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The Greatest

Basketball legend Dolph Schayes discusses the game’s past and present

Marc Tracy
December 01, 2010
Dolph Schayes in 1945, on the New York University basketball team, except for top left, 1955, on the Syracuse Nationals.(Library of Congress.)
Dolph Schayes in 1945, on the New York University basketball team, except for top left, 1955, on the Syracuse Nationals.(Library of Congress.)

Dolph Schayes is the greatest Jewish basketball player who ever lived and the only Jew on the National Basketball Association’s list of its top 50 players of all time. A 6’8” power forward from the Bronx with an inside game plus long-distance accuracy, he began his professional career in 1948 for the Syracuse Nationals and retired in 1964 with the same squad, which had since moved to Philadelphia and become the 76ers. Schayes made 12 All-Star teams, won the 1955 championship with the Nats, and during one period played 706 consecutive games. He also played nearly a whole season with a cast on his right wrist. Several years, he led the league in free-throw percentage; one year, he led it in rebounds. When he retired, he had scored the most points in NBA history. He was later an exceptional coach as well as the father of NBA center Danny Schayes.

I reached Dolph Schayes on a Wednesday morning last month at his office near Syracuse, New York, where he is a successful real estate developer. “To put it simply,” he said, “I own a lot of toilets.”

Why do you think so many Jews took to basketball?

I grew up in New York City, which was populated by many Jews. That was the game of choice. I was just part of the group that was playing. When I got into professional basketball, there were more Jews playing then. But it was a very small number. The first New York Knick team, almost the entire starting five were Jewish—there were four Jewish players.

One of the great players was Max Zaslofsky. A player who I played with in college was Sid Tannenbaum—he would’ve been a great pro except that in the late ’40s he chose a life outside of basketball, in business. Another excellent player was a guy named Barry Kramer who played at NYU—a fantastic college player, but he got hurt. He was the first-round draft choice of Golden State, or San Francisco at that time, and he hurt his ankle and never played again. He played like Rick Barry, with a very strong shooting game.

We’ve still got Omri Casspi, the Israeli who plays for the Sacramento Kings, and Jordan Farmar, of the New Jersey Nets.

I’ve watched Casspi. He fits the European type of a 6’8” player who plays outside, very agile, plays the complete game. I’ve watched Farmar, now I can watch him more. He seems to be finding a niche—a good player. They’re not winning many games, but it looks like he’s going to help them quite a bit.

You began playing pro basketball when there was no shot clock, the tempo was slow, and two-handed set shots were the norm. You retired when the dominant players were Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson, and the game was much more similar to what it is today. How did you make that adjustment?

The changes were all due to the 24-second clock. That quickened the pace, and allowed for more shots, and really saved the game. I guess I just adjusted. I kept in shape. In Syracuse, we played more freelance basketball. There weren’t a lot of Xs and Os. We just took advantage of what was given to us. So we quickly adjusted to the new style.

You played almost an entire season with a cast on your right arm. How?

It was a lightweight cast. The wrist was broken: It was an incomplete fracture of a small wrist bone, rendered immobile by the cast. I had the use of the fingers, so I was able to catch the ball. Even my outside shot, which at that time was a two-hand shot—I was able to use the cast because my fingers were free.

Good players should never put their palms on the ball anyway, you just don’t have the touch. Under today’s rules, you cannot play with any cast at all. I was watching a game last night where someone had a disjointed finger, but they just popped it back into place.

How do you feel the game has changed from when you played?

The game today is really played above the basket, when basically we played below the basket. Today’s players are incredibly athletic, much more than we were—they jump higher, they’re much quicker, and they’re much stronger. There’s a great use of strength. They do a lot of work in the weight rooms. You’ll rarely see a player like a Jerry West today, who was very thin.

Who are your favorite current players to watch?

Dirk Nowitzki [of the Dallas Mavericks] I enjoy watching, because he’s almost seven feet, and he plays pure game, he’s not just an inside game—a lot of European players are like that. Some aren’t as effective, they just fall in love with the three-point shot, and if you’re close to seven feet tall, you should be around the basket a lot. But a lot of foreign players are very mobile, very tall, and play the outside game, not just inside. Pau Gasol [of the Los Angeles Lakers] is another player I enjoy watching. Very agile, he can play inside and outside.

Which team do you root for?

I root for the 76ers, but they’re having a tough time. And it’s a great city. Philadelphia fans are amazingly loyal and they’ll come out and really root for their teams, but they’re having a tough time keeping great players. Now they have a regime in place, hopefully they’ll be able to do better. But they’re not doing well at all.

Now it’s time for you to select your all-time Jewish-American starting five. Let’s start with point guard. Your choices are Larry Brown, Jordan Farmar, and Barney Sedran.

I never saw Barney Sedran play, so I wouldn’t pick him. Why wouldn’t you put Red Holzman in? He was a great player.

He is one of our coaches instead.

Ah, OK. I’d have to go with Larry Brown.

OK. Next, shooting guard: Ernie Grunfeld, Inky Lautman, or Max Zaslofsky?

I think Grunfeld should be a small forward! [Note: We looked into this. There is an argument both ways.] I would have to go with Ernie Grunfeld. Zaslofsky was excellent, too.

Next: Small Forward. Jack Molinas, Art Heyman, or Lenny Rosenbluth?

Frankly, Grunfeld is better than all three. Lenny Rosenbluth didn’t have enough of a career. And of course had Molinas had a longer career and kept his nose clean, I think he would have been a great choice. In that group, I’d certainly have to go with the kid who got in trouble—Molinas. The real pick would’ve been Grunfeld.

Now, a position you should be familiar with: Power forward. Your choices are Rudy LaRusso, Amar’e Stoudemire—work with us—and, of course, Dolph Schayes.

[Laughs about Stoudemire]

You should pick yourself.

OK, that’s what I’ll do.

Center: Neal Walk, Dave Newmark, or Harry Boykoff?

Neal Walk would’ve been great, had he not gotten hurt. His career just died. Boykoff had a very little career. I would have to go with Neal Walk based on his college career.

And, finally, coaches: Nat Holman, Red Auerbach, or Red Holzman?

We could make it a three-way tie. But frankly, as a tribute to the old-timers, I would have to go with Nat Holman.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.