Dolph Schayes, generally considered the greatest Jewish basketball player of all time, passed away Thursday morning at his home in Syracuse, N.Y.
Back then, though, the man who would go on to a become a member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and later be named as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players during the league’s 1996 50th anniversary celebration — in addition to being the greatest Jewish player of all time — was seen as a thorn in Brown’s team’s side.
“Growing up, I was a big Knicks fan and Syracuse was always an unbelievable rival of the Knicks,” the 75-year-old Hall of Fame coach Brown told the Jewish Exponent in an exclusive interview upon learning the 87-year-old Schayes had died of cancer Dec. 10.
“Being a Jewish kid, I realized he was a Jewish player,” Brown remembered. “But he was kind of a villain in ways, because the Knicks and [Syracuse] Nationals used to play each other all the time. There weren’t a lot of teams in the league” — only eight teams during the 1950s — “so I used to go to those doubleheaders at the Garden.” (NBA teams would regularly play doubleheaders in the 1950s and ’60s). “My mom would let me stay for the second game when the Knicks played.
“He was really tough; a great player. I took a lot of pride in the fact he was Jewish.”
Brown turned out to be pretty good himself, both as a player — winning an Olympic gold medal in 1964 — and later, of course as a coach. But he was nowhere near the level of Schayes, a 12-time NBA all-star who finished his 15-year career in 1964 as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, with 18,438 points to go with 11,256 rebounds. Currently, Schayes ranks No. 62 in scoring and No. 27 in rebounds.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a statement acknowledging Schayes’ impact on the game. “Dolph Schayes was one of the most influential figures in NBA history,” said Silver. “He helped the NBA grow from its earliest days, emerging as one of the game’s first stars and displaying the kind of passion for competition and commitment to excellence that has come to define our league. Dolph was an NBA champion, a Hall of Fame player and a distinguished NBA coach and executive, as well as a proud father. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Schayes family during this difficult time.”
To better understand how just how dominant the 6-foot 8-inch Schayes — who grew up in the Bronx, then led NYU to the Final Four in his freshman year — was, Brown compares him to a more recent NBA legend. “He was a poor man’s Larry Bird,” said Brown, now coach at SMU who will come off a nine-game suspension for NCAA violations of academic fraud and unethical conduct Dec. 18. “A big guy who could shoot from the outside and could handle the ball. He could’ve played in any era. We weren’t used to big guys putting the ball on the floor, so he was kind of unique in the way he played. He was tough and he had a great I.Q. They’d probably call him a stretch four right now. I’ll always remember he could score from the post, drive by you or score from the outside — that’s a pretty good combination.”
After leaving NYU, Schayes turned down an offer from the hometown Knicks of what was then the Basketball Association of America to sign with the Syracuse Nationals of the National Basketball League in 1949, before the leagues merged to become the current NBA. He remained with that franchise his entire playing career, including the 1963-64 season when the team relocated in Philadelphia and was renamed the 76ers.
As his career began to wind dow,n Schayes became a player-coach for the 76ers, going 34-46 his first season. Upon retiring as a player, he remained coach through 1966 when the team won 55 games, earning him Coach of the Year. The following season, with Alex Hannum at the helm, the Sixers won the NBA championship.
Other than the 1955 Nats, however, Schayes’ teams never won a championship — a common occurrence for every other NBA team forced to compete with Red Auerbach’s powerful Boston Celtics, who built a dynasty from the 1950s to the mid-’60s.
Schayes returned to coach the expansion Buffalo Braves to a 22-60 record in 1970-71, but was fired one game into the 1971-72 season.
Two years later, he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass. When Brown joined him there some 30 years later, he finally got to spend some time with the man he once idolized. “When I was lucky enough to be in the Hall of Fame, Dolph used to always show up for induction and I got to see him there,” recalled Brown, a member of several Jewish Halls of Fame, including the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame class of 2013. “You could tell he took a lot of pride in all the great things he accomplished.
“I don’t remember talking to him about it, but anybody who grew up with a Jewish background realized who he was. It was really a Jewish sport in a lot of ways before I was born, but as the NBA evolved, there were fewer and fewer Jewish players. But if you were a young Jewish kid like me you’re right away going to be attached to him and be a fan of his even he though he was playing for Syracuse.”
What Schayes also considered among his most prized accomplishments was coaching the 1977 U.S. team —featuring his son, Danny — to the gold medal in the 10th Maccabiah Games. While Dolph Schayes would go on to observe the game from the periphery for the most part after that, enjoying his four children and grandchildren, thanks to Danny, the family name would remain part of the NBA for decades.
“I knew Danny, but didn’t coach him,” said Brown, a close friend of longtime former coach Doug Moe, who coached 6-11 Danny Schayes for eight seasons. “I coached everybody else. But Doug Moe and I were so close, Danny probably played his best ball for Doug.”
Danny Schayes would play for seven teams over 19 seasons in the NBA. His father, meanwhile, remained in Syracuse, where he stayed active in the local Jewish community, contributing to Reform Temple Concord, which named a room in his honor.
It is called The Schayes Lounge.
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