Sheboy-boy was in the NBA? Believe it

I drive past Sheboygan, Wisconsin on I43 very often.  It seems like a nice town, situated on the shores of Lake Michigan.  I had no idea it was once an NBA town.  It was.

For one brief season, the “Sheboygan Redskins” were an NBA franchise.  How did I find this out?  Because I questioned the media reports that the Lakers had won their “16th” World Championship.  That seemed too high.  So I went back and counted.

Indeed, to get to 16 you have to count the Lakers 1949 premerger BAA championship.  I wouldn’t count that one.

But I was shocked when I looked at the NBA roster of teams for the Inaugural Post-Merger 1949-50 season and one of them was, unbelievably, located in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

So I did a little research and got the backstory on how that came to be.  It all happened because two vastly different pro basketball leagues once existed in the United States.

NBL:  The Small Auditorium Basketball League

The NBA has strong roots in Wisconsin.  The NBA is actually a merger of two separate pro basketball leagues, the NBL and the BAA.  The NBL came first and was formed in 1937.  It was kind of like the original NFL in that it was a “Town” league, meaning its membership included many really small town teams, like the Sheboygan Redskins and the other Wisconsin entry, the Oshkosh All-Stars.  How did those two cities get teams?  I guess the NBL just went with whomever was willing and able to field a team, and these small towns could and did.  I think it speaks to the underlying popularity of basketball in the State of Wisconsin and the midwest in general.

Current NBA teams that originated in the National Basketball League:
Detroit Pistons (Fort Wayne Pistons)
Sacramento Kings (Rochester Royals)
Philadelphia Sixers (Syracuse Nationals)
Atlanta Hawks (Tri-Cities Blackhawks)
Los Angeles Lakers (Minneapolis Lakers)

That’s a pretty impressive progeny list the NBL can claim.  But significantly, none of the teams are still playing in their original NBL cities.  That’s the rub.  The big cities squeezed them out of  the market.

BAA:  The Big Arena Basketball League Takes Over

So you had an existing hoops league, the NBL, that was a bit ragtag and was dominated by a hodgepodge of midwestern towns and cities, by and large.  If pro basketball was to become a legitimate American pastime, this situation could not hold.

In 1946, following cessation of the Second World War, the inevitable happened.  The bigger cities formed their own pro basketball association, the “Basketball Association of America” or BAA.  This hoops league was made up of teams who played in big arenas, like the Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden, not in little gymnasiums and auditoriums like the NBL played in.

Current NBA teams that originated in the Basketball Association of America:
New York Knickerbockers
Golden State Warriors (Philadelphia Warriors)
Boston Celtics

After a couple of seasons the more successful, bigger city teams in the NBL like the Minneapolis Lakers, Fort Wayne Pistons, and Rochester Royals moved to the BAA.  The NBL must have seen the handwriting on the wall, and  in 1949 the two leagues merged.

One Strange Season of Huge versus Small

Now we come to the part of the story that fascinates the shit out of me.

When the two leagues merged before the 1949-50 season, three really small NBL towns tried against the odds to make it in the newly formed National Basketball Association:  the Anderson Packers, the Tri-Cities Hawks (that’s Iowa, I think), and the Sheboygan RedSkins.   None of them made it (the Hawks did, but obviously not in the Tri-Cities area).

The Redskins especially, hailing from a city of 51,000, couldn’t possibly compete financially against teams from America’s large cities. Sheboygan is less than half the size of Green Bay, and the Packers struggled mightily to survive early on in the NFL.  It just wasn’t going to happen for Sheboy-boy.

But they gave it a try.  They can always say they gave it a try.

But how weird would this have been… I looked at the 1950 schedule and it includes a March 15 and March 17 home-and-home between the Sheboygan RedSkins and the Boston Celtics.  In other words, one night the teams met in the tiny Sheboygan Auditorium and Armory situated on Broughton Street on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Two nights later the same two teams played in the legendary Boston Garden.  It must have been like playing on two different planets.

Sheboygan finally saw reality and on April 24, 1950 the Redskins withdrew from the NBA.

But little Sheboygan can always say it was a charter member of the NBA. And it can always lay claim to wins over six longtime NBA franchises: the Kings, 76ers, Hawks, Boston Celtics, New York Knickerbockers, and — most impressively — George Mikan and the Lakers.  Not too bad.

Footnote:  I drove past the Sheboygan Auditorium.  Its just setback from the Lake.  Its a nicely constructed building, but very small.  I was questioning how they fit a court in there.  And it looks as though its been abandoned for some time.  There is a sign on the outside announcing that it will be transformed into a space museum or something (what the hell does Sheboygan have to do with the space program?).  What about a basketball museum?  I guess all those set shots and long range hook shots don’t mean much next to moon shots and long range space flights.  Another piece of NBA history bites the dust.

4 Responses to “Sheboy-boy was in the NBA? Believe it”

  1. D Says:

    Yay for some Shevegas love! Some locals are trying to turn the Armory into a space museum because every year on the lakeshore kids launch model rockets, and its a pretty big deal for Sheboygan. They did fit a basketball court in their, but it wasn’t very big (Not a lot of seating). It was primarily used for the when the 2 local high schools faced off while I was growing up. It’s hard to believe that this little city had a NBA franchise, though. Our local “paper” has articles about it periodically.

    • tywill33 Says:

      This comment was “approved” with pleasure!! (I have to approve every new commenter because of the constant spamming that goes on).

      But I thought it was “Oshvegas” (that’s the sign I used to see on Highway 41 by Oshkosh). How can Wisconsin have so many Vegas’s?

      • TC from Racine Says:

        good question, i’ve heard of Platteville being called “Pvegas.” in any event, I now know more about the Sheboygan Redskins than the nearly naught I did before yesterday.

      • tywill33 Says:

        Thank you, TC! I don’t usually do well on narrative efforts, but I’m pretty proud of that one, and I’m glad it isn’t getting lost.

        I like it because I think it does reasonably well explaining the confusing early neolithic premerger days of the NBA in pretty simple understandable terms. I know I never really understood the whole NBL/BAA situation.

        In fact, funny story, I worked with a much older attorney who kept claiming to me that he played in an early version of the “NBA” on a team called the “Oshkosh All-Stars”. I never heard of such a team. So I was always like “Yeah, right — are your All-Stars playing the Knicks tonight?”

        But now I know he had a certain legitimacy to his claim all along. And without those “duffle bag and white canvas hi-top” warriors, who knows? Maybe we wouldn’t have the game we have today.

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