Following World War II many Americans were looking for some sort of entertainment outlet, and sports quickly became one of the most popular outlets. Basketball was still in its infancy but would soon see epic growth as war weary Americans needed more and more entertainment outlets.
In 1946 there were three major American basketball leagues in the US. The oldest, the ABL had been around in some from since the 1920s but had spotty attendance and fans and players alike had a hard time figuring out what teams were actually in the league. The newest of the leagues was the BAA, which had just formed an 11 team league on the eastern seaboard with a couple of teams as far west as Chicago and Detroit. The most successful of the leagues was the NBL, which was entering its 11th season and had the best players in the world.
The NBL and ABL had little direct competition as the ABL stuck around mostly New York City, Philadelphia and Washington and the NBL was primarily focused in Ohio, Indiana and the Great Lakes regions. The inclusion of a third league which directly competed with both leagues worried both leagues ownerships and started to bring about instability to both leagues.
The NBL had always had loose control over their teams, the league nearly failed as the MBC in the early 1930s because of this reason. Scheduling was left to the discretion of each of the teams, as long as the team played at least ten games and four of them were on the road, and this brought about a huge imbalance in quality of records and revenue. Players also freely switched teams at this time and teams often would play in multiple leagues as well. By the end of World War II the NBL had began to lock players down more, but many played elsewhere under assumed names, and a more aligned schedule lead to few teams barnstorming and more parity within teams records.
The instability of the NBL gave Chicago American Gears owner Maurice White an opportunity in 1946 to try and form yet another league to compete with the NBL, ABL and BAA. The American Gears were the best team in the NBL and had the best players, and White wanted to use this to his advantage. He first tried to become president of the NBL, but when that failed he formed his own league.
White brought his American Gears team to the NBL in 1944 following the disbandment of the previous Chicago NBL team the Fliers the season before. Chicago had always been a market the NBL wanted to conquer, but always had difficulties in doing so. In the MBC days the Chicago team had unfairly made the playoffs over a more deserving Detroit team. This event ultimately brought down the MBC and it was reformed into the NBL, but without a Chicago franchise. Chicago would get another team in 1940, but World War II and poor management lead to the teams demise by 1944. The American Gears would be the first good Chicago team and would be the first time Chicago really had a basketball team to get behind.
The American Gears were lead by former Depaul big-man George Mikan. Mikan joined the Gears in 1946 and would dominate the league like no player before him had. He was named to the all NBL team and lead the Gears to league championship in 1947. This glorious moment should have been the start of greatness for the Chicago team, but White would begin his attempt at the power grab that would bring his burgeoning sports empire to its knees.
White first tried to convince the owner ownership groups to make him president. He figured he was in the leagues biggest market and had the best player he could make any demand he wanted. But the instability of the NBL and the cantankerousness of Indianapolis Kautskies owner Frank Kautsky prevented White from securing the votes needed to become president. An infuriated White soon announced that the Gears would be leaving the NBL and forming a new league. The new league was called the Professional Basketball League of America or PBLA and would have 16 teams mostly in the Midwest and south.
The PBLA teams and arenas would all be owned by White, and would have a 72 game schedule with games also being played in neutral arenas. The league had a huge foot print that not many other league at the time would have dared to try to emulate. While it is true that the same season the NBL stretched from Syracuse, NY to Denver, CO; the NBL only had 1 team as a huge outlier, while the PBLA stretched from Atlanta to Houston in the south, to Grand Rapids, MI to St Paul in the North. The league did try and incorporated some smaller markets such as Waterloo, IA and Saint Josephs, MO into their league.
Travel almost immediately became an issue for the PBLA as teams could not readily afford to travel from New Orleans, to Chicago to Atlanta to Kansas City. Fan support was limited too, as the best players where in the NBL and the second best players were quickly being bought up by the BAA.
After just three weeks the PBLA died, and with it the hopes and dreams of most other small basketball leagues. The collapse of the PBLA sent shock waves through the basketball world, not because the league died but because now it was painfully obvious that the fate of professional basketball in American was going to be left up to what happened between the NBL and BAA.
The PBLA's plan was just too ambitious for its time and the US economy had just not caught up to the level needed to support 4 major basketball leagues along with 3 other major sports leagues and hundreds of minor leagues. Basketball just was not that popular at the time.
The PBLA was not wrong in that the markets could eventually sport professional basketball. Nine of the PBLA cities would go on to eventually support NBA teams with 6 of them currently having NBA teams. Only 2, Chattanooga, and St Josephs have not had a D-league or ABA team.
The NBL initially benefited from the collapse of the PBLA, as the league laid claim to all the former players. The NBL had a draft were the team with the worst record would be allowed to take their first choice of the former PBLA players. The previous season the worst NBL team was the Detroit Gems, who won just 4 games and were ripe for dispersion themselves, but their owner King Boring sold the team to a group from Minneapolis. The Minneapolis group used their pick to select Mikan, and would soon rename the Gems the Lakers. Mikan would go on to lead the Lakers to the NBL championship.
The instability that continued to plague the NBL caused the Laker ownership to make their franchise to the BAA. The BAA had also taken the Bullets from the ABL and the Katuskies, Royals and Pistons from the NBL.
Two years after the collapse of the PBLA the NBL was on the verge of going down as well, but the NBL had an ace in the hole by still having some of the best players such as Syracuse Nationals star Dolph Schayes. The NBL used this to their advantage and them and the BAA decided to merge and form the NBA.
The NBA brought stability to the basketball world and permanently locked down players to teams and one league. This meant doom for smaller leagues like the ABL, which ceased operations in the early 1950s.
One irony of the merger between the BAA and NBL is that it eventually created another league. After one season the former BAA teams sick of playing in the small market former NBL teams forced five of the former NBL teams to leave and form the National Professional Basketball League or NPBL.
The similarities between the PBLA and the NPBL are similar. Both were formed by discrepencies with their parent league, and many of the NPBL teams were in cities once occupied by the PBLA. Like the PBLA, the NPBL did not last a full season and the league disbanded after not even one season.
The collapse of the PBLA ultimately ended any chance for a rival league to compete with the NBA, and even during the NBA's gambling scandals of the 1950s there never was another league that challenge the NBA's suprimacy. Not until 1968 did another league challenge the NBA, when the ABA formed. The ABA lasted only a decade before it too was gobbled up by the NBA.