When the big show came to the small town
As the Indiana Pacers celebrate being awarded the 2021 NBA All-Star Game, most won’t realize this will be the third time Indiana has hosted the event.
For one night almost 65 years years ago, Fort Wayne was the capital of the sports world.
Perhaps the biggest sporting event the city has ever hosted happened Jan. 13, 1953, when the third annual NBA All-Star Game was played at Memorial Coliseum. A then-record crowd of 10,340 topped the previous mark of 10,094 set two years before during the first all-star game in Boston.
“My favorite memory is that it certainly placed Fort Wayne as a major-league operation in basketball even though it was a small city,” said former Fort Wayne Pistons General Manager Carl Bennett. “It gave Fort Wayne a tremendous boost in the eyes of the basketball world. We weren’t just a little hick town.”
With a population of approximately 135,000 at the time, Fort Wayne was the smallest city in the league. Pistons owner Fred Zollner paid about $18,000 for a chance to show off the new Memorial Coliseum.
“Fred Zollner had a lot of influence in the league,” said 1953 Milwaukee all-star and later Piston Mel Hutchins. “He put up a lot of money to keep some of the teams going, including Milwaukee. He also treated the ballplayers very well.”
“There was also the new building and that was another reason for it,” said Minneapolis and West coach John Kundla. “From then on, they started moving it to different cities.”
Unfortunately, some people believe that all-star game also marked the start of Fort Wayne’s downfall in the league. The next year, the league started a national television contract with Dumont, a deal that was reached during meetings in Fort Wayne.
“At the time, they were starting to think of larger cities, and television frankly was the key factor in removal of the small markets,” former Pistons publicity director and News-Sentinel sportswriter Phil Olofson said.
The game itself featured 14 future Hall of Famers, including greats Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, George Mikan, Ed Macauley and Vern Mikkelsen. The Pistons were represented by Andy Phillip and Larry Foust.
The game was also historic because Don Barksdale became the first African American to play in an NBA All-Star Game.
Barksdale was used to breaking barriers, as he was the first consensus African-American All-America player while at UCLA and later became the first African American to play on the United States Olympic basketball team, earning a gold medal in 1948.
“He was a good ballplayer,” Mikkelsen said. “We weren’t surprised he was playing because he belonged to be there. We weren’t sitting around making a big deal about it.”
At the time, Barksdale was one of four African-American players in the NBA along with Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton and Earl Lloyd. Ironically, Lloyd became the first African American to play in an NBA game on Oct. 31, 1950, and during that same week Cooper and Clifton both made their NBA debuts on different nights in Fort Wayne.
Barksdale scored one point, pulled down three rebounds and passed two assists in the all-star game.
With the sellout crowd and a first-of-its-kind pre-game luncheon, the event was a big success.
“We wanted to make a huge showing, and frankly one of the main reasons was to keep the team in Fort Wayne and make the league recognize Fort Wayne was a good market even though it was a small town,” Olofson said. “I seriously believe we could have sold another 1,000 or more tickets if we had them.”
Though the game itself didn’t start until 8 p.m., cars on Coliseum Boulevard were backed up six blocks an hour and 20 minutes before the opening tip. Among those attending were the full rosters of the Minneapolis Lakers, Boston Celtics and the Pistons.
The game also received great interest from across the country. Zollner sent his plane out at 4 a.m. the day of the game to pick up sportswriters in New York, Boston and Rochester. In all, there were 73 scribes detailing the action, 14 radio stations and seven newsreel cameras.
“To make it even more of an attraction, that game was exceptional,” Olofson said. “Even the sportswriters from out of town said it was the best so far.”
The West won 79-75 as Mikan was named the Most Valuable Player after scoring 22 points and grabbing 16 rebounds. Phillip set up Mikkelson on the two baskets that decided the game.
According to the book “The Zollner Piston Story,” the national media raved about Fort Wayne.
“There may be as good an all-star game in the future,” wrote Ike Gellis of the New York Post, “but the third one staged here last night will never be surpassed.”
Matt Jackson of the Rochester Times-Union reported, “It was a Hollywood production, big league from start to finish. Anyone who inherits next year’s All-Star contest will find it like singing after Caruso to match the efforts of the hard-working Zollner crew. Not a trick was missed in presenting the world’s greatest basketball stars to the record turnout.
“It was the greatest shot in the arm professional basketball has had since the inception of the sport. Every player lived up to all the glowing advance reports.”
Madison Square Garden operator and New York Knicks Owner Ned Irish was quoted as saying, “I don’t know if we want it next year. I don’t think we can do as great a job as Fort Wayne did.”
But they did, drawing 16,487 for the first all-star overtime game.
A few years later, after the 1956-57 season, the Pistons left Fort Wayne for Detroit.
“The league did nothing to encourage Fort Wayne to stay and did everything to encourage Fred Zollner to move to a larger market,” Olofson said. “Unfortunately, over the long haul, Fort Wayne could not support major-league basketball.”
Bennett doesn’t see it quite that way.
“I don’t think it was so much the pressure of moving because we were from a small city as it was an opportunity for Fred to move his team to a big city where he did a lot of his business,” Bennett said. “It was the right move because our Fort Wayne people could not support and did not support that many games. We never would have been able to hold on in Fort Wayne like Green Bay in football.”
During their last two seasons in Fort Wayne, the Pistons averaged 4,745 and 3,859 fans.