Shooter Schayes

Jewish basketball star Dolph Schayes stood tall above the rest amid the rise of the professional game.

Dolph Schayes (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Dolph Schayes
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
IN THE era just after World War II and before black athletes began to make their mark on basketball, many Jewish players were listed on the starting five score card of many collegiate and professional teams. At this tall man’s game, one Jewish sportsman stood above the rest, Dolph Schayes, a power forward who starred for 16 years with the Syracuse Nationals and the Philadelphia 76ers.
He was a bona fide star whose story is recounted by Dolph Grundman, a professor of history at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Colorado. Born in 1928, Schayes was the middle son of Jewish immigrants from Romania growing up in New York City. He was given the name Adolph, but thanks to the subsequent notoriety of another Adolf, his parents called him Dolph from an early age.
At the tender age of 16, he was the starting center for New York University, where he learned his trade. The style of play at that time focused a lot on player movement, ball deception and man-to-man coverage. The Harlem Globetrotters later developed an entertainment form of this style of basketball, using such crowd-pleasers as the weave, ball misdirection and hidden ball tricks.
Schayes was the consummate team player.
He could score from anywhere on the court, defend tenaciously and handle the ball with great skill. Although he was a natural right-handed player, old videos show him being quite adept at driving to the basket from either side and feeding his team mates with blind behind-the-back passes.
His leadership brought the Nationals only one NBA championship in 1955. There could have been more trophies had it not been for Bob Cousy and Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, who used the other teams in the NBA as cannon fodder in their time.
By his own admission, Schayes was not a gifted athlete. Although he stood at 2.03 meters (6 feet 8 inches) and probably 2.51 meters (8’3”) at full stretch, he could not jump above 3.05 meters (10 feet), the height of the basket.
Of all the 19,247 points he accumulated in his career, a fine achievement especially as the three point shot from outside the perimeter had not yet been introduced, he never once dunked the basket. He also never scored on the alley-oop, the turnaround jam or the slam dunk, aerial maneuvers that bring crowds to their feet today.
Schayes scored his points because he was an incredibly accurate shooter. There is a story that, during the summer basketball camps he ran in upstate New York, he would narrow the diameter of the basketball hoop in order to force him to hit the center of the basket with his shots. This helped him lead the NBA in shooting percentage from the free throw line three times. He also set a record by sinking 18 consecutive free throws in one game.
Schayes is probably best remembered for his two-handed high-arching set shot, something not seen in professional basketball today.
Despite all his accolades, including being 12 times an NBA All-Star, his son Danny, who played 18 years in the NBA from 1981-1999 and was only a journeyman player, probably had greater skills than his father.
Much of Grundman’s book is a recounting of newspaper game summaries, especially playoff games where the Syracuse Nationals perennially appeared. More intriguing is his account of the rise of professional basketball, the subtitle of his book, which provides the backdrop to Schayes’s illustrious career on the parquet.
The NBA which began in 1948 was an amalgamation of two competitive professional leagues, the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League, both of which had franchises in cities that you would have to use a magnifying glass to find on the map.
The likes of Sheboygan, Fort Wayne, Rochester, Anderson and Syracuse, along with New York, Boston and Minneapolis, fielded teams in the early days of professional basketball. Small cities meant small crowds, which, in turn, led to low salaries. In 1948, his first year as a professional, Schayes earned the princely sum of $7,500 playing for the Syracuse Nats, as they were called.
The author further documents how basketball became a gateway for black athletes to be integrated into the mainstream of professional sport during the 1950s. Indeed, the civil rights movement in the United States helped promote the careers of a number of black athletes in the NBA, the first of whom was Earl Lloyd, who died this year and was a teammate of Schayes for six years. Schayes, to his credit, accepted Lloyd as an equal both on and off the court.
To show how far black athletes have come in professional basketball, the author begins his story by interviewing Schayes at a multi-million dollar sports complex at Syracuse University paid for by Carmelo Anthony, an African-American Syracuse University legend, whose professional contract with the New York Knicks in 2011 earned him $65 million over three years.
The author bookends Schayes’s playing career by noting his attachment to the Jewish faith. He states that Schayes grew up in a secular family and lived in the Bronx, where most of his friends were Jewish.
Schayes admits that during his playing days, he didn’t pay much attention to his Jewish identity.
Only after he ended his career did this change.
Schayes was the coach of the US basketball team at the Maccabiah Games in 1997.
Whatever his attachment to his religion, Schayes has been honored by being inducted into the National Jewish American Sports Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Grundman does not explore, however, the impact of Schayes’s achievements on the American Jewish community.
Grundman notes that during Schayes’s career, basketball was used as a foreign policy tool by the American government. In 1956, the State Department organized a goodwill tour for the Syracuse Nationals to Europe and the Middle East. But the Middle East tour only included stops in Beirut, Tehran and Cairo.
Although the author fails to mention this, the itinerary of this tour indicates the State Department’s antipathy toward Israel at that time. A trip to Tel Aviv by the Nationals could have been a major public relations coup for the Eisenhower administration, especially since their star player was Jewish.
Among Schayes’s many accolades, possibly his highest came in 1996 when he was officially recognized by the NBA as one of its 50 greatest players of all time. For enthusiasts, this very readable book may be one of the 50 best books on basketball of all time.