Son of Dolph: Dan Schayes – finding his own basketball niche, Part III

by Bill Simons

Parts I and II of this series looked at Dolph Schayes, basketball’s pre-eminent Jewish player, during his New York University and Syracuse Nationals’ seasons. This column concludes the arc with an examination of Schayes’ post-playing days and the basketball ascent of his son, Dan.

From 1963-66, Dolph Schayes coached the Philadelphia 76ers, first as playing coach and then from the bench. Despite finishing first in the Eastern Division with a 55-25 record for the 1965-66 season and garnering the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, Schayes lost his job due to difficulties maintaining a distance from his players. From 1966-69, he served as chief supervisor of NBA referees, but grew restive. Next, Dolph coached an inept NBA expansion club, the 1969-71 Buffalo Braves. 

After he left the NBA, real estate in the slow Syracuse market remained Schayes’ “bread and butter.” For many summers, he managed Camp Walden, an overnight venue for youngsters in the Adirondacks. And he had a brief stint doing television commentary for Syracuse University basketball games. 

Schayes’ Jewish consciousness evolved through the years. Although often implicit, Judaism was a powerful presence during his Bronx boyhood. Raising his own family in Greater Syracuse, Dolph maintained membership in a Reform congregation. In middle age, he became active in the Maccabiah movement, traveling to Israel both as coach of the American basketball team for the 1977 games and later as a tourist. Of the 1977 Maccabiah Games, he reflected, “We won the gold medal over an Israeli team… I have a great feeling for those games because they expose the younger Jewish generation to a heritage that they perhaps haven’t come in contact with or [have] forgotten completely.”

And Dolph followed the basketball career of his son, Dan, closely. Dan Schayes was born in 1959 and grew up in DeWitt, a comfortable suburb of Syracuse. As the baby of the family, Dan was only 5 when his father retired as an active player. When someone mentioned that his father was one of basketball’s greatest players, Dan thought, “He was just the guy who lived across the hall – Dad.” 

A large pole with a basketball hoop attached 10 feet off the ground resided in the Schayes’ paved driveway. Dan loved shooting games and two-on-two, three-on-three competitions on the level driveway court, but he sometimes watched “Star Trek” reruns while brother David practiced. Although Dan and his father helped each other in drills or practiced trick shots, Dolph never challenged either of his sons to one-on-one games. 

Dan learned some Hebrew at religious school. On the High Holidays, the Schayes children stayed home from school. They celebrated Hanukkah and Passover. Dan participated in activities at the Jewish Community Center and through Aleph Zadik Aleph, a Jewish fraternal group. 

At Jamesville-DeWitt High School, Dan considered himself “a band kid who played sports.” He was proficient with both the tuba and the trombone. 

A secure childhood contributed to Dan’s strong self-confidence. When someone said, “All the players in the NBA are black, and all the agents are Jewish,” Dan laughed. Not that Dan lacked pride in his Jewish background or was oblivious to antisemitism. He visited Yad Vashem, read voraciously about the Holocaust and knew the collective history of the Jews. 
In 1977 and 1981, Dan represented the United States in the Maccabiah Games. Both times, the United States won the gold medal in basketball competition. Dan’s first Maccabiah was particularly memorable. Not only was his father the head coach of the American team, but it was Dan’s first trip to Israel. 

At Syracuse University, Dan thought of himself as “a chemist who played basketball.” A generation before, a young and reticent Dolph lived with his parents while attending NYU; Dolph’s outgoing son chose to live on campus in a dormitory. Most of Dan’s friends were dormitory or fraternity mates rather than athletes. Dan was a “Sammy,” pledging Sigma Alpha Mu, a Jewish-oriented fraternity. 

During his first three years at Syracuse under Coach Jim Boeheim, Dan generally sat on the bench, averaging only 4.7, 6.2 and 5.9 points per game. The Orangemen already had an outstanding center, Roosevelt Bouie. Senior year, Dan blossomed into a star. Averaging 14.6 points per game, playing excellent defense and rebounding well, Dan was named first team All-Big East Conference. The NBA reassessed the potential of the 7’0”, 258-pound Schayes. 
For a generation, the iconic Dolph Schayes, never traded and never released, personified the Syracuse Nationals. By contrast, the peripatetic Dan was on the roster of seven different teams – Utah, Denver, Milwaukee, Los Angeles (Lakers), Phoenix, Miami and Orlando – during his 18½ (1981-99) year NBA diaspora. 

Whereas Dolph was one of the game’s superstars, Dan, throughout most of his pro career, served as a backup center. Dan’ s best per game statistics for points (13.9) and rebounds (8.2) came as a starter for the 1987-88 Denver Nuggets. 

Dan’s career per game average for points (7.7) and rebounds (5.0) pale before those of his Hall of Fame father. Modest statistics, however, obscured his value. Dan was superb on defense and ratcheted up the performance of teammates. He played a nearly mistake-free, team game. Dan confided to me, “I’m not a statistics-generating player. But when I’m on the court, the team plays better.” Dan was a hard-working and dependable journeyman. Yet very few players, not even the durable Dolph, exceeded the longevity of Dan’s playing career. And, given the altered financial structure of pro basketball, Dan’s compensation greatly exceeded the modest remuneration Dolph received.

Like his late father, Dan Schayes identifies strongly with Judaism despite a lack of participation in many traditional observances. During his professional career, he did not play on Yom Kippur. As an NBA player, Dan related, “Jewish fans tell me it’s good to have a Jew in the NBA… and I speak before Center groups. Judaism is more than a religion; it’s… a way of life, an existence. I love being an American with the addition of Judaism and Israel.” 

An ESPN sportscaster after retiring from active play, Dan returned to Israel in 2013. Following in his father’s footsteps, he coached the U.S. team to a gold medal in the Maccabiah Games. 

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.