The Birth of the Detroit Pistons

Whenever the Davidson family finally gets around to selling the Detroit Pistons, which could be any day now based upon the negotiations with billionaire Tom Gores, the new owner would only be the third in the history of the franchise.

Just how the Pistons were originally created is fascinating.

The Detroit Pistons in action at Olympia Stadium in 1958, one year after they arrived in Detroit from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

As a means to further employee relations and promote the Zollner Machine Works in Fort Wayne Indiana, a company that eventually supplied seventy percent of the world’s heavy duty aluminum alloy pistons for internal combustion engines, in the late ‘30s Fred Zollner sponsored a company basketball team in the local YMCA Industrial League.

In February of 1941 the Zollner Pistons beat another local YMCA team the International Harvesters in overtime and earned the right to play in a pro tournament in Chicago. After the tournament Zollner set up some exhibition games against the professional NBL teams and at the invitation of the league’s commissioner the Pistons joined the NBL.

The Pistons won their very first official pro game on December 1, 1941 when they defeated George Halas’s Chicago Bruins 48-46. From 1943 to 1946, the Zollner Pistons posted the NBL’s best record, won championships in ’44 and ’45, and won the Chicago pro tournament three consecutive years.

Before the start of the ’48-’49 season, Fred Zollner played key role in what would become the eventual birth of the NBA.

In the late 1940s there were two struggling pro leagues competing for players, the NBL, made up mostly of Midwest teams, of which the Fort Wayne based Zollner Pistons were members and the BAA (Basketball Association of America) consisting mainly of big city eastern markets.
On August 3, 1949, the BAA agreed to merge with the NBL, creating the new National Basketball Association. The new league had seventeen franchises located in a mix of large and small cities.[In 1950 the NBA consolidated to eleven franchises, a process that continued until 1953-54, when the league reached its smallest size of eight franchises, all of which are still in the league (the Knicks, Celtics, Warriors, Lakers, Royals/Kings, Pistons, Hawks, and Nationals/76ers).
As the NBA grew in stature, it was only a matter of time before the Pistons would relocate to a major market.

On Valentine’s Day 1957, one month before the Pistons played their final game as a Fort Wayne team in front of 2,200 fans, Zollner announced he was transferring the franchise to Detroit.

By entering into a six year lease with the Red Wings to rent Olympia Stadium, Detroit became only the second city, besides New York, to host all four major professional sports.

“The Pistons were treated like poor country cousins because remember, in the ‘50s, the Lions were winning NFL championships, and the Wings had won a string of Stanley Cups,” former Free Press columnist George Puscas told me shortly before his death in 2007. “It was hard for the Pistons to compete against that, but I still felt Zollner would succeed unlike previous attempts at pro basketball in Detroit because he came in with a hell of lot money.”

After years of losing basketball, in 1974 Fred Zollner sold his Pistons for $8 million to Golden Beach, Florida neighbor and Detroiter William Davidson who as we all know eventually turned the franchise into the envy of the NBA while capturing three world championships.
Seventeen years after he died in 1982, Fred Zollner, who was named “Mr. Pro Basketball” at the NBA’s Silver Anniversary All Star game, was finally inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.