By Bill Simons
In a “Saturday Night Live” skit, guest host Jerry Seinfeld, portraying a member of a yeshiva basketball team playing against a squad from a Catholic parochial school, is approached by the flirtatious Mary Katherine Gallagher. Attracted by Jerry, the socially obtuse Mary Catherine observes, “I didn’t know there were any Jewish basketball players.” Uncomfortable with Mary Catherine’s implication that Jews are not physically adept, Jerry retorts “Dolph Schayes” and then, after a long pause, adds “And Moses Malone, I think.”
Even without appropriating hoop star Moses Malone, an African-American, the Jewish contribution to basketball is impressive. Marty Friedman, Nat Holman, Barney Sedran, Harry “Jammy” Moskowitz, Davey Banks, Sammy Kaplan, Max Zaslofsky, Ed Roman, Al Roth and Jordan Farmer are integral to the game’s history, much of it triumphant, some of it tragic. The New York Knickerbockers alone have featured a plethora of Jewish players thorough the years, including Ralph Kapolwitz, Leo Gottleib, Sonny Hertzberg, Nathan Militz, Art Heyman, Barry Kramer, Neal Walk and Ernie Grunfeld (later the team’s general manager). Basketball’s legendary coaches include Holman, Eddie Gottlieb, Red Auerbach, Red Holzman, Harry Litwack and Larry Brown. The first (Maurice Podoloff), the longest-serving (David Stern) and the present (Adam Silver) commissioners of the National Basketball Association are Jewish. And, as Jerry Seinfeld noted, there is Dolph Schayes.
As the NBA’s pre-eminent Jewish basketball player, Dolph Schayes is the hardcourt equivalent of baseball’s Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Dolph’s son, Dan, also played in the NBA. Indeed, Dolph and Dan Schayes are the only Jewish father-son combination to both attain the major league level in professional sports. Cumulatively, Dolph and Dan played 34 years in the NBA, the league father-son record. Although the father’s athletic achievements were pitched higher than those of the son, the lives of Dolph and Dan Schayes, considered together, reflect the transformation of ethnicity in basketball and the larger society. “It is,” notes historian Peter Levine, “the story of this father and son that best illustrates the changing role of sport in the American Jewish experience and its connection to American Jewish identity.”
Of his birth on May 19, 1928, Dolph jokes, “The happiest person in the world was my mother because I weighed 12 pounds and 14 ounces.” Adolph Schayes grew up at 2275 Davidson Avenue in the Bronx. It was an ethnically-homogenous Jewish neighborhood, an urban ethnic enclave, “bounded by 183rd Street, Davidson and Burnside avenues and Fordham Road.” Manhattan might have been 100 miles away; young Schayes rarely journeyed from his Bronx neighborhood. “Even though I was brought up in New York City, I led a very isolated provincial-type life,” Dolph told me as we sat in the kitchen of his DeWitt, NY, home.
The son of working-class Romanian Jewish immigrants, young Dolph organized a club with neighborhood friends called the Trylons, which evolved into the Amerks. It was a social-athletic club of 10 or so Jewish boys from the neighborhood. Purchasing their own jackets with club insignias, this peer group was inseparable. Most of Dolph’s early basketball experience took place within the context of this club. Participating in contests on the grounds of Public School 91, they challenged other clubs. Only the winners continued to play. They also played some football and baseball, but those sports entailed more expenses for equipment, travel to parks outside the neighborhood and a permit from the Park Department. For basketball, however, every schoolyard had a hoop. Indoor gyms at community centers and schools came later. A club required but one basketball and players needed only to purchase sneakers.
Advantages of height and coordination quickly made Schayes an outstanding basketball player. He was six feet by the age of 10. Such was the appeal of the game, however, that Dolph claimed that he would have loved basketball even had he been a foot shorter.
At DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, coach Nat April considered Dolph quite a find. At that time and even later, six feet six inches schoolboys with mobility were rare. (In college, Schayes grew another couple of inches to six feet eight inches.) As a high school star, Schayes caught the eye of top college coaches. Due to a rapid advancement program for superior students and the wartime emergency, he graduated from high school at 16. Schayes received several scholarship offers. He chose New York University partly because it was an easy subway commute from his house. Young, shy and naïve, Dolph would live with his parents during his college years. (In response to hearing the preceding depiction of his youthful self during my October 3, 2001, presentation on his life, Dolph retorted that he was now “old, shy and naïve.”)
In February 1945, Schayes entered NYU. Since World War II had depleted collegiate rosters, Dolph played varsity ball before big crowds at Madison Square Garden as a 16-year-old freshman. Older teammates, initially, looked out for NYU’s baby during tough play under the boards. In time, Schayes more than held his own and savored the exciting, euphoric, zeitgeist of postwar New York. Even the hinterlands recognized New York as the capital of the basketball world, and Dolph, still an impressionable youth, eagerly bought all of the New York newspapers, of which there were then 11 dailies, to read what journalists wrote about him. Most of Schayes’ teammates were, as on other top New York teams of that era, primarily Jewish or Irish.
It was NYU’s golden age of basketball; the school was lucky enough to escape the contemporary athletic scandals. Filling out to six feet eight inches, 220 pounds, Schayes developed an inside and outside game. At a time when most big men were awkward, he was a finesse player with quick moves. In 1948, his senior year, Schayes averaged 13.7 points per game and won the Haggerty Award, given to the top collegiate player in the New York City area.
Part II will examine Dolph Schayes’ NBA career and that of his son, Dan.
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.