The foundations of professional basketball in Indiana were found in humble gyms with players “splitting up the nickels” after a game. It wasn’t long before Indiana and its passion for the game played a foundational role in building national basketball leagues, playing in the nation’s largest fieldhouses, with players flying to games aboard private planes. Dozens of professional teams made their mark on the Hoosier state with teams in several cities including Anderson, Richmond, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Hammond.
Opening in September, “Going Pro, Basketball Origins in Indiana” is the latest IHS exhibit to showcase Indiana’s game and its impact on professional sports. The exhibit opens on September 23 and continues through February 2024.
Visitors will experience many of the stories of iconic games, teams and players through amazing photographs, one-of-a-kind artifacts and a digital media experience that will bring these stories to life like never before. A few of the stories included in the exhibit are:
During WWII, Fort Wayne manufacturer Fred Zollner started a pro-basketball squad. While other teams were shutting down or suspending operations, Zollner grew his squad from the ground up. They would become one of the best in the nation, eventually joining the NBA. The team continues to play today as the Detroit Pistons.
In Indianapolis, local sporting goods business Em-Roes started a barnstorming basketball team in the 1910s as one of the first professional teams around. Many players from the team went on to great heights — like Ward “Piggy” Lambert, successful Purdue University coach and National Basketball League (merged to become NBA) commissioner, or Albert Feeney, who went on to win a tight race to become mayor of Indianapolis in 1948.
In 1930, Dave Dejernett became the first Black player to win a state basketball tournament on an integrated team in the U.S. — as the Washington Hatchets beat the Muncie Central Bearcats 32-21 in the Indiana State Finals at Butler Fieldhouse, the largest basketball venue in the country at the time. After attending school at Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis), he put together an all-star semi-pro team with players from his high school and college. He then went on to play professionally for legendary all-Black teams the New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters.
The Indiana Pacers started in 1967 as one of the inaugural teams of the new American Basketball Association. The Pacers were stars of the league with hall of famers like Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and George McGinnis. The league finances led to a merger with the NBA in 1976. The Pacers were offered a spot in the new league but had to pay a $3.2 million entry fee. This, combined with other costs, left the team struggling. But Pacers Assistant General Manager Nancy Leonard had an idea. She proposed a telethon to raise money to keep the team afloat. In the summer of 1977, they did just that, opening the way for the Pacers to be the Hoosier staple they are today.
And don’t forget to check out our Indiana Basketball resource page for more nuggets, photos and videos that highlight the history of Indiana’s game.