By Mary Giorgio
It’s no secret that the Hoosier state has had a long love affair with basketball. In the 1940s, Fort Wayne, Indiana, became home to the state’s first professional basketball team. The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons delighted fans for over 15 years before relocating to a larger market in Detroit.
The Zollner Pistons were founded in 1941 by Fred Zollner. Along with his sister, Janet, Fred owned Zollner Corporation, a local foundry that manufactured pistons for cars, trucks, and locomotives.
In the team’s early years, money was scarce and professional basketball players did not command the salaries that they earn today. Zollner paid his players a share of profits at the end of each season, amounting to around $2,500 a year. To make ends meet, players were employed in Zollner’s factory.
The team was forced to play its home games at the North Side High School gym. In 1952, they were able to secure a space at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.
From the beginning, the Zollner Pistons were a competitive team. As part of the National Basketball League’s (NBL) Central Division, the Pistons won the league championship in 1944 and 1945. They won the world professional basketball tournament in 1944, 1945, and 1946. In 1948, Zollner changed the team’s name to the Fort Wayne Pistons.
During their years in Fort Wayne, the Pistons were at the forefront of innovation in the rules of the basketball game. In the late 1940s, they successfully trialed an enlarged foul line (12 feet from the former 6) at three consecutive games. In the early 1950s, the 24-second shot clock was instituted in response to an epic bout of shot stalling that took place in a game against the Minnesota Lakers.
Zollner became a prominent figure in American basketball. In 1949, he convened officials from NBL and National Basketball Association (NBA) in his Fort Wayne home to discuss a possible merger. It is said that the merger took place at Zollner’s kitchen table.
The merger led to the development of a stronger and wealthier league. More games were played during each season, and players began to command higher salaries. The Pistons star player, George Yardley, made $15,000 a year in the 1950s.
After the merger, Zollner began to realize that Fort Wayne was not a large enough city to support the new league structure. There weren’t enough fans to fill the stands and generate the revenue needed to sustain the team.
In 1957, he announced his decision to relocate the team to Detroit, Michigan. He hoped that the larger city would result in a larger fan base and more profitable franchise. Zollner remained the owner of the Pistons until 1974, when he sold the team to Bill Davidson.