In 1961, Abe Saperstein, Paul Cohen, George Steinbrenner and others attempted to form a new professional basketball league to rival the National Basketball Association (NBA). The developers enlisted the best teams from the National Alliance of Basketball Leagues and from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to form the American Basketball League (ABL). Among the league's founding teams was Steinbrenner's Cleveland Pipers. <p>In 1958, the Cleveland Pipers was sponsored by Ed Sweeny Company, a heating and plumbing company with clients contracted throughout Cleveland, although the team dates back to at least 1956. Because there were no NBA teams in Cleveland from 1956-1965, industrial and AAU teams, as well as local high school teams, ruled the hearts of Cleveland’s basketball fans. With Cornelius ‘Corny’ Freeman, former basketball star from Xavier University, the Pipers won the Industrial League in 1958 and the Greater Cleveland Muny League in 1959.
Kinsman Transit Co., owned by future New York Yankees baseball team owner George Steinbrenner, sponsored the Pipers in 1960. It was under Steinbrenner’s sponsorship that the Pipers won the National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL) and the AAU tournament championships in 1961. Later that year, the Cleveland Pipers joined the ABL and won the ABL championship in 1962. During the summer of 1961, many Pipers players were part of an AAU All-Star team which toured the Soviet Union including former Pipers and future NBA players Dick Barnett, John Barhill, and Ben Warley.
The Cleveland Pipers emerged as a dominant ABL team. John McClendon served as the squad's first coach and became the first African American to serve as head coach of a major professional basketball team. However, McClendon was not the coach by season's end. According to McClendon, Steinbrenner interfered in coaching decisions, contributing to McClendon’s resignation mid-season.
Following the 1961-1962 season, Steinbrenner recruited The Ohio State University’s basketball sensation Jerry Lucas. Lucas was previously named Player of the Year by the National College Athletic Association’s (NCAA) and Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. Lucas also played on the All-Star Team in the Soviet Union. Steinbrenner did not want the Cleveland Pipers to continue to play in the ABL. Signing Lucas with the Pipers sparked a conflict between the ABL and NBA in 1962, and eventually Steinbrenner agreed to join the NBA. However, high entry costs and legal fees bankrupted the Pipers and the team folded in the fall of 1962. The American Basketball League ended before the completion of the 1962-1963 season.