Sandy Padive in his book “Basketball’s Hall of Fame,” writes about George Mikan, whom he called the first of the great big men. “In 1946, George Mikan signed with the Chicago Gears of the NBL. The Gears were playing the team from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin team had a center named Cowboy Edwards who was to knock out four of Mikan’s teeth.”
When Mikan was interviewed later in life, he mentioned that “Cowboy Edwards made the most impression on me, maybe because I was just starting in as a pro with Chicago. He had these huge, powerful hands and a habit of squeezing my knee so hard when the referee wasn’t looking. I’d be paralyzed for a second while he was shooting. Once he knocked out four of my teeth.”
The NBL had many teams during the 12 years of its existence, including the likes of the Sheboygan Redskins, Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, Rochester Royals, Minneapolis Lakers, Tri-Cities Blackhawks, Indianapolis Kautskys, Syracuse Nationals, Cleveland Transfers and the Anderson Packers.
There were exhibitions played before the start of the regular season and a few were squeezed in during league play. The opponents included the annual appearance of the bearded Michigan House of David and a few colored teams as they were then called.
The Chicago Collegians, a barnstorming colored team, occasionally started off the exhibition season. Nate Clifton and the New York Renaissance, also known as the “Rens,” and recognized as the premier professional basketball team of the 1930s, would play now and then, as would the Harlem Globetrotters.
In his recently published book “On the Shoulders of Giants,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote: “On March 28, 1939, eight young black men from Harlem anxiously stood on the polished wooden floor of the Chicago Coliseum facing eight white men in the final championship game of the first-ever World Professional Basketball Tournament. Surrounding them as a sold-out crowd of 3,000 raucous fans – most of them white, most of them shouting out the name of their favorites: the all-white Oshkosh All Stars.”
The black team was the New York Rens.
The organizers of the tournament invited what they considered the top 12 teams in basketball. Two of the teams invited were black: the Rens and the Globetrotters. This was the first time white and black teams faced each other for the world title.
The Rens had finished the season with a record of 112 wins against seven losses. Although the All Stars had defeated them the past seven out of 10 games the team played, Oshkosh fell in the championship game by the score of 34 to 25.
Three years later, 4,000 All Star fans waited at the railroad depot on Broad Street to greet their world champion, Oshkosh All Stars.
After the 1947-48 season, Mikan’s Lakers and three other NBL clubs – Rochester, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis – left to join the Basketball Association of America (BAA), soon to change their name to the National Basketball Association (NBA). Stripped of its best teams and prime gate attractions, the NBL hung on for only one more season.
In 1949, the NBA grabbed up most of the other valuable NBL franchises, including the Syracuse Nationals and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Even the Redskins of Sheboygan gained admittance for a year. Oshkosh, with its limited seating, was not invited.
No longer would the Rookie of the Year, Dolph Schayes of the Nationals or the scoring tandem of George Mikan and Jim Pollard of Lakers ply their trade in a gymnasium a few blocks removed from the center of my universe. Bob Davies, Al Cervi, Arnie Risen and “Red” Holtzman of the Royals, Bobbie McDermott and Buddy Jeanette of the Pistons, Frank Ryan of the Packers, Mel Riebe of the Transfers, Eddie Dancker of the Redskins and seven-foot Don Otten of the Blackhawks would be among those missing. They would now compete in the league featuring “Jumping” Joe Fuchs of the Philadelphia Warriors and “Easy” Ed McCauley of the Boston Celtics.
A few of the All Stars would sign on with the Oshkosh Stars, a semi-pro team organized later that year in the newly formed Wisconsin State League. A few retired, others played locally, and some were picked up by the NBA.
But it soon became clear that the Oshkosh Stars led by local favorites Charlie and Eddie Erban, former All Stars Bill McDonald, Gene Berce, Billy Reed and Bob Mulvihill with occasional help from an old and tired Edwards, and a semi-retired Englund – would never replace Lonnie Darling’s World Champion Oshkosh All Stars, a team led by a left-hand hook-shot artist Hall of Fame coach, Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, later called the greatest player he ever coached.
Ron La Point is a former high school history teacher. Elements of this story can be found in his book: Oshkosh: A South Sider Remembers.