Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On the Omahawks, Omaha's First Big-League Basketball Team

In the next issue of Nebraska History I have an article that details the brief history of the Omahawks, a professional basketball team that existed for a few weeks in 1947. Although mostly forgotten by Omaha residents today, it was Omaha's first major professional sports franchise.

I sent an advance copy of the piece to one of my favorite sports writers, Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald. After he expressed interest in the topic, I wrote a short summary piece about the Omahawks that Chatelain published at his Mad Chatter blog last week. You can check out the blog here.  After the piece ran, I was contacted by The Bottom Line, a sports and news talk show hosted by Mike'l Severe for the Omaha World-Herald. Back when I lived in Omaha, Severe and Kevin Kugler co-hosted a radio show called Unsportsmanlike Conduct. I have yet to find a sports talk show that I enjoy more than Unsportsmanlike Conduct (in fact, I've pretty much given up on trying). So it was a thrill to talk about the Omahawks with Severe.

If you'd like to check out my interview on The Bottom Line, you can go here. Below, you can also read my short piece on the Omahawks that originally ran at the Mad Chatter blog. And for even more on the Omahawks, check out the next issue of Nebraska History.

Omaha World-Herald, Nov. 12, 1947

In November 1947 one of the best basketball teams in the country showed up in Omaha for a game at Creighton University’s gym. The 1,000 Omahans in attendance on that November night were probably disappointed with the outcome, but they did get to witness greatness. Two future basketball hall-of- famers took the court: six-foot- ten center George Mikan patrolled the paint, dropping in twenty-six points, while five-foot- eleven guard Bobby McDermott launched set shots from ungodly distances, tallying twelve points.

Mikan and McDermott were the stars of the Chicago Gears, the best team in the brand new Professional Basketball League of America (PBLA). Their opponent on that November night? The Omahawks, Omaha’s first entry into big-time professional basketball.

The Omahawks are a mostly forgotten episode in Omaha’s sports history. When Omaha’s old-timers or history buffs think about professional basketball, they probably turn first to the early 1970s when Omaha (kind of) claimed an NBA team of its own. From 1972 to 1975 the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, led by Tiny Archibald, Jimmy Walker, and Sam Lacey, played at least eleven games each season at the Civic Auditorium. Some might recall, too, the one-year existence of the Nebraska Wranglers, who won the Women’s Professional Basketball League title in 1980-81. And then there are the minor league basketball teams like the Omaha Racers. But long before the Wranglers, Kings, and Racers, the Omahawks were in town.

If you’ve never heard of the Omahawks, don’t feel bad. There is good reason for that. For one, their entire history spanned a grand total of six games. For two, they came into existence at a time when professional basketball was not nearly as popular as it is today.

Back in 1947 the American sporting scene was dominated by professional baseball and college football. For those who did enjoy basketball, college was the preferred game. And even if some liked the pro version, a dominant professional league had not yet emerged. The National Basketball League (NBL) had the most talent, but many of its teams came from mid-sized cities in the Midwest like Fort Wayne (Indiana), and Oshkosh (Wisconsin). The other major professional league, the Basketball Association of America (BAA), had less talent but made up for it with deep-pocketed owners and big-city markets. Many of the best black players did not play in either league, instead suiting up for traveling teams like the New York Renaissance or Harlem Globetrotters.

In 1949 the NBL and BAA merged to form the league we all know today, the NBA. But in 1947 that merger was not inevitable. Recognizing that professional basketball had plenty of room to grow, Maurice White, the owner of the Chicago Gears, decided to form his own league. After winning the 1946-47 NBL title, he took his Gears out of the NBL and made them the centerpiece of the new PBLA. White attempted to expand the geographic scope of professional basketball by placing PBLA franchises west of the Mississippi River and south of the Ohio River. The Omahawks were part of this westward strategy.

The Omahawks were marked by their home state in many ways. They had Frank Hagan, Creighton University athletic director, running business operations. A woman from Auburn, Nebraska, submitted the winning “Omahawks” moniker as part of a naming contest run by the Omaha World-Herald. And five Nebraska products earned spots on the roster: Ralph Langer (Ainsworth), Jim and Wayne Kaeding (Benedict), Clyde Ehlers (Thayer), and Rex Barney (Omaha).

Ralph “Swede” Langer, who led the Creighton Bluejays to back-to- back trips to the National Invitation Tournament in 1942 and 1943, was expected to be the star. Langer’s basketball career had been put on hold while he served in the U.S. Army during World War II. With the Omahawks, Langer had a chance to play for the Omaha basketball crowd once again.

The Kaeding brothers also had high expectations. Jim and Wayne had shattered scoring records and dominated Nebraska’s small-college basketball circuit while playing for York College. Jim was even drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors (now the Golden State Warriors) in the 1947 BAA draft, although he didn’t sign with the team.

Rex Barney was the most famous of the Nebraska bunch, but not because of his exploits on the hardwood. Barney had been a multisport star at Creighton Prep before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. A hard-throwing and wild pitcher on the baseball diamond, he signed with the Omahawks in part because he wanted to stay in shape during baseball’s off-season.

The final Nebraskan, Clyde Ehlers, grew up on a farm near York. As a high schooler he starred in both football and basketball, leading Thayer to Class C state basketball titles in 1940 and 1941. After high school he played semipro basketball for teams in York and Lincoln.

Joining the five Nebraskans were a handful of basketball hopefuls from North Dakota, California, Arizona, and Missouri.

Unlike most other teams in the PBLA, none of the Omahawks had experience playing in the top two professional basketball leagues. But they were scrappy. Take, for example, that November 1947 game against the Chicago Gears. Although the Gears won, the intensity of the game left such an impression on George Mikan that fifty years later he could still recall having “a particularly rough time of it” in Omaha.

The Omahawks may have played hard and left their imprint on Mikan, but they never really had a chance to prove themselves. The PBLA imploded after the Omahawks had played just six games (posting a 2-4 record). Star players like Mikan found a home on NBL or BAA teams, but many others were left without a team or league. Since salaries were far lower and professional basketball was far less stable back then, the Omahawk players dropped their pro hoop dreams and found other things to do.

Most of them managed to stay involved in sports. Rex Barney pitched for a couple more years with the Dodgers, then got into broadcasting. He eventually became the public address announcer for the Baltimore Orioles. Ralph Langer, who went down as the leading scorer in Omahawks history at 11.2 points per game, settled in Omaha. He passed his athletic ability on to his son, Mark, who earned All- State basketball honors in 1969 for Creighton Prep.

Both of the Kaeding brothers became teachers and coaches, with Wayne settling in Beatrice, and Jim in Muscatine, Iowa. Football fans might recognize the name of Jim grandson: Nate Kaeding, a three-sport star in high school who later became a star kicker for the University of Iowa and the San Diego Chargers. As for Clyde Ehlers, he probably out-Nebrasked them all. He went back to the family farm and lived out the rest of his life on the Nebraska prairie, passing away in 2011.

As another basketball season tips off, here’s a hat tip to those five Cornhuskers who decided seventy years ago to chase their pro hoop dreams in a football crazy state. It may not have worked out as they planned, but at least they got to play against the great George Mikan.

*Ralph Langer pic above is from the October 27, 1947 Omaha World-Herald