John A. Sbarbaro: The NBA owner with Mob connections
Despite it's best efforts, the NBA has had a long unpleasant history with the Mafia, and organized crime. This problem goes all the way back to its founding in 1946 when the league owned a corrupt funeral home director who was also a lawyer and judge own one of the leagues first franchises.|
John A. Sbarbaro was a Chicago lawyer and Businessman who had a lot of shady dealings with organized crime. His funeral home was known as the funeral home of the mob because so many high profile Chicago gangster's had their funerals there.
In 1928 Sbarbaro's warehouse for his funeral home was bombed by either a rival gang from Detroit or possible the precursor to the FBI, because it was a known location for illegal alcohol to be dumped off there.
The irony of Sbarbaro's dealings with the mob is that he was also a prosecuting attorney, who frequently locked up Mafia members. However, there seemed to be an unwritten truce where Sbarbaro's men would only prosecute certain Mafia members, especially those who were not allied to his affilations. It would however, be inaccurate to say Sbarbaro overlooked all criminal dealings with the Chicago Mafia. In his early days he ran afoul of notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone while investing a murder. He also had a reputation has a fearless prosecutor who sent many of Chicago's most violent offenders away.
Sbarbaro also was a fan of sports. In his younger days he played baseball, football and basketball. He was fond of the new game of basketball when he was growing up. His athletic ability was unremarkable and he excelled in the classroom.
In the 1930's Sbarbaro helped market the barnstorming team the Chicago Duffy Florals, and there were rumors that he helped persuade members of the Midwest Basketball Conference to pick the Duffy Florals over a team that finished better in the standings because the MBC tournament was being held in Chicago and that it would draw better crowds. Whether or not this rumor is true or not, the MBC did chose Chicago over Detroit for the MBC tournament. The controversy effectively killed the MBC and caused the rise of the NBL.
Sbarbaro's funeral home helped his establish contacts in the legal, criminal and business world that lead to him becoming one of the most powerful people in Chicago.
In the mid 1940s Sbarbaro did try to invest into the Chicago American Gears, but Gears owner Maurice White didn't want anything to do with any money that could potentially becoming from the Mafia. Still, when the Gears jumped from the NBL to their own league in 1947 and subsequently failed Sbarbaro attempted to purchase the assets of the league but was prevented from doing so by the BAA.
In 1946 Sbarbaro applied for and was granted a charter for the newly created Basketball Association of America. He named his team the Chicago Atomics after the atomic energy program at the University of Chicago. However, cold war tensions and a New York Times expose of the after affects of the Atomic bombs dropped on Japan caused Sbarbaro to change the name to the Chicago Basketball Club, and eventually the Chicago Stags after Alonzo Amos Stagg – the famed University of Chicago coach.
One of the odd things about the Stags name change was that it was done during the BAA's preseason. The Atomics actually played a exhibition game vs the New York Knicks in 1946 as the Chicago Atomics. They also played an exhibition game vs the Cleveland Rebels as the Chicago Basketball Club.
Because of the market and the financial backing the Stags were able to get a lot of good players and had a great first season. The Stags won the western division and made it all the way to the BAA finals where they lost to the Philadelphia Warriors.
The Stags continued to be one of the best teams in the BAA and garnered a decent draw, but like most the early BAA they had financial problems. These financial problems worsened when the BAA merged with the NBL in 1949 to from the NBA.
While competitive, and popular inside of Chicago, the travel costs where too much for Sbarbaro and the Stags to take on. A game in January 1950 in Denver was almost canceled because the Stags had problems financing a trip from their previous game in Anderson, Indiana to Colorado. On their way back extra costs where incurred when the buses got stuck in a snowstorm in Wyoming.
By the end of the 1950 season Sbarbaro could not afford to keep the team and sold them off to Abe Saperstein for about $40,000. Saperstein could not afford the team either and in September 1950 the league foreclosed on the Stags ending Chicago's first NBA club.
In 1954 another group of Chicago businessmen which did include Sbarbaro did try to purchase another NBA team, but the groups connections to the Mafia and especially gambling caused the league to reject any application.
Sbarbaro would continue to be a financial backer for small basketball tournaments and clubs in the Chicagoland area.
In 1960 Sbarbaro was en route to visit his wife in Miami when the Northwest Airlines turbo-prop plane he was flying in exploded over Indiana killing all 63 on board.