RIP Dolph Schayes – an interview with the big man

Dolph Schayes died yesterday at age 87. He was one of the great early NBA players and a bridge to the modern game. He was also bright, reflective and analytical – all of which is apparent in this 2002 interview I did for Slam. RIP Dolph, and condolences to Danny and the Schayes family.

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Dolph Schayes is the greatest Jewish basketball player of all time. Stop snickering and learn something; my tribe was a dominant basketball force in the first half of the twentieth century. Though the golden era of Jewish hoops came before the NBA’s 1946 formation, we were well-represented in the league’s early years. Still, Schayes stood out because he was a true star, one of the best players of the league’s first decade as demonstrated by his selection to the NBA’s 25th and 50th Anniversary Teams.

A 6-8, 220-pound forward, Schayes played in 12 straight All Star games and was an annual mainstay among the league leaders in points and rebounds, averaging 18.5 ppg and 12.1 rpg in 16 seasons. He also led the Syracuse Nationals to three Finals and the ‘55 title. An iron man whose durability was as remarkable as his skills, Schayes played in 764 straight games over 10 years.

“He once broke the wrist of his shooting hand and had the doctor leave his fingers out of the cast and never missed a game,” recalls Bill Russell. “He was completely tenacious and he worked as hard as anyone ever could have.”

Schayes’ opponents were forced to work equally hard or risk being embarrassed because he never quit moving on the court, driving defenders to distraction and exhaustion, a style he sums up simply: “Basketball is a game of movement, so move!”

Schayes had a high arcing set shot with deep range and possessed an agility and grace rare for big men of the era, driving to the basket and feasting at the free throw line. He retired in 1964 as the NBA’s All-time leading scorer (19,247 points) and coached the 76ers for three years before becoming the NBA director of officiating for three seasons. His son Danny played 18 seasons in the league. Now 74 years old, Dolph Schayes is a businessman in Syracuse.

SLAM: In 1951, a point-shaving scandal rocked New York college basketball and helped the NBA get its footing. What do you recall about that?

SCHAYES: It was shocking. I knew a couple of the guys very well and had played a lot of ball with them. They were good kids from good families and I never could understand how they could have stabbed the game they loved in the back. College basketball in New York City never fully recovered.

As for helping the pro game, I think that’s been overstated. The Knicks did not have a sudden surge in attendance, though more people gave them a chance and started paying attention for the first time. New York was the basketball mecca and college was king by a long shot. Once people couldn’t trust the college game, some checked out the pro game, but that was in big trouble, too. We had no clock and a lot of faults. People looked at the slow pace and at big guys like George Mikan and said pro basketball was just for overgrown pituitary cases. Baseball and football were numbers one and two and pro basketball wasn’t even in the same universe.

SLAM: You were on the Syracuse Nationals when the team’s owner Danny Biasone introduced the 24 second clock in 1954. Did you have any idea that it was revolutionizing the game?

SCHAYES: No. To get paid to play a game I love was enough for me, no matter what the rules were. The coaches were the same. Guys like Red Auerbach didn’t worry about the health of the game; they played to win. Before the clock that meant that if you were leading, you held the ball and if you were losing you fouled like crazy. Looking back, it was a nightmare. The games were long, dull and violent and the 24-second clock saved it.

Danny came up with 24 seconds using the following mathematical formula. In the 53-54 season, each team averaged 60 shots a game –120 shots — 48 minutes was 2,880 seconds so divide 120 into 2,880 and you come up with a shot every 24 seconds. That formula wouldn’t make sense today, but almost 50 years later, 24 seconds remains.

SLAM: Why was basketball such a popular Jewish sport?

SCHAYES: It’s fair to say that Jews dominated basketball and that started in the 30s in all the big cities. I think it was simply because Jews lived in ghettoes and basketball is a great schoolyard game. You don’t need a lot of space or equipment and you can adapt it to how many players you have.

I’ve heard the joke a million times that “Jews in Sports” must be the thinnest book in the world. Actually, I’ve seen a lot of great players working at the Maccabi Games [International Jewish Olympics], but they tend to be Division 2 or 3 guys. And, hey, the Jewish Book of Doctors, Lawyers and Accountants is very thick.

SLAM: You were a big man who played like a guard. How did you develop those skills?

SCHAYES: Playing in the New York City schoolyard, where the game was all movement. I happened to be tall, but I learned the fundamentals well — the give and go, setting picks, passing, fast breaks and everything else that we called “New York style.”

I was a center in college but I was a high post guy, feeding cutters and rebounding. Going to pro ball, I clearly wasn’t big and strong enough to play center against giants like Mikan so I kept evolving. I never had a postup game, which really hurt me eventually. Later in my career, teams would put smaller guys on me to stop my shooting and driving and I wasn’t able to exploit my height advantage. I would just take bigger guys outside and drive or shoot my setshot.

SLAM: Your range went to 30 feet. How many more points would you have averaged with a three-point line?

SCHAYES: Quite a few, but I didn’t score out there as much as people think. My game was slashing to the basket, getting fouled and making three-point plays. But I hit enough deep shots to keep them honest and make them come out.

The real secret to my success was I could shoot with either hand. Ironically, I became ambidextrous as a direct result of breaking my right hand. I kept playing with a cast and had no choice but to rely on my left hand, which changed everything. Every clinic I’ve ever done, I tell the kids, “Go left, young man.” Tie your right hand behind your back, cover it with a newspaper — do anything to immobilize it. Learn to use your weak hand and deny your man his strong hand and you can go far in this game.

SLAM: You were known for your compulsive practice habits and incredible work ethic.

SCHAYES: I always stayed on before and after practice. I just think that if you want to excel at anything, be it basketball, dance or the piano, you need to practice a lot. As for the work ethic, I’m just the kind of guy who takes what he does seriously. I never missed a day of school, I’ve rarely missed work and I played all those straight games; my streak only ended when I broke my cheekbone.

Guys hated to play against me because my stock in trade was constant movement. I was quick but not fast so I would move my defender into picks, from one end of the court to another and wear him out until I had him tired and off-guard. If we were both moving I had the advantage, because I could switch directions when I got the ball and he would be off balance. And I had an excellent running shot and great anticipation. I always knew where the ball was and had a good idea of where it was going, but I never stopped and thought about it; it was all instinctual, which I developed from playing so much. You can’t think about basketball or you ruin your game. It is an instinctive game.

SLAM: Those instincts allowed you to grab so many rebounds without being able to jump very well.

SCHAYES: It was anticipation and one other thing — I disobeyed a basic basketball rule and never boxed out. I figured that if I had the inside position I had enough of an advantage to just go get the ball. And coaches left me alone because I got it. The great thing about basketball is it’s a live ball. If someone’s in your way, push them out of the way, go around them or over them, whatever it takes. And my instincts told me where the ball was going from the angle and depth of the shot. That also gave me an advantage on the break because I could take off a moment before my opponent and that first step was all I needed.

SLAM: Some say Clyde Lovelette was the dirtiest player ever. What do you remember about him?

SCHAYES: He was a heavy, physical player who used his body, but I don’t know if he was the dirtiest, even of our era. There were guys on the Celtics who gave me fits, like Jungle Jim Loscutoff. He would pull down your pants, stick a finger in your eye and an elbow in your gut. But we didn’t necessarily even think of him as dirty. It was a tough game and we developed intense rivalries because there were so few teams. We had tremendous fights with the Celtics all the time and the fans got involved too, especially in Syracuse, where they would run on the courts, throw beers on players and all the rest.

One of the most memorable fights happened when Loscutoff lowballed me and I broke my wrist and smashed my face. One of the Celtics said. “He got what he deserved,” which started a huge brawl. My teammate Paul Seymour smashed this guy and wouldn’t let him go; the police had to get him off by grabbing him by his nostrils and yanking. It’s hard to imagine all this stuff happened, but it did. I sure wish we had some decent film footage of the games. But filming was considered an absurd luxury because there was no money.

SLAM: You were a great foul shooter, a skill you honed through an unorthodox practice routine. Describe it.

SCHAYES: A basketball diameter is 10 inches and a rim is 18 inches so I made a 14-inch rim I put in to practice on. Few people could do that because it was so frustrating that it drove everyone but me nuts. That led to me shooting very high, which basic physics tells you is the best angle – the hole is bigger from above than from the side. And I shot with two hands, which was rare even in my day, because I felt it didn’t make sense to shoot free throws differently from your regular shot, which would limit the benefits of your practice. So my outside shooting became abnormally high as well. They called them rainmakers because they went through the clouds. As a coach, I used to challenge poor free throw shooters to contests shooting 25 shots and said that mine only counted if they swished. I would still win and drive them nuts.

SLAM: You weren’t able to help Wilt Chamberlain when you were his coach. He shot about 51 percent from the line with or without you.

SCHAYES: I sure tried. When he was traded to the Sixers, Wilt told his sister, “I’m finally going to learn how to shoot free throws from Schayes.” I think the biggest problem was the size of his hands –same with Shaq. It’s impossible to have the balls rest properly on the fingertips of such huge hands. But we worked endlessly and Wilt did really well in practice but something psychological went wrong in games. And that had a huge impact, especially at the end of games. For instance, we were on the wrong end of the famous “Havlicek stole the ball” play [in the closing seconds of Game 7 of the ’66 Eastern Finals]. That play came about because I didn’t want to do the obvious and toss the ball to Wilt because they would have fouled him and put him on the line.

By the way, I think he would dominate Shaq. Russell might have trouble with him, but Wilt’s strength would keep Shaq away from the spots from which he kills everyone.

SLAM: Your career spanned generations and you ended up playing against Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson, the guys who really started the next great transformation of the game.

SCHAYES: Two amazing players who were the first guys to really hang in the air. You would jump up with Elgin, come down and look up to see him still up there. And Oscar could do everything — shoot from outside or in, pass, rebound, dribble — and completely dominate a game. They were just amazing talents who had the same sort of tremendously honed basketball instincts we talked about. And again, they came from the ghetto and played a lot of basketball and developed terrific skills to go along with a phenomenal athleticism.

 

 

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