft. Wayne finished first in 1942–43 with a 17–6 record. Bobby led the league in scoring with a 13.7 average.

Ft. Wayne defeated the Studebakers in the opening round of the playoffs. The second-place Redskins beat Oshkosh to set up a thrilling NBL Finals. Game 1, in Ft. Wayne, saw Bobby lead his team to a 27–21 halftime advantage. But Jeannette—former star of the Detroit Eagles—rallied his teammates to seize control of the best-of-three series with a 55–50 win. Jeannette played heroically again in Game 2, with the home crowd cheering on the Redskins. He hit a long shot before the buzzer to knot the score at 44–44 and send the game into overtime. Playing for their lives, the Pistons scored six points and held Sheboygan to one free throw to even the series.

The deciding game, also played in Sheboygan, featured a conclusion that has never been matched. In a tight defensive battle, the Pistons led 29–28 with time running out. The ball ended up in the hands of Eddie Dancker, unguarded on the sideline, with only a second or two left. The Sheboygan center launched a desperate hook—some say without looking at the basket—which went in as time ran out for a miraculous 30–29 victory. It was the first and last time in pro hoops history that a championship was decided on a buzzer-beating basket.

In the World Tournament, the Pistons gained a measure of revenge, beating the Redskins in the quarterfinals. Ironically, Bobby and his teammates were upended in the semis by Oshkosh. The All-Stars were then beaten in the championship game by the Washington Bears, a barnstorming team that featured the top black players in basketball, including Pop Gates and Chuck Cooper.

At this point, Zollner must have been wondering what he had to do to get a championship trophy into his factory—especially after losing three key players to military service over the summer. He responded by signing Jeannette away from the Redskins and veteran Chick Reiser off the roster of the ABL’s Brooklyn Indians. This gave Ft. Wayne one of the finest backcourt trios in the history of the game. Jeannette was a great penetrator who created opportunities for big men Towery, Jerry Bush and Jake Pelkington. He could also kick the ball out to Bobby on the perimeter.

Buddy Jeannette, 1948 Bowman

Zollner’s best move was to make Bobby, now 29, the team’s coach. He replaced Carl Bennett, who was entrusted with GM duties. In some respects Bobby was a curious choice. Despite the fact that player-coaches had long been in vogue in pro ball (usually as a cost-cutting strategy), Bobby was hardly a shining example to his players. He was quite outspoken in his disdain for the basic training rules of pro sports. Indeed, he encouraged his players to gulp down as much beer as possible between games as a way of keeping them hydrated and also numbing various accumulated aches and pains. He was also not above socking the occasional official. In addition, the fact that he did not have a college degree (or high school diploma, for that matter) made him a rarity in pro ball by the 1940s. With his hustler’s attitude and two-handed shot, he was a living reminder of how basketball was played in the good old days. Perhaps that is what Zollner felt his players needed.

Whatever the boss’s thinking was, it worked. The Pistons easily won the four-team, 22-game NBL season with an 18–4 mark. Bobby finished second in the league scoring race to Cleveland big man Mel Riebe. He was sharing the scoring load with his two backcourt mates, however—Jeannette and Reiser combined for another 12 points a game. The threesome accounted for more than half of Ft. Wayne’s output during the regular season. Bobby was named MVP again, as well as Coach of the Year. He would win this award the following season, too.

In the playoffs, the Pistons rolled over Cleveland. That set up a Finals showdown with Ft. Wayne’s old nemesis, the Redskins. The championship series had been expanded to a best-of-five affair. Game 1, played in Sheboygan, was tied 53–53 with time running out. Bobby canned one of his patented bombs to beat the buzzer for a 55–53 victory.

Game 2, also in Sheboygan, was more physical but less dramatic. The Pistons won 36–26 to take the series back to Indiana. There they completed their sweep of the Redskins, 48–38. Bobby had his second pro championship as a player and his first as a coach. Zollner was more excited than anyone.

The Pistons rolled into the World Tournament as favorites and did nothing to counter that notion. They beat the Dayton Aviators by 25 points in the quarterfinals and edged the Rens 42–38 in the semifinals. The Brooklyn Eagles, featuring center Chuck Connors, defeated the Globetrotters in their half of the draw. The Pistons overwhelmed the Eagles in the finale, 50–33, to become the undisputed kings of pro basketball. Bobby was named tournament MVP.

Bobby was at the height of his powers. His knowledge and gamesmanship was unparalleled in the NBL, and his long-distance shooting made warm-ups almost as entertaining as the games themselves. Bobby would pick a spot on the floor and begin heaving up two-handers. It was not unusual for him to make 10 in a row before moving to another shot. With each basket, the applause got louder. Even opponents got caught up in the fun and had to be reminded by teammates not to applaud.

The 1944–45 Pistons were even better than the previous season’s edition. They added Ed Sadowski, one of the most mobile centers in the game, and moved Jeannette to forward so Reiser could get more minutes. This three-guard approach was too much to handle for NBL opponents. The league, which added two teams for a total of six, was Ft. Wayne’s playground that year. The Pistons went 25–5, and Bobby averaged better than 20 points for the first time as a pro. Amazingly, he did not win the scoring title. Riebe edged him by four points, averaging 20.2 to Bobby’s 20.1. It marked the first time anyone had averaged 20 points in a pro basketball league.

In the playoffs, Ft. Wayne outgunned Cleveland in two easy victories, setting up a championship rematch with Sheboygan. The NBL Finals went back to a best-of-five format, which was bad news for the Pistons, who lost the first two games. Bobby and his players did not panic. Instead, they methodically picked apart Sheboygan’s defense to score three relatively easy victories back on their home court in Ft. Wayne.

Fred Zollner, publicity photo

Bobby and the Pistons were on top of the world, literally. They played to capacity crowds at the Chicago pro tournament, defeating the All-Stars and Rens to reach the title game. There they faced the Dayton Acmes and their two scoring stars, John Mahnken and Bruce Hale, the future coach (and father-in-law) of Rick Barry. The Acmes were no match for the Pistons, falling 78–52 before more than 15,000 fans. Bobby scored 15 points in the championship game.

Thanks to players like Bobby, pro basketball was becoming a mainstream sport. The crowds at the 1945 World Tournament confirmed this, as did the 23,000 people who showed up the following November for the game between the Pistons and College All-Stars. It was the largest audience ever to attend a basketball game, pro or college.

With some terrific hardwood talent filtering back from the war and emerging from the college ranks, NBL teams had their pick of players heading into the 1945–46 season. Eight teams now made up the league; all were still centered in the Midwest. This included the Royals, who played in the Western New York city of Rochester. Their owner, Les Harrison, entered a team jammed with stars, including Mahnken, Bob Davies, Fuzzy Levane, Red Holzman and Otto Graham, who was destined for greater things on the gridiron.

Zollner did not stand pat. He added veterans Herm Schaefer and Bob Tough, and signed Rice University center Bob Kinney. He reinserted Bennett as the team’s coach, leaving 30-year-old Bobby to concentrate on his playing duties. He led the team in scoring at 13.5 points a game, just behind Bob Carpenter of the All-Stars, who won the league race with a 13. 9 mark.

The Pistons finished with the NBL’s top record again at 26–8, but right behind them were the pesky Royals. The two teams met in the first round of the playoffs, with Ft. Wayne taking the opener, 54–44. The Royals stormed back to win the next three games, denying the Pistons a third straight championship. Al Cervi did a superb job guarding Bobby. Sadowski shouldered most of the scoring load for the Pistons but it just wasn’t enough. The Royals went on to beat Sheboygan for the championship.

The Pistons still had a shot at three straight titles when they entered the World Tournament that spring. The talk of the event was the debut of George Mikan, the high-scoring DePaul center who was set to join the NBL’s Chicago American Gears. A showdown between the Pistons and Gears seemed imminent until Mikan ran into Cowboy Edwards, who at 30 had a few tricks the big man had never seen before. Chicago lost to Oshkosh in the semifinals, 72–66.

The Pistons, meanwhile, survived two close games to reach the finals, which was now a best-of-three series. Oshkosh won Game 1, 61–59. The Pistons took the next game, 56–47. The championship game was a rout, as Bobby poured in 20 points to lead Ft. Wayne to a 73–57 win.

World Professional
Basketball Tournament,
1945 photo

Though still a potent scorer, Bobby had a lost a half-step on defense and was becoming a liability when forced to cover some of the league’s younger guards. This no doubt was on Zollner’s mind when he traded Bobby away after a 7–7 start to the 1946–47 season. Bobby had been reappointed player-coach, but he had less to work with thanks to the defections of Jeannette to the ABL and Sadowski to the NBL’s new rival, the Basketball Association of America. Earlier in the year, amid much fanfare, Bobby had been named the greatest basketball player of the first half-century by pro coaches and basketball writers.

In December, on the return train ride from a game in Rochester, a craps game broke out in the men’s room. Soon a drunken brawl followed, and Bennett had to be summoned to break it up. Bobby was suspended along with two other players. Over the next two weeks, Zollner and Bennett engineered a deal that sent Bobby to the Gears.

The Gears were having troubles of their own. Mikan was a holdout, and owner Maurice White was unhappy with his coaching situation. Chicago was playing .500 ball, hoping to stay in contention until Mikan finally arrived. Bobby helped solve all three problems. He agreed to coach the Gears and gave them the offensive boost they needed to contend. His arrival also helped entice Mikan back onto the court.

With basketball’s finest interior player and most accurate long-range shooter, the Gears figured to be unstoppable. For many years, fans wondered what would happen if a pro team were able to get a true “Mr. Inside–Mr. Outside” pairing. Here, for the first time, was the ultimate test. It took two players to corral Mikan in the paint, leaving a player on the perimeter (often Bobby) wide open. Letting Bobby shoot now had the added danger of a Mikan rebound and follow-up; no one in the game was better under the boards. And Bobby was still quick enough to dribble around a guard who was covering him too closely, setting up a numbers mismtach closer to the basket.

The only possible problem facing the Gears was how Bobby, as player-coach, would run the team. He was used to being the biggest star on the court. Could he play the role of second banana?

The Gears had their answer after Mikan returned to the lineup. There was no ego conflict at all between he and Bobby. In fact, no team had ever been better at sharing the basketball. Four players—including Bruce Hale and Bob Calihan—ended up averaging in double figures, the first time in pro history this happened on the same team. Mikan led the NBL with a 16.5 average, and Bobby was second on the Gears with an 11.3 mark.

Chicago lost only one home game the rest of the way and had a winning record on the road, finishing 26–18 to squeeze into the playoff picture. Bobby was named an NBL First-Team All-Star for the sixth year in a row.

The Gears defeated Arnie Risen and the Indianapolis Kautskys in five games in the opening round. In the deciding game, Bobby was ejected for punching a referee. Mikan stepped up and outscored Risen 26–9 to secure the victory.

NBL Commissioner Piggy Lambert suspended Bobby for the semifinals against Oshkosh, a team that had beaten the Gears seven times in a row—although Lambert did allow him to coach. Chicago still swept the series. The All-Stars tried to triple-team Mikan with Cowboy Edwards and two forwards—all of whom fouled out in the opening game.

The NBL Finals matched Chicago with the defending champion Royals. The Gears had reason to worry. Four games in the best-of-five series would be played in enemy territory. Also, Cervi matched up well against Bobby and was one of the few defenders who could get under his skin. In Game 1, Bobby decided he would assign himself to guard Davies instead of the quicker Cervi or Holzman. This proved disastrous. He fouled out, and the Gears squandered a lead to lose 71–65.

Game 2 began the same way. Davies was abusing Bobby, scoring 11 points in the first quarter. Bobby was so winded trying to keep up with him that he couldn’t hit a shot himself. He made a wise coaching decision and took himself out in the second quarter. He assigned benchwarmer Stan Szukala to guard Davies, and Szukala’s fanatical defense took Davies out of the offense the rest of the contes. Chicago won 67–63. Bobby reentered the game in the second half and fouled out without scoring a point. No one could remember that happening before.

The series moved to Chicago, where Mikan and Calihan carried the scoring load in a pair of wins. The Gears were champions of the NBL—until Commissioner Lambert made one of the weirdest and most controversial decisions in sports history. Even thought the NBL champion had been decided in a playoff series since the league’s first season, Lambert announced that the Royals, by virtue of their 31–13 regular-season record, were the official NBL champions. The fact that they had lost their season series and playoff series to Chicago apparently held no weight. Not even the Royals could quite believe it.

Ed Sadowski, 1948 Bowman

Following the playoffs, Chicago owner White decided he’d had it with the NBL. After learning that his fellow owners would not support his replacing Lambert as league commissioner, he decided to take the Gears and Mikan, now basketball’s biggest attraction, and start his own league. White overestimated the drawing power of Mikan and the ability of a third league—with 24 teams, no less—to survive. Even so, the Professional Basketball League of America began play in the fall of 1947 ... and collapsed inside of a month.

The disenfranchised players were doled out to various NBL clubs. Mikan went to the newly formed Minneapolis Lakers, a team already boasting a young star in Jim Pollard. The Lakers would instantly become the class of the league.

Bobby went to Sheboygan, where he served as player-coach for a few weeks before being traded to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. The team had actually started the season as the Buffalo Bisons, but owner Ben Kerner moved the club to Moline, Illinois. The Tri-Cities were Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and Davenport, Iowa. The Blackhawks were 10–12 when Bobby arrived. He took over as coach and guided them to a 20–18 finish for an overall .500 record. He averaged 12.1 points per game for his third team of the season. For the seventh straight season, he was named All-NBL, although this time he was a Second-Team pick behind Cervi.

Bobby led the Blackhawks to a first-round playoff victory over Indianapolis. They were swept in the semifinals by Mikan and the Lakers, who went on to beat Rochester for the NBL title.

Prior to the 1948–49 season, the Basaketball Association of America invited the Lakers, Pistons, Royals and Kautskys to join the two-year-old circuit. The BAA played in large urban arenas in some of the country’s biggest cities. They had the venues but not the players. These four clubs would help boost the quality of the league, but their defection gutted the NBL.

Bobby returned as player-coach of the Blackhawks. At 34, he was the second-oldest regular in the league. He averaged under 10 points a game for the first time in more than a decade, but he did a good job coaching Tri-Cities. The team’s record stood at 25–20, and the Blackhawks were in contention for the division crown when he was traded to the Hammond-Calumet Buccaneers. The Bucs were a lousy team in a weak division. They made the playoffs only to get squashed by Cervi and the Syracuse Nationals.

The following season, the BAA absorbed the NBL into what would soon be called the National Basketball Association. The Bucs went out of business. Their contracts were scooped up by the Waterloo Hawks, but the team waived Bobby. He spent the 1949–50 season back in the ABL as player-coach of the Wilkes-Barre Barons.

The Barons had a good team—they were three-time champs of the ABL and often beat NBA clubs in exhibition games. Bobby guided them to a 21–17 record and third-place finish. He played in 36 games, averaged 6.8 points per contest, and put on a pre-game show for fans with his amazing halfcourt set shots. Wilkes-Barre met nearby Scranton in the opening round of the ABL playoffs. They split the first two games of the best-of-three series. Game 3, in Scranton, was an electrifying triple-overtime battle that went to the home team, 103–99.

George Mikan, 1948 Sport

Bobby returned to the Midwest in 1950–51 as player-coach of the Grand Rapids Hornets in the newly organized National Professional Basketball League. The NPBL was formed as a sort of refuge for small-market clubs, such as Sheboygan and the Waterloo Hawks, who were booted out of the downsized NBA. The eight-team league folded before a championship was played. Bobby didn’t even make it that far. He was fired five games into the season after a car he was driving crashed with several players riding inside. Though he was not charged with drunk driving, alcohol may well have been the cause of the crash.

In 1950, Bobby had been picked by Collier’s Magazine as part of its All-World Basketball Team. Soon nobody knew where in the world he was. Bobby faded into basketball obscurity during the 1950s. His name resurfaced in 1963, after he died on October 3rd from injuries suffered in a car accident that occurred in Yonkers, New York. He was 49.

Despite being roundly hailed as pro basketball’s greatest player just 20 years earlier, Bobby McDermott was not among the inductees when the Basketball Hall of Fame announced its inaugural class of enshrinees in 1959. Nor was he a member of the Class of 1968, when the Hall actually opened its doors to the public. Incredibly, it took voters 20 more years before they corrected their oversight. Finally, in 1988, Bobby’s plaque was added to the pantheon of hoops heroes in Springfield, Connecticut.

Bobby McDermott,
Hall of Fame postcard


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