Review of Wartime Basketball

Stark, Douglas. Wartime Basketball: The Emergence of a National Sport during World War II. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 384. Notes, appendices, and index. $34.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

As the Golden State Warriors marched toward 73 wins last season, basketball fans debated whether the Dubs were the greatest basketball team of all-time.  The conversation has continued since Kevin Durant joined Golden State. However, Jordan-diehards still insist upon the 1996 Bulls, Boston and Los Angeles partisans look to their teams of the mid-1980s, and old-school nostalgists recall Russell’s Celtics.  Absent from this debate are the 1944-1946 Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons.  But after reading Douglas Stark’s Wartime Basketball, one may realize that the predecessors to the Detroit Pistons deserve consideration.

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University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

With Wartime Basketball, Stark, the museum director of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, offers an entertaining, alternative history of basketball.  By situating the period of World War II as a critical moment for the development of the game, Stark does not privilege the NCAA and NBA as the important sites of basketball history.  He instead focuses on the National Basketball League (NBL) and American Basketball League (ABL), chronicling how these leagues and their teams navigated challenging and changing wartime conditions to sustain and grow the sport. Stark reintroduces forgotten teams and players, such as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, providing a collection of compelling anecdotes derived from period newspapers and personal interviews that testify to Stark’s careful research.

Yet, while Stark tells entertaining stories, he fails to convince of the significance of his stories.  He does not apply the rigor required to make Wartime Basketball an important contribution to sport historiography. Instead of a critical history, Stark offers a basketball hagiography. This proves disappointing, as the topic and research present an opportunity for intersectional analyses of the operation race, class, and gender in basketball during the World War II era that could demonstrate why and how the conditions of wartime made possible the development of the sport.

The book’s introduction establishes its whiggish tone.  Stark narrates James Naismith’s invention of basketball as a student at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts and the subsequent spread of the game through YMCAs across the country.   He then notes the game’s further expansion, with the first professional league founded only seven years after Naismith’s 1891 invention and the first national-scale professional league founded in 1925.  And while the Great Depression destabilized the game, it rebounded during Word War II.

In “America Goes to War, 1941-1942,” Stark begins by recounting changes that occurred in the late 1930s.  Some of the most notable developments were the marketing innovations of Ned Irish, who popularized the sport through double-headers, the founding of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in 1938, and the 1937-1938 emergence of Stanford’s Angelo “Hank” Luisetti, a fluid and athletic player who introduced the one-handed shot, as the sport’s first star.  The South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHAS) also dominated in the pre-war environment, entering the 1941-1942 season as two-time defending ABL champions. Like Luisetti, the SPHAS, who were owned and coached by Eddie Gottlieb, stylistically advanced the game, moving away from plodding play to a quicker style premised on passing. Importantly, Stark recognizes that the significance of the SPHAS extended beyond the court.  In a moment of rising anti-Semitism, the SPHAS “became a symbol for the Jewish community,” (44).

Yet, Stark does not further interrogate the significance of ethnicity or nationality in war-era basketball. In a historical moment where immigrants and non-WASP Americans were expected to “prove” their patriotism, it could be interesting to consider the role of basketball in allowing these populations to certify their Americanness.  In her contribution to Beyond Stereotypes: American Jews and Sports in the Twentieth Century, historian Linda Borish convincingly argues that sport encouraged Jewish American men and women to claim both their Jewish and American identities.  Such exploration seems especially relevant since the NBL featured midwestern industrial teams associated with war munitions factories, seemingly positioning these teams as representatives of a certain vision of Americanness and patriotism.

Stark, however, privileges the action on the court, where changing strategy and style presented new challenges for the SPHAS, who were unable three-peat due to the bruising Wilmington (Delaware) Blue Bombers.  He also recounts the battles of the NBL’s industrial squads, with Oshkosh prevailing as champions in 1941.  Stark then introduces the World Professional Basketball Tournament (WPBT), which was founded in 1939.  The inaugural tournament was integrated, with the New York Rens and Harlem Globetrotters both competing.  The Rens, in fact, won the title, defeating all-white Oshkosh.  Stark notes that the tourney had a “decidedly midwestern flavor,” with many teams from the NBL but few from the ABL and east coast (61).  But he does not consider the role of race in the determining tournament participation.  While he celebrates the significance of  all-black teams competing against all-white teams, he does not examine why teams chose not participate (a fact that proves worthy of analysis due to the fact that, during the war era, the NBL permitted black players and interracial teams while the ABL did not).

Stark only celebrates integration, positioning basketball as emblematic of the values of freedom and democracy the United States was fighting for in Europe.  The 1942 Long Island Grumman Flyers, the first interracial team to compete in the WPBT, most epitomized these ideals.  Stark rightfully positions the WPBT as an important basketball institution, not only because it cultivated the sport but because it did so without racial discrimination.  Yet, he unfortunately flattens the complex operation of race, choosing to celebrate rather interrogate moments of racial significance.  Chapter Two, “The Color Line Falls, 1942-1942,” demonstrates this tendency.

In late 1942, the NBL’s Chicago Studebakers tipped-off against the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets, marking the first professional basketball game to feature two integrated teams.  Stark provides a history of basketball’s integration up to this moment in order to underscore its significance.  He importantly recovers Harry Lew, who became the first African American to play a professional basketball game when he suited up for the New England Basketball League’s Lowell’s Pawtucketville Athletic Club in 1902.  The recovery of Harry Lew reveals the nonlinear trajectory of racial progress in the sport.  Yet, Stark simply positions Lew as an exceptional individual without considering the structures of racism that made Lew a singular figure.  In particular, he shares that Lew established himself as a defensive-stopper, noting that “his defense was so good that in some cases it was regarded as the reason, and not race, that some teams refused to play against Lew,” (91).  This claim is shortsighted without additional evidence or context.

Stark then returns to the wartime moment, chronicling Chicago’s and Toledo’s experiences of integration. He emphasizes that wartime shortages led these teams to turn to black players. The ABL, in contrast, resisted the introduction of black players, subsisting on a reduced pool of white players.  The WPBT, however, continued to serve as a site of integration and interracialism.  In 1943, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper served as player-coach for the all-black Washington (DC) Bears.  The Bears not only won the tourney, but also carried a two-year undefeated streak.  In 1945, Dolly King coached the Long Island Grumman Hellcats, becoming the first black coach to coach an integrated team.  According to Stark, the 1943 WPBT also featured an all-black drill team as entertainment.  Stark captures the WPBT as an interracial, or even black-defined, space.  But he does not probe beyond descriptive fact.  He also describes concerns about tournament promotion efforts and attendance numbers, yet does not discuss the racial composition of the crowd. Race was, and still is, central to the understanding and significance of basketball; it is thus pertinent that histories of the game wrestle with race even if doing so exposes racial realities inconvenient with a whiggish narrative.

Chapter Three, “Wartime Basketball, 1943-1944,” begins with military base basketball, focusing on the function of the sport during the height of the war.  Basketball boosted morale, with fitness on the court correlated with fitness for battle.  Stark also argues that military base ball encouraged the development of a homogeneous national playing style, eliminating the regional inflections that had characterized the game.  It is thus somewhat unsurprising the many leading basketball coaches began their careers as players and coaches on military teams, most notably Pete Newell and Everett Case. Stark additionally asserts that military base basketball further spurred integration, although his evidence does not substantiate this claim.  He primarily focuses on the 1943-1944 Great Lakes Navy team as an exemplary base squad. Yet, the team was all-white and, the following season, Great Lakes established an all-black team.  Seemingly, Great Lakes perpetuated segregation, suggesting a messier history of race and sport on military bases.

Stark also positions war-era college basketball as an important site of ethnic integration, highlighting the story of Wat Misaka, a Japanese American who played at the University of Utah.  Stark celebrates Misaska’s inclusion on the 1943-1944 Utah squad, suggesting his “success on the court overshadowed one of the nation’s most shameful episodes during the war: the internment of Japanese Americans,” (158). This statement is misguided and dismissive.  Rather than situating Misaka as a symbol of inspiration, it is necessary that Stark consider how Misaka could play basketball during this time of state-sanctioned antipathy for Japanese Americans. Did the sport allow Misaka to claim his Americanness and prove his patriotism? Stark includes multiple quotations from period newspapers that position basketball as an expression of patriotism, but he does not analyze how this designation may have influenced the opportunities for players, whether Japanese American, black, or Jewish, whose Americanness often was suspect.

Stark finishes chapter three by chronicling the 1943-1944 seasons of the NBL and ABL, as well as the 1944 WPBT. Some of the occurrences at the 1944 WPBT further suggest that, although the war opened more equitable possibilities, it did not produce an uncomplicated racial democracy in the sport.  In particular, the all-black Harlem Globetrotters and all-white Oshkosh All-Stars contested an intense, hostile game during the tourney.  According to Stark, the Chicago Defender described the game as “the worst display of sportsmanship ever witnessed in the history of the pro tournament,” noting that the escalation of physical play climaxed when Oshkosh players cleared the bench late in the the game to harass the Globetrotters, with two white fans joining the resulting melee (183).  Stark, however, merely writes, “Whatever the difference in interpretation, the bad ending left fans and players highly dissatisfied,” (184). Not to belabor the point but a refusal to analyze racial dynamics represents a glaring blind spot throughout Stark’s work.

In Chapter Four, “The Big Man Cometh, 1944-1945,” Stark introduces a figure familiar to most all basketball fans – George Mikan.  He begins with the 1945 Red Cross basketball game, where Mikan, playing for NCCA champion DePaul, faced-off against a fellow transformational big man, Oklahoma A&M’s Bob Kurland, who had led his squad to the NIT title.  Stark discusses how these two men began to change the center position by displaying previously unseen offensive skill. He also shares the defensive and offensive strategies Kurland and A&M  implemented in the Red Cross game to disrupt Mikan, getting him in foul trouble that made easier A&M’s victory.  Stark is at his best when discussing the nuances of basketball strategy, validating his premise that the World War II moment produced advancements in the game of basketball.  However, his work continues to struggle to articulate the war’s significance on basketball as a sport, meaning the social and cultural ramifications of basketball that extend beyond in-game tactics.

The 1944-45 NBL and ABL seasons were dominated by the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and Philadelphia SPHAS, respectively.  According to Stark, these all-white teams succeeded in winning titles because of their consistency.  They experienced less war-induced turnover and instability, thus suggesting that teams best able to avoid the volatility of the war, somewhat contradictorily, most defined wartime basketball. The Zollner Pistons established themselves as the era’s top team.  Led by Bobby McDermott and Buddy Jeanette, they entered the 1945 WBPT aiming to become their first team successfully to defend their title. The Pistons succeeded, defeating the upstart Dayton Acmes.  However, the end of the war would begin to diminish their advantages.

The end of World War II increased the player pool for professional basketball, situating the sport within the peacetime prosperity boom.  In Chapter Five, “Looking Toward the Future, 1945-1946,” Stark recounts the expansion of the NBL and ABL.  He particularly focuses on the Rochester Royals (the original Sacramento Kings), who immediately contested the NBL dominance of the Zollner Pistons.  The team featured the likes of Red Holzman, who would gain fame as coach of the New York Knicks during their championship runs in the early 1970s.  The Royals introduced a faster brand of basketball, using their speed to beat teams.  This strategy proved successful against the Pistons, as they defeated the defending champs in the semi-finals before knocking off the Sheboygan Red Skins (named for potatoes) in the NBL championship series. In the ABL, the expansion Baltimore Bullets challenged the hegemony of the SPHAS, dominating the SPHAS in the 1946 championship series. Unfortunately, Stark does not discuss the impact of an increased player pool and expansion teams on the racial composition of the leagues and their teams.  Stark positions the war as period of integration and racial progress (with somewhat specious evidence).  It is worth asking the influence the war’s end had on this optimistic trajectory.

Stark instead focuses on the 1946 WPBT, successfully capturing the tournament’s significance to the game of basketball even as he elides larger social ramifications.  Most notably, the Bullets competed in the 1946 WPBT, the first appearance by an ABL team since 1941.  The WPBT featured a quality field, with teams that characterized both the past and future of the game.  While George Mikan had made his debut in 1945 for the Chicago American Gears, he first made his mark in the 1946 tourney.  Mikan led the Gears to a third place finish, winning the tournament MVP award.  The Gears were forced to settle for third because the Oshkosh All-Stars, led by an old-school center in Leroy “Cowboy” Edwards, defeated Mikan’s squad.  Similarly, the upcoming Bullets fell victim to the Zollner Pistons.  Thus, while the end of the war inaugurated changes to basketball style and strategy, the 1946 WPBT title game featured two wartime stalwarts, with the Zollner Pistons defeating Oshkosh for a WPBT three-peat.

In his epilogue, Stark discusses the founding of the Basketball Association of America (BAA).  In contrast to the wartime leagues, the BAA, the predecessor to the NBA, located teams in bigger cities, altering the geographic character of pro basketball.  The Philadelphia Warriors, led by Joe Fulks, won the league crown for the inaugural season. While the ABL suffered from the BAA’s arrival, the NBL sustained its success.  Importantly, the NBL still claimed the sport’s best players, a status it had due to the fact that it was the only integrated league.  The NBL also remained the home of George Mikan who, despite a midseason contract dispute, led the Gears to a title, receiving an assist from former Zollner Piston Bobby McDermott, who was kicked off his old team due to off-court behavior.  The 1947 experiences of Mikan and McDermott appear to offer a preview of the future of professional basketball, where star players would enjoy increasing leverage and autonomy.  Stark, however, looks backward, concluding by insisting, “During the decade after World War II, the game grew, and that growth was directly related to how the game had developed during World War II. The war years had a profound and lasting impact on basketball,” (309).

Because he does not engage in critical, rigorous analysis and only unevenly contextualizes basketball-centric developments with larger historical circumstances, Stark does not convincingly convey that the “war years had a profound and lasting impact on basketball,” (309). He provides the evidence but not the necessary argument.  Stark carefully chronicles the sport during the World War II, sharing a variety of forgotten anecdotes that reveal a dynamic and changing sport.  Yet, an absence of analysis, especially in regard to race, ethnicity, and national identity, prevents the stories he tells from coalescing into a history of basketball that fully wrestles with how the conditions of wartime changed, complicated, and consolidated the sport.

Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth century track and field.  You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

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