Bennett died at age 97 on Wednesday, taking with him the last link to some of Fort Wayne's greatest moments. He didn't just remember some amazing history – and he could recall almost every detail – he was part of initiating the original events.
The National Basketball Association was born in Bennett's living room in 1948. He helped start the Ladies Professional Golf Association Championship tournament in 1955. He was there when the Mad Anthonys golf tournament began in 1957.
He was also present when the Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18 to force the NBA to adopt the 24-second shot clock. He was there when Fort Wayne hosted the third NBA All-Star Game in 1953, the first one to include African-American players and the first to be nationally televised.
He was there when the Fort Wayne Pistons won three world titles in fastpitch softball in the 1940s. Bennett was also part of the cleanup in 1954 as the NBA tried to recover from its worst gambling scandal ever. He sat courtside when the Pistons came up just short in the NBA Finals in 1955 and again in 1956.
And those are just the highlights that would be recognizable to sports fans of today.
Bennett was Mr. Everything for the Zollner Pistons basketball and softball teams of the late 1940s and 1950s. Pistons' owner Fred Zollner spotted Bennett playing first base for the Fairview Nurseries team in the Fort Wayne Fastpitch Softball League and hired him in 1939 to coach the Pistons' basketball team in the YMCA Industrial League.
At that time, players worked in the factory during the day and played at night. When a coach asked Zollner if the players could have afternoons off to rest up for the games, he was dismissed. There were only 25 employees in the factory, including Bennett, whom Zollner picked as the coach's replacement in 1939.
Eventually Bennett would serve Zollner as a player, business manager, coach, scout, athletic director, personnel director and basketball coach. He was also president of both the National Fastball League and the National Basketball League. He later became a member of the NBA Board of Governors.
The first meeting to form what would eventually become the NBA was held at Bennett's house at 2920 Alexander Ave., in the spring of 1948. Bennett, as a member of the NBL board of directors, met with Basketball Association of America Commissioner Maurice Podoloff. The NBL and BAA were stuck in a war over players in 1948 when Podoloff called Bennett at home. The NBL had the best players, and the BAA had the big-city markets.
"It was very quiet and confidential," Bennett said. "We talked for two or three hours, and I called Fred and we went out to the office to see him. To me it sounded like a great idea because Fred wanted to move as far up in the major leagues as possible."
After a few preliminary discussions, Podoloff, Bennett and Zollner met at Bennett's home in a day-long meeting. A few weeks later an official meeting was held in Chicago on May 10, 1948, and Fort Wayne, Minneapolis, Rochester and Indianapolis left the NBL to join the BAA for the 1948-49 season. The league's name was changed to the NBA before the 1949-50 season.
Along with Ned Irish of the New York Knicks and Walter Brown of the Boston Celtics, Bennett was also involved with helping break the color barrier in the NBA.
According to many records, Bennett is listed as the Pistons' first coach in a pro league as Fort Wayne started the 1948-49 season in the BBA.
The basketball Pistons, now the Detroit Pistons, won National Basketball League championships in 1944, 1945 and 1946. The fastball team won world titles in 1945, 1946 and 1947.
Bennett helped organize Pistons' reunions in 1978 and 1992, and helped Pistons players Bobby McDermott (in 1988) and George Yardley (in 1996) get inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. In perhaps Bennett's prize achievement, he succeeded in 1999 getting Zollner inducted into the hall after a 15-year campaign.
In 2007 the Basketball Hall of Fame acknowledged Fort Wayne the birthplace of the NBA in an 2007 exhibit with Bennett in attendance. That same year he received a Red Coat from the Mad Anthonys.
“There aren't too many people who can say they have accomplished all of their goals in their lifetime, but I'm one of them,” Bennett said Aug. 30, 2007. “I've been incredibly lucky and have lived a great life.”
After helping found the Mad Anthonys, Bennett played in the event the next 40 years until polio syndrome took his golf game away. Though he was a long-time part-owner of Fairview and Lakeside golf courses, the last time he played was April 23, 2004.
"I played for 60 years, and I love golf," he said in 2007. "I wish I could play, but no more of that."
Until today. Your turn to tee off, my friend.