FORT WAYNE – Carl Bennett, whose influence in sports in Fort Wayne extended from the softball diamond to the golf course to the creation of the National Basketball Association, has died. He was 97.
Bennett was born in Rockford, Ind., in 1915, and he would begin his association with the man with whom he would become synonymous in 1938, when Fred Zollner recruited Bennett, a star athlete first at South Side and then North Side, to play first base for his Zollner Pistons softball team. Before long, Bennett was the personnel director at Zollner’s foundry and was running all of Zollner’s athletic teams – including the Pistons basketball team, for whom he was both coach and general manager.
He was also both a witness to and facilitator of some significant history.
It was in Bennett’s home, after all, that the Pistons were secretly invited to leave the National Basketball League and join the Basketball Association of America. That led to a merger between the leagues, and that led to the NBA and all that came after: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
It also led, subsequently, to the construction of Memorial Coliseum as a more appropriate home for an NBA team than North Side’s gym, where the Pistons had been playing. And it led to a few other things in which Bennett had a hand.
At Bennett’s suggestion, Zollner became the first owner of a professional sports franchise to buy a team plane, in 1952. And in part of because of him, 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.
Bennett was also instrumental in widening the lane from 6 feet to the present 12 feet.
I remember, with adhesive tape, outlining the 12 feet, Bennett recalled in 2002. The guys that had a big man all argued that they’d lose the ball all the time because of the three-second rule.
At the same time he was outlining the future dimensions of the game and inciting the NBA to tinker with time (We had trouble getting out of the gym, Bennett once said of the infamous 19-18 game in Minneapolis), Bennett also found time to serve as a founder of the Mad Anthonys, and he helped launch its long-standing charity golf classic in 1957.
Much later, he led a 15-year campaign to get Fred Zollner inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The quest culminated with Bennett, leaning on his conversation-piece cane (a putter from the Bob Hope Desert Classic), delivering the induction speech for Zollner one October night in 1999.
It’s been a 15-year labor of love, Bennett said at the time.