Jews in Sports: Dolph Schayes, part II: Jewry’s pre-eminent NBA star

By Bill Simons

In June 1948, Dolph Schayes graduated from New York University with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Although professional basketball still lacked prestige, Schayes’ love of the game led him to sign with the Syracuse Nationals of the National Basketball League for $7,500. He reasoned that he would give the pro game a try and that after a few seasons, he would still be young enough to begin a full-time career off the court. 

Thus, the 20-year-old Schayes, who had never traveled further from his native New York City than the Catskills, joined the Syracuse Nationals. After each of his first two seasons in the pros, Schayes returned to his Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx to live with his parents. In 1949, Syracuse joined the new National Basketball Association. Schayes remained with Syracuse until 1963 when the team, along with Dolph, moved to Philadelphia, changing its name to the 76ers. After Philadelphia’s 1963-64 season, he retired as an active player.

In college, Dolph had played center; Syracuse moved him to forward. At 6’8,” he was perhaps the first big pro to play with the agility of a small man and certainly the first modern forward. Of his own play, Dolph said, “I looked at myself as a driving, slashing-type player.”

In Schayes’ early years as a pro, teams traveled by bus and train; few players made over $10,000 a year; and meal money was five dollars per day. Of the amenities received as a starter in the NBA’s first all-star game, played in Boston on March 2, 1951, Dolph recalls, “We were booked into one of the worst hotels in the history of the world.” Since NBA games were not yet nationally televised, star players were usually recognized only by fans in cities with franchises. 

Initially, Schayes was only one of many Jewish basketball players in the pros. In contrast to the vituperative antisemitism baseball’s Hank Greenberg encountered during the Great Depression, Dolph, a pro during the more tolerant postwar era and not the first great Jewish player in his sport, experienced little intolerance. During his era, Schayes asserted that the NBA generally played in venues before “sophisticated liberal-type people.”

Despite good quality of play, early NBA games endured stalling that slowed their pace. On August 10, 1954, Nationals President Danny Biasone, who served on the NBA Rules Committee, gathered other owners in the gymnasium at Syracuse’s Blodgett Elementary School to try “out for the first time a 24-second shot clock, which would limit how long a team could freeze the ball before it took a shot.” Schayes participated in that experimental scrimmage, recalling that initial awkwardness with the clock yielded to up-tempo play. 

By the time Schayes left the playing ranks, the NBA, its style of play energized by the 24-second shot clock, was profitable; franchises were stable; teams traveled by jet; continental expansion and network television made star players national celebrities; Jewish players were a rarity; and Black athletes had emerged as the game’s dominant group. After Schayes retired, the reserve clause died, allowing even mediocre players to become multimillionaires. In Dolph’s best years as an NBA superstar, his salary ranged from $17,000 to $21,000. Moreover, when the NBA pension plan was created, it did not, for many years, include athletes who played during Schayes’ era.

In relative terms, Syracuse was a small, slow-paced metropolitan area. Certainly, Schayes would have received more recognition in a larger media-oriented city. The movement of players was much less than today and Syracuse ownership tried to keep the nucleus of the team together throughout the year. In 1951, after Schayes married Naomi Gross, a strong and attractive Jewish woman, he, like most of his teammates, established full-time residence in the Syracuse area. 

Together, Dolph and Naomi raised four children: Debra, a math teacher; Carrie, a chiropractor; David, a social worker; and Dan, a basketball player. During the off-season, Schayes worked as an engineer for General Electric and became a partner in a summer camp for children, Camp Walden. Later, he entered the construction field, building and managing some apartment houses.

Dolph played for only three coaches in Syracuse: Al Cervi, Paul Seymour and Alex Hannum. Cervi transformed the mild mannered Schayes into a “don’t give up,” scratch and claw, aggressive player. But it was Hannum who noted, “Dolph was always one of the first on the court for practice, but most often, he was the last off…this self-discipline in practice is what has made Dolph so great.” 

A broken right wrist in 1952, necessitating a hand cast, only enhanced Schayes’ game, forcing him to shoot proficiently from the left. Season after season, he ranked among the NBA’s leaders in scoring and rebounds. In addition to his prowess as a shooter and rebounder, Dolph, an excellent all-around player, possessed outstanding passing and defensive skills. When Schayes hung his sneakers up, he ranked among the greatest professionals who had ever played the game. Named an NBA All-Star (first or second team) 12 times, he led Syracuse to 15 NBA playoffs, including a championship in 1954-55. Schayes was the Nats’ leading scorer for 12 consecutive seasons (1949/1950-1960/1961), averaging more than 20 points a game during each of the last six of those campaigns. 

At one time, Schayes held numerous NBA records, among them most career points (19,249), most career rebounds (11,256), most field goals made (6,135), most free throws made (6,979) and most minutes played (29,800). A collision, breaking his jaw on December 27, 1961, ended Schayes’ tally of 764 consecutive games played, then a record streak, begun on February 7, 1952. A Basketball Hall of Fame inductee (1972) and officially designated (1997) one of the NBA’s 50 greatest all-time players, Dolph averaged 18.2 points per game over a 16-season career. Former Knicks coach Vince Boryla contended, “Schayes could lick you more ways than any ballplayer I’ve ever seen.” 

Part III will conclude the Schayes series by discussing Dolph’s relationship with Judaism, including coaching Maccabiah basketball, as well as his role in son Dan’s NBA career. 

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.