The league began rather informally. Scheduling was left to the discretion of each of the nine teams, as long as the team played at least ten games and four of them were on the road. Games consisted either of four ten-minute quarters or three fifteen-minute periods. The choice was made by the home team. Some of the teams were independent, while others were owned by companies that also found jobs for their players.
The history of the NBL falls into three eras, each contributing significantly to the growth of professional basketball and the emergence of the NBA. The first dynasty centered on the Oshkosh All-Stars. The middle years saw the emergence of the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, who were later instrumental in the survival of the NBA during its infancy. The final period of note during the NBL's existence centered around George Mikan and the emergence of the big man in basketball.
Under Zollner, the Pistons would eventually play an important role in the survival and growth of the NBA. Zollner's financial support of the NBA helped the league stay afloat during its tumultuous formative years.
Challenging the Zollner Pistons for supremacy were the Sheboygan Red Skins. Beginning in 1941, the season before Fort Wayne joined the NBL, Sheboygan appeared in five championship series in six seasons. They lost to Oshkosh in the 1941 finals, beat Fort Wayne for the title in 1943, but lost to the Zollner Pistons in 1944 and 1945. In 1946, Sheboygan was swept in the finals by the league's newest member, the powerhouse Rochester Royals, who boasted Hall of Famers Al Cervi, Bob Davies and Red Holzman.
But after the 1947-48 season, Mikan's Lakers and three other NBL clubs left to join the Basketball Association of America. The Detroit Vagabond Kings folded in midseason, their franchise was awarded to one of the most famous of the barnstorming teams, the New York Rens comprised of all African-Americans. The team finished the year as the Dayton Rens, marking the first time that an all-black team competed in an all-white league. The NBL, stripped of its best teams and prime gate attraction, lasted only one more season, the Anderson Duffey Packers winning the league's last championship before six of its members were absorbed by the BAA, which changed its name to the National Basketball Association.
Five current NBA teams trace their history back to the NBL. Three teams joined the NBA in 1948: the Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers), the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), and the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons). Two more teams joined the NBA in 1949: the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks), and the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers).
Also still surviving are the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, the initial NBL Champion in 1938. The Wingfoots suspended operations for World War II and were not included in the NBL/BAA merger. Instead, they remained in the National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL), which in 1961 became the National AAU Basketball League (NABL). The Wingfoots are still an AAU Elite team in the NABL.
|1937-1938||Akron Goodyear Wingfoots||Oshkosh All-Stars||2-1|
|1938-1939||Akron Firestone Non-Skids||Oshkosh All-Stars||3-2|
|1939-1940||Akron Firestone Non-Skids||Oshkosh All-Stars||3-2|
|1940-1941||Oshkosh All-Stars||Sheboygan Redskins||3-0|
|1941-1942||Oshkosh All-Stars||Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons||2-1|
|1942-1943||Sheboygan Redskins||Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons||2-1|
|1943-1944||Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons||Sheboygan Redskins||3-0|
|1944-1945||Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons||Sheboygan Redskins||3-2|
|1945-1946||Rochester Royals||Sheboygan Redskins||3-0|
|1946-1947||Chicago American Gears||Rochester Royals||3-2|
|1947-1948||Minneapolis Lakers||Rochester Royals||3-1|
|1948-1949||Anderson Packers||Oshkosh All-Stars||3-0|