One of the pivotal figures in professional basketball’s transformation from regional circuit to national chain, Bobby McDermott ruled the basketball roost during the mid-1940s.
Like many ball players who came of age in the 1930s, McDermott didn’t have the financial wherewithal for college. The Great Depression was crippling and Bobby needed some cash fast. So he became paid ball player in his teens for many of the city leagues in New York City. By 1934, he had joined the Brooklyn Visitations of the American Basketball League (ABL), one of the larger pro leagues at the time. McDermott torched the ABL with averages routinely near 10 points per game. Outbursts of 20 points on occasion. Given that final scores rarely reached the 40s, McDermott was indeed an offensive powerhouse.
By the late 1930s, McDermott suited up for the Original Celtics. This Celtics squad was a barnstorming outfit based in New York City and had dominated the world of pro ball in the 1920s. This 1930s version was a reincarnation and didn’t reach the heights of their predecessors, but McDermott was by now a huge draw as folks came to see the basketball wizard who could now score 30 points on any given night.
After a brief return to the ABL in 1939, McDermott saddled up with the NBL for the 1940s and reached his apex as a ball player.
Powering the Gears and Pistons
Spending five-and-a-half seasons with the Fort Wayne Pistons, McDermott torched the NBL. His legendary long-distance shooting proved unstoppable. From 1942 to 1946, McDermott led the Pistons to five straight NBL Finals and won the title twice. He was named to the All-NBL 1st Team every one of those seasons.
And he was also MVP of the league from 1943 to 1946. So dominant was this sharp-shooting guard that the NBL in 1946 named him the greatest player in league history. He’d eventually secure the all-time points scored record for the NBL.
But as the 1946-47 season unfolded, McDermott would be traded from the Pistons to the Chicago Gears. Sure McDermott was now in his early 30s and showing some signs of slowing down, but the real problem was his temper and alcohol. Aboard a train back to Fort Wayne, McDermott and a teammate got into a fistfight after a craps game. Pistons owner Fred Zollner relieved McDermott of his coaching duties and summarily traded him to the Chicago Gears.
The trade happened to produce the first great Big Man, Little Man pairing in pro basketball’s history.
Already on the Gears was a rookie player by the name of George Mikan. With Mikan commanding double teams, McDermott was often on the loose to hit any and all two-handers he could muster. Mikan and McDermott powered the Gears to the NBL title in 1947 giving McDermott his third and final title in the league.
Thereafter McDermott bounced around the NBL until that league’s demise and merger with the BAA in 1949. McDermott’s career ended in 1950 after short stints back in the ABL and with the NPBL (a short-lived revival of the NBL).
At a time when balls still had huge laces to hold them together and two-hand set-shots were still the norm, McDermott helped revolutionize the game. Yes, he still was beholden to the traditional two-hander, but he let that traditional shot set sail from unconventional places. McDermott showed that with practice and imagination, a player could take 20-,30-, and even 40-foot shots as effective means to defeating an opponent and entertaining crowds.
And although little footage survives of McDermott in action, contemporaries hailed him as the greatest long-distance shooter in the history of basketball. The praise of contemporaries reminds us that men and their titles are temporal, but their deeds are eternal. Because for all of the future “greatest shooters in the history of basketball”, their temporal achievements rest in large measure on the eternal bedrock solidified by McDermott.
Years Played: 1934 – 1950
3x Champion (1944-’45, 1947)
4x MVP (1943-’46)
6x All-NBL 1st Team (1942-’47)
All-NBL 2nd Team (1948)
NBL – 287Games
11.7 PPG, 71.3% FT
PPG Leader (1943)
All-Time NBL Ranks
1st Points, 1st FGs Made
5th FTs Made, 4th Games Played