By TERRELL LESTER
Editor at Large
Author’s note: Much of the background and information on the Tulsa Ranchers and the PBLA came from research compiled by the late Lou Wilkie of Bartlesville. His father, Louis Wilkie, had coached the AAU Phillips 66ers and served seven terms as chairman of the AAU Basketball Committee. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.
Folks will be bemoaning the Great Sports Interruption of 2020 for years to come.
Games put on hold.
Leisurely pastimes upended.
The realm of sports has been diminished, dismantled.
But it has happened before.
Professional sports have endured work stoppages.
Franchises have packed up and moved.
Tulsa has had its share of sports breakups.
The baseball Oilers split for New Orleans in 1977.
The hockey Oilers endured a series of stops and starts.
The WNBA Shock headed for Dallas in 2015.
The Fast Breakers morphed into the Zone in 1991 before disappearing a year later.
The Oklahoma Outlaws called Tulsa its football home in 1984 and one year later they were in Arizona.
And then there were the Roughnecks, arguably Tulsa’s most successful pro franchise. The Roughnecks competed at soccer’s major-league level and even won the 1983 Soccer Bowl.
But the city’s honeymoon with the team was short-lived and the North American Soccer League dissolved the following year.
(In 2013, the Roughnecks name returned with the formation of a new soccer league. “Roughnecks” received nearly 50 percent of the votes in a “name the team” contest in February 2014. Under the ownership of brothers J.W., Ryan and Kyle Craft, the FC Tulsa franchise is a member of USL Championship, a pro league that began in 2011.)
Pro sports and Tulsa have long had a tenuous, fragile relationship.
One of the shortest tenures in local pro sports history had to be the 1947 Tulsa Ranchers.
Amidst the euphoria that enveloped the country following the conclusion of World War II, sports was entering its most auspicious era.
Pro baseball was king. Pro football was emerging. College football, college basketball were thriving.
And professional basketball was seeking its share of the revenue pie, its share of the sports fan’s attention.
Leagues formed seemingly overnight. In 1946, there were three professional basketball associations spread across the United States.
The Professional Basketball League of America joined in the fun in 1947.
Tulsa landed one of 16 franchises in the new league that stretched from Atlanta and Birmingham to Chicago and Grand Rapids, Mich.
The league was created by a Chicago businessman and owner of the National Basketball League 1946-47 championship team.
Forrest DeBernardi was installed as the general manager of the Tulsa Ranchers operation. He had been an outstanding collegiate and AAU player and would be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1961.
The league, which included the Oklahoma City Drillers, planned a 60-game schedule for 1947 and signed players to two-year contracts.
Jim Gibbs was hired in a dual capacity as player-coach of the Ranchers. At 6-5, he had been a star player at Central Missouri State Teachers College and in the National Basketball League.
The Ranchers played their home games at Tulsa’s Fairgrounds Pavilion, wearing the colors of red and royal blue.
One of the name players on the team, maybe not a star-quality player but an individual who would later make his mark as a coach, was Chet Bryan.
Bryan was an all-around athlete at Oklahoma City Capitol Hill and a basketball standout at Oklahoma City University. He later became a high school hall of fame basketball coach at Norman and head baseball coach at Oklahoma State University.
In 1947, Bryan played six games for the Ranchers and two games for the Oklahoma City Drillers.
Other notable members of the Ranchers were former University of Tulsa player Ken Scott, former University of Oklahoma all-star Jack Landon, and John Gibbs, brother of Coach Jim Gibbs, who began his college career at Oklahoma A&M.
Oklahoma City’s Drillers boasted a roster with several familiar names. Head coach was Glen Rose, in the middle of two stints at the University of Arkansas.
Among his players were University of Oklahoma All-American Allie Paine and Oklahoma A&M All-American Lonnie Eggleston.
The league’s marquee player was George Mikan, fresh off an All-American career at DePaul University.
He carried the Chicago Gears to the league’s best record, 10-0, averaging 24.1 points, with a single-game high of 31.
A front-office leader of one of the franchises later became the leader of the free world.
The Grand Rapids, Mich., Rangers tapped a home-town product and former University of Michigan footballer Gerald R. Ford Jr., as general manager.
One year later, in 1948, Ford took his first steps on a political journey that would take him to the White House, winning the first of 13 elections to the U.S. House of Representatives.
With 16 teams, the league was divided into two divisions. Tulsa was slotted into the Southern Division along with the Houston Mavericks, the Atlanta Crackers, New Orleans Hurricanes and Chattanooga Majors, among others.
Travel was an issue, players had two-year contracts, expenses ballooned and attendance was not up to expectations.
After just three weeks, 10 games for the Ranchers, the league disbanded on Nov. 13, 1947.
Four days later, officials from the Tulsa office joined with representatives of five other teams to work out a two-week series of exhibition games and a plan for a new league foundation for December.
By Nov. 27, all plans were scratched and the professional basketball dream came to an end.
Two of the three remaining pro basketball leagues continued play, and in 1949 the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America joined forces to create the National Basketball Association.
Mikan became the first superstar of the NBA. He joined the Minneapolis Lakers after the PBLA collapsed and led his team to the first NBA championship following the 1949-50 season.
Tulsa completed its run in the PBLA with a 7-3 record and the league’s best defensive numbers, yielding an average of 41.2 points.
Tulsa’s largest attendance was recorded on Nov. 9 when Mikan and Chicago visited the Pavilion. A crowd of 1,500 reportedly witnessed Mikan (with 18 points) and the Gears defeat the Ranchers, 51-48.
The only meeting between Tulsa and Oklahoma City occurred the next night. Playing in Oklahoma City’s Municipal Auditorium, the Drillers defeated the Ranchers, 41-30, before a crowd of 479.
Player-coach Jim Gibbs led Tulsa’s 10-game scoring with a 12.5 average.
About the time the Ranchers and the pro league were disbanding, the University of Tulsa was preparing for a new season. John Garrison was installed as the Golden Hurricane head coach earlier in the year and TU would go on to a 7-16 record in his debut.
Basketball in the city of Tulsa was far from its peak in 1947.
But the city of Tulsa did get a peek at what professional basketball was all about. It just was not a long look.