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Chevette to Corvette No. 28: The 1953-54 Fort Wayne Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 40-32
  • Pythagorean record: 41-31
  • Points scored per game: 77.7 (8th of 9)
  • Points allowed per game: 76.1 (2nd of 9)
  • Arena: War Memorial Coliseum
  • Head coach: Paul Birch

Playoffs

  • Lost in round robin to the Minneapolis Lakers and Rochester Royals, 4-0

Leaders

  • Points per game: Larry Foust (15.1)
  • Rebounds per game: Larry Foust (13.4)
  • Assists per game: Andy Phillip (6.3)

Top player

Larry Foust

Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

The Pistons, in a season-closing promotion, had the fans vote on an all-time Piston team. There were more than 19,000 votes cast, selecting Bobby McDermott, Curly Armstrong, Mel Hutchins, Larry Foust and Andy Phillip.

McDermott and Armstrong were already off the team. The aging Andy Phillip averaged double figures for the last time, and Hutchins’ numbers fell short of Foust’s.

Not only was Foust an all-time great for the franchise, he was its best player in 1953-54.

Key transaction

Signed George Yardley

The Pistons drafted George Yardley in 1950, but they didn’t sign him until 1953. Even then, it was a struggle. Blake Sebring of The News-Sentinel:

Yardley finally signed with the Pistons in 1953. Because he hated training camp, Yardley ignored the Pistons’ offer of $6,000, playing beach volleyball in California and becoming the first rookie to hold out, until it reached $9,500. Yardley also had an engineering degree and figured he could make more money in that field.

Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

He later said that dallying while the price went up may not have been as calculated as it seemed. In fact, he wanted to play at Fort Wayne, but he hated training camp. He spent a little extra time in California, playing volleyball on the beach, and by the time he was ready to head east he was earning some extra money.

Trend watch

Closest call

Since joining the NBA (called the BAA that first year), the Pistons finished 23, 11, 12, 12 and 11.5 games out of first place – held either by the Minneapolis Lakers or Rochester Royals.

But Fort Wayne finished just six games behind the Western Division-champion Lakers and two games behind second-place Rochester in 1953-54.

The Pistons matched a franchise-record with 40 NBA wins, albeit with four more games than 1949-50, when the previously set the mark. But more importantly, they appeared to be closing the gap with the NBA’s top teams.

Why this season ranks No. 28

By signing George Yardley, the rising Pistons – who had gone from 29 to 36 wins the previous two years – appeared ready to break through. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

The high hopes escalated when Fred Zollner bought the contract of Mel Hutchins from the financially strapped Milwaukee Hawks in August. It was believed to be the biggest player purchase in pro history to that time. He was later described by George Yardley as "the best defen- sive player in the league." Ben Kerner needed the cash, so he asked Fred Zollner which players he wanted. Fred said he wanted Mel Hutchins. "You can’t have him," Kerner replied. Fred shrugged. Hutchins was the only one he wanted. The deal went through, for an amount that is still not known. Kerner had promised Hutchins part of the price, but he did not receive it. Mel later said, "What they needed was someone to homogenize the team — rebound, give the ball up, play tough defence, someone to do that. That’s what Fred got me for." After he arrived in Fort Wayne, Fred and Carl Bennett had a meeting with Hutchins to explain his new place on the team. "Pull the team together and don’t worry about the statistics."

Mel Hutchins had a fine year in his first with Fort Wayne, as did George Yardley and No. 4 pick Jack Molinas. That trio combined with mainstays Larry Foust and Andy Phillip to form a strong foundation.

Unfortunately, it began to crumble mid-season. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

The Molinas bubble burst on January 10, when he admitted to betting on Piston games through a New York bookmaker. It ended a month-long investigation on Molinas. He had been named to the All-Star team only four days before his suspension. Don Meineke, Mel Hutchins and Molinas roomed together. Mel said, "Jack was raised with gambling. He would bet on anything. He wanted a place to gamble. But what he did had no influence on the way the game was played. No influence." While it was only a footnote in NBA history, Molinas’ suspension came as a severe blow to the aspiring Pistons. There had been no question of his fixing games, but he had to go. Aside from the personal shock — Frank Brian, for one, found him a personable companion — there was the waste of what everyone thought would be a dazzling career. Brian said, "He had everything, he was going to become a ball player. It was terrible." Some years later Molinas served a prison term in a college basketball scandal.

That was a heavy incident, but the seasons also had its lighter notes, like this one about third-year coach Paul Birch. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

He did have a reputation for expressing himself physically. He threw orange peels and liked kicking things to emphasize a point. The team knew this, in one game where they were losing at half time. They gathered in the locker room, ready for the peels to fly. Trainer Stan Ken worthy always carried an oxygen mask in a small bag, ready for emergencies. The bag looked like any player’s kit bag, so the team placed it in the middle of the floor, knowing that Birch would not be able to resist it. Sure enough, he kicked it, but the oxygen tank inside resisted more than a bagful of clothes would have.

Birch overcame his injured foot to lead the Molinas-less Pistons into the playoffs. In an experiment that lasted only one season, three teams made the postseason per division and played a round robin.

The three-team round robin was a de facto two-team series. The Lakers and Royals swept the Pistons in four games, a pretty disappointing end to a promising season.

After it ended, Birch was forced to resign. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

Dike Eddleman summed up Birch’s difficulties with his players by saying, "Birch didn’t see eye-to-eye with anyone, not even himself"

Previously

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