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Fred Zollner (January 22, 1901 – June 21, 1982) was called "Mr. Pro Basketball" as the founder and longtime owner along with his sister Janet of the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons) and a key figure in the merger of National Basketball League and Basketball Association of America into the National Basketball Association in 1949.
Zollner, an industrialist, was born in Little Falls, Minnesota and received a degree from the University of Minnesota in 1927. Zollner Corporation, formed in 1912, was a Tier-1 supplier of pistons to companies such as Ford, General Motors, International Harvester (now Navistar), John Deere and Outboard Marine. At one time, he employed more than 1200 people in his Fort Wayne, Indiana foundry. The company had 230 employees when it was acquired by Kolbenschmidt Pierburg AG in 1999.
The Zollner Pistons began playing in 1941 in an industrial league. In 1974, he recalled that, "Instead of making friends, we made enemies, because no one could beat us." He personally recruited his players, including later Hall of Famers Andy Phillip, Bob McDermott, Bob Houbregs, Buddy Jeannette and George Yardley. The Zollner Pistons were a very popular franchise, winning the world championship in 1944 and 1945, and reaching the NBA Finals in 1954 and 1955, losing both times. He was the first pro basketball team owner to hire a bench coach.
Zollner brought together leaders of the NBL and the BAA to meet at his house in 1949. Sitting around his kitchen table, they agreed to merge, forming the NBA.
In 1952, when he purchased a DC-3, Zollner was the first to fly his players to away games. Several years later, the Minneapolis Lakers were stranded in Milwaukee; the temperature was −15 °F (−26 °C), and the train was running well behind schedule. Zollner sent the plane to Milwaukee to meet the players and bring them to the game, but due to a mixup, coach John Kundla was left behind. He had gone to the dining car and didn't get word. As the train pulled out the station, he looked out the window and saw the other players waving to him.
The game started with Lakers player Jim Pollard acting as coach. Kundla arrived shortly before halftime, and tried to sneak to the bench, but the fans spotted him and roared. “I took quite a razzing from the guys for that,” said John, “especially since we were ahead by eight when I arrived and we ended up losing by five.”
In 1957, Zollner moved the team to Detroit, a much larger city that had previously had an NBA franchise, the Detroit Falcons, which failed after the 1946–47 season, the NBA's (BAA's) first. Since Detroit was the nation's largest automotive assembly center, the team name, based on its previous locality, still fit: The Detroit Pistons.
In 1974, he sold the Pistons to William Davidson for $7 million (equal to $33 million in 2013). Zollner and Davidson remained the only two majority owners in the history of the longest-running franchise in the history of professional basketball until the death of Davidson in March, 2009. On June 1, 2011, Platinum Equity billionaire Tom Gores bought the Detroit Pistons, along with Palace Sports and Entertainment, from Davidson’s widow.
At the 1975 Silver Anniversary NBA All-Star Game, Zollner was named "Mr. Pro Basketball" for his status as a founder and longtime supporter of the NBA. He died in North Miami, Florida.
On October 1, 1999, Zollner was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor. Today, the NBA Western Conference Championship trophy is named in his honor.
- Peterson, Robert W. (2002). "Seeds of the NBA". Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 124–141. ISBN 0-8032-8772-0.