Friday, December 11, 2015

Dolph Schayes, 1928-2015

When someone says, "This guy was a New York basketball legend," they usually mean that he played for the Knicks. They don't mean he played for the Nets: The Long Island and New Jersey editions don't get counted (not even Julius Erving), and the Brooklyn edition hasn't produced any legends yet. They could mean he played for St. John's. They could also mean he was a local high school star or a "playground legend."

But the days when New York colleges other than St. John's produced basketball legends are long gone, a victim of the early 1950s point-shaving scandals that relegated New York University (NYU), City College of New York (CCNY) and downtown Brooklyn-based Long Island University (LIU) to 2nd-class status, thus helping to pave the way for the success of the nascent NBA.

And one of the last of the players who made those schools matter has left us.

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Adolph Schayes (no middle name) was born on May 19, 1928 in The Bronx. A son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in the University Heights section of The Bronx, on Davidson Avenue off 183rd Street, and attended the prestigious DeWitt Clinton High School.

Too young to have served in World War II, he attended NYU and played basketball there, when playing there really meant something. He was a classic gym rat: NYU's coach, Howard Cann, said, "He was in the gym practicing, every spare minute. We had to chase him out."

The hard work paid off: In 1945, NYU reached the NCAA Final, losing to Oklahoma A&M, coached by Hank Iba and led by Bob "Foothills" Kurland, the 1st 7-footer to be more than just a roadblock. (The school won the title again the next year, and became Oklahoma State in 1958.)

In 1948, the 2 leagues that would merge a year later to form the NBA battled over his services. His hometown New York Knicks of the Basketball Association of America drafted him, and so did the Tri-Cities Blackhawks of the National Basketball League. (They played their games in Moline, Illinois, representing the region that usually gets called the Quad Cities today, also including Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa.) The Blackhawks traded his rights to the Syracuse Nationals, who offered him $7,500, twice what the Knicks did, and so Dolph left home.

In his rookie season, he broke his right arm. He played anyway, with a cast, and learned to shoot with his left hand, making him an even deadlier shooter, right up there with Bill Sharman of the Boston Celtics as the best shooter of the 1950s. He led the league in rebounding in 1951, making the 1st of what turned out to be 12 NBA All-Star Teams.

In 1954, the Nationals (like today's Washington Nationals baseball team, known as the Nats for short) reached the NBA Finals, losing to the Minneapolis Lakers of George Mikan. Then the 24-second shot clock was established -- an innovation thought up by the Nats' owner, Danny Biasone. The Lakers could not adapt. The Nats did, and defeated the Fort Wayne Pistons to win the 1955 NBA Championship.

Hail the Champions, as you will almost certainly -- with the possible exception of the Green Bay Packers -- never again see a North American major sports league champion from a metropolitan area so small: Number 3, guard George King; Number 4, forward Dolph Schayes; Number 5, guard Paul Seymour; Number 6, center Connie Simmons; Number 7, guard Billy Gabor; Number 8, forward Wally Osterkorn; Number 10, center Johnny "Red" Kerr; Number 11, forward Earl Loyd; Number 12, guard Dick Farley; Number 14, forward Jim Tucker; Number 15, guard Bill Kenville; Number 16, center Ephraim "Red" Rocha; and head coach Al Cervi.

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In 1957, Schayes hit 18 consecutive free throws in a game, then a record. In that year that began the space race, his high arcing shots earned him the nickname "Sputnik."

From February 17, 1952 to December 26, 1961, he played in 706 consecutive games, also then a record. (That one would be broken by his Nats teammate, Red Kerr.) He was, for a time, the NBA's all-time leading scorer, becoming the 1st player to finish with at least 15,000 career points.

As the NBA grew, its smaller cities, as happened to the NFL by the time the 1920s ended, fell by the wayside. Tri-Cities Blackhawks moved to Milwaukee in 1951, becoming the Hawks; then to St. Louis in 1955, then to Atlanta in 1968. The Fort Wayne Pistons moved to Detroit in 1957. The same year, the Rochester Royals moved to Cincinnati, later to Kansas City where they became the Kings, and then to Sacramento. And in 1963, the other Western New York team, the Syracuse Nationals, moved to take the place of the Philadelphia Warriors, who had moved to San Francisco. The Nats became the Philadelphia 76ers.

Their 1st coach in Philly was Dolph Schayes, who retired as a player at the end of that 1st season, 1963-64. He was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1966, but stepped aside when he was offered the job of the NBA's supervisor of referees. Can you imagine that happening today, in any sport: A former player being named supervisor of game officials? There's a laugh.

In 1970, Schayes returned to Western New York, as the 1st coach of the expansion Buffalo Braves. But he left at the start of the next season. The team is now known as the Los Angeles Clippers.

His home still in Syracuse, he became a real estate developer there. He was also heavily involved in the Maccabiah Games, effectively the Jewish Olympics, held in Israel. In 1977, he coached the U.S. team to the gold medal there.

That team included his son Danny Schayes, who played at Syracuse University, and for 18 years in the NBA, his best years for the Denver Nuggets of the 1980s. Danny's wife is Wendy Lucero, a former Olympic diver. He now runs an investment firm in Phoenix.

He and his wife Naomi had another son, David; daughters Carrie Goettsch and Debra Ferri; and 9 grandchildren.

Carrie's daughters, Abi, Carla and Rachel Goettsch, won silver medals with the U.S. volleyball team at the 2001 Maccabiah Games. And Debra's son, Mickey Ferri, was part of the gold medal-winning 4 by 100 meter relay team at the 2005 Maccabiah Games.

In 1971, Dolph was named to the NBA's 25th Anniversary team. In 1972, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1979, he was elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In 1996, he was named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players, and attended the unveiling of the 50 at the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland. He was the only Nationals player selected, although others from the franchise's Philadelphia days were chosen.
Dolph Schayes died of cancer in Syracuse yesterday. He was 87 years old, and one of the grand old men of American sports.

With Schayes' death, Billy Gabor, 93 years old; Jim Tucker, who turns 83 today; and Bill Kenville, who just turned 85, are still alive from the 1955 NBA Champion Syracuse Nationals, 60 years later.

Oddly, especially considering how the NBA tends to treat its venues as disposable, the Nats' arena still stands. Opened in 1951 as the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena, it is now known as the Oncenter, and is home to a minor-league hockey team, the Syracuse Crunch.

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