By BOB SHRALUKA
The recent passing of Carl Bennett at the age of 97 may well have taken the last living link to Zollner Piston basketball in Fort Wayne.
The Pistons, of course, played for years in Fort Wayne under the stewardship of industrialist Fred Zollner and were the key reason the Memorial Coliseum was constructed. Zollner played a major role in the merger that birthed the National Basketball Association (NBA); in fact, the deal was hammered out in his home.
Bennett was there through much of that time.
Zollner's basketball started with the Zollner Piston corporation placing a team in a Fort Wayne industrial league in the 1930s and grew from there.
Bennett, a star athlete at both South Side and North Side in Fort Wayne, was hired by Zollner to play for his softball (they called it fastball) team, later became personnel director at the foundry, and eventually was operating the sports teams, including serving as coach and general manager of the basketball team.
Bennett was involved in the talks that led to the merger that brought about the NBA. Before long, the Pistons needed a new home — they were an NBA team playing home games in the North Side gym, for cryin' out loud — and the Coliseum opened in 1952.
Journal Gazette columnist Ben Smith wrote that it was at Bennett’s suggestion that Zollner became the first owner of a professional sports franchise to buy a team plane, in 1952. "And in part of because of him (Bennett), Syracuse owner Danny Biasone led a push to introduce a 24-second shot clock after Bennett’s Pistons stalled their way to a 19-18 road victory in 1950 over George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers," Smith wrote.
Bennett was also instrumental in widening the lane from 6 feet to the present 12 feet, according to Smith, and was a founder of the Mad Anthonys and the beginning of its charity golf tournament in 1957.
Bennett also was heavily involved in a campaign to get Zollner inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. So, too, was Decatur resident and Adams County Commissioner Ed Coil. In fact, Ed stood on the stage the night in 1999 that Bennett gave the induction speech — long overdue — for Zollner. (It can be found on YouTube.)
Coil spent 34 years with the Zollner corporation, becoming a close friend and trusted lieutenant of Zollner. But his link didn't include the basketball team in Fort Wayne as the Van Wert County, Ohio, native was hired about the same time in 1957 that the team was being moved to Fort Wayne.
He became such a trusted friend that Zollner named Coil the Detroit team's general manager in 1965 and served 10 years. "The general manager had died and I was just supposed to be around until they found a new one. I stayed 10 years," he laughed this week from his Decatur home.
Has Pike peaked?
Robert Pike, the Wisconsin man who owns the Shaffer building at First and Madison streets, apparently hasn't given up on his plan to convert the aging structure into useful purposes, including office space and/or housing for homeless veterans.
Pike bought the building several years ago, put a lot of work into it early on, then seemed to slow down, especially after a devastating hand injury. Several office spaces were completed in the building, but little or nothing has happened in the last two or three years.
In response to our e-mail, Pike said in a reply that he intended to be in Decatur in a couple of weeks to do some work on the building (and he was). "My intent is to put up for sale the new offices we built back some time ago. I'll be looking at local realtors for help," he said in the e-mail.
"I have contacted city and county (officials) who over the years have indicated an interest in the building, but they aren't interested at this time," he added.
Pike was hoping to obtain grants to convert the building to provide permanent housing for homeless veterans. But that's apparently at a dead end.
"With the economy in such disarray it appears that it may be some time before the cavalry arrives," Pike said in his e-mail. "I haven't much to report except I'm doing what I can with limited funds to move things forward.
"I still believe in the potential of the building and how it can help the community as a whole."