INDIANAPOLIS — Though the sport was invented by James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891, basketball has deep roots in the state of Indiana.
When he visited the Hoosier State in 1925 to watch a high school basketball tournament, Naismith dubbed Indiana “the center of the sport,” according to the Carnegie Center for Art and History.
“While the game was invented in Massachusetts, basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport,” Naismith wrote.
Sixteen years after Naismith placed the Hoosier State at the center of the hoops universe, Fred Zollner brought modern professional basketball to Indiana.
In 1941, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons took the floor for the first time. The squad competed in industrial leagues, according to NBA.com.
In industrial leagues, companies often assembled the best talent they could find and played head-to-head games against other businesses for bragging rights. According to NBA.com, industrial league rosters were often made up of company employees.
During the early portion of their history, the Pistons played their games at North Side High School Gym in Fort Wayne. The venue could hold just under 3,000 people, according to Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Fort Wayne’s professional basketball team was aptly named, considering it played under the banner of Zollner’s car parts manufacturing company in its early days.
According to NBA.com, the piston was a small but critical engine component in the era. Pistons, however, were one of the products that drove Zollner’s business, so he named his team after the part.
Zollner’s Pistons were part of what eventually became known as the National Basketball League (NBL), according to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. A report from NBA.com indicates the Pistons won back-to-back NBL titles from 1944-45.
Over their nine seasons in the NBL, the Pistons went 166-71, according to NBA.com. Fort Wayne left the NBL ahead of the 1948-49 season to join the Basketball Association of America (BAA). Zollner made the move because he believed old industrial leagues were on the brink of extinction, according to NBA.com.
During its first season in the BAA, Fort Wayne changed its name from the Zollner Pistons to the Pistons.
NBA.com reporting indicates Zollner helped broker the merger between the NBL and the BAA in 1949. The two leagues ultimately formed what is now known as the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The move allowed former industrial league teams based in small cities like Fort Wayne and Akron to survive, according to the History Channel.
The History Channel’s literature on the early days of professional basketball indicates the BAA, which was founded in 1946, found more success than the NBL ever did because its teams played in large cities and venues like the Garden in Boston or Madison Square Garden in New York.
Indianapolis had two failed BAA teams, per retroseasons.com. The Indianapolis Jets played from 1948-49. The Jets were then replaced by the Indianapolis Olympians, which only existed from 1949-53.
A retroseasons.com article reports that the Jets’ history dates as far back as 1931, when Frank Katusky — an area grocer — formed the Indianapolis Katuskys. The Katuskys played in the Midwest Conference until 1933.
The team joined the NBL in 1937, per retroseasons. The Katuskys left the NBL for the BAA in 1948 and were renamed the Jets.
Soon after the Olympians folded in 1953, the Pistons moved from Fort Wayne to Detroit in 1957. According to NBA.com, Zollner sold many of his Pistons to automotive companies in Detroit, so moving his team just over 150 miles northeast to a larger city was a logical choice.
NBA.com reporting states that Zollner thought moving the team from Fort Wayne to a larger metropolitan area could enhance the NBA’s “big time” image. He also believed a larger market could better support his team.
After Zollner’s Pistons left the Hoosier State, there was little, if any, professional basketball played in Indiana until 1967, when the American Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers burst onto the scene.
The Pistons have remained in Detroit since Zollner moved them there more than 65 years ago. Zollner’s teams won NBA Championships in 1989, 1990 and 2004.
Zollner died in 1982, but he was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, according to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. Zollner’s Hall of Fame profile indicates he advocated for the adoption of the 24-second shot clock, the 6-foul rule and the widening of the free-throw lane.
NBA.com also reported that Zollner was the first team owner to buy a plane and have his team fly from game to game privately.
Professional basketball eventually made a return to Fort Wayne in 2007. The NBA Developmental League (D-League) planted the Mad Ants franchise — an affiliate of the Detroit Pistons — in Fort Wayne at that time. The D League was renamed the NBA Gatorade League (G League) in 2017.
For the second time in the city’s history, however, Fort Wayne is set to lose its professional hoops team. The Mad Ants are due to move to Noblesville, Indiana, ahead of the 2024-25 season. The team will also be rebranded and renamed upon its move.