Exclusive interview with Dolph Schayes - 8/24/2011
With one of the most storied careers of any Sixer, Dolph Schayes spent all of his playing days with the franchise. Though he received a competing offer from the New York Knicks, Schayes signed instead with Syracuse Nationals in 1948, where he was named the Rookie of the Year and later led his team to the 1957 NBA championship. He saw the Nats through their move to Philadelphia in 1963, serving as player-coach for that season and staying on as coach after he retired from playing in 1964. Despite being named NBA Coach of the Year in 1966, Schayes was let go by the Sixers before their 1966-67 championship run. He was the lead supervisor of NBA referees from 1966-70 and was named head coach of the Buffalo Braves for their inaugural season in 1970 but resigned early in their second season. Schayes was named to six All-NBA First Teams and six All-NBA Second Teams and was a 12-time All-Star. He was named to the NBA's 25th Anniversary Team in 1970, elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1972, and was selected by his peers as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History as part of the NBA's 50th anniversary celebration in 1996.
Sixers.com: What kind of business have you been involved with since your playing days ended?
DS: When I got out of basketball, I went into real estate. I own some apartments in Syracuse and that keeps me busy managing them. I own a lot of toilets [laughs].
S.C: How did you end up playing for the Syracuse Nationals?
DS: I graduated from New York University in 1948. At that time, there were two leagues: the Basketball Association of America, made up of big cities like New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, St. Louis and Chicago and the National Basketball League made up of small cities in the Midwest and Syracuse was the eastern-most team. Both leagues drafted me. One team was the New York Knicks of the BAA and the other was Syracuse of the National Basketball League. Syracuse offered me $7,500, which of course is a far cry from what they get today, and the Knicks offered me $5,000. I decided to go with the money since I figured pro basketball was a gamble. Lo and behold, pro basketball became very popular.
S.C: Being a player in the first year of the NBA, did you ever imagine the league would become as popular as it has over the years?
DS: Nobody could ever imagine that level of popularity. Pro basketball wasn’t marketed as much then as other pro sports of that era. Major League Baseball was big time and professional football was starting out. Those years were the Neanderthal age of professional basketball. I think it really developed into the finest of all the professional leagues.
There were some tax rules that favored professional sports. That’s one of the things that attracted men with means. When they got into it, they realized it was a gold mine. Not only were there tax deductions and appreciations but it was fun and we were providing a wonderful outlet for a sports crazy U.S.
S.C: One season, you broke your shooting wrist and continuing to play with a cast. You credit that with turning you into a better player, so was that a blessing in disguise for you?
DS: It may be corny but that was a good break for me! I broke my right wrist but I was able to catch the ball and stabilize it so I was able to develop a left hand. My bread and butter was outside shooting and driving to the basket. Once my right wrist healed, I found myself being ambidextrous. I was able to drive to the right and if they overplayed me, I drove left… so I drove them crazy because they didn’t know how to play me. That was a tremendous advantage.
In talking to kids, I don’t say ‘now look kid, this is what I want you to do… break your wrist’ but I tell them that it’s important to become ambidextrous because it really makes you a much more effective offensive player.
S.C: How proud are you of your consecutive games played streak (706)?
DS: I am very proud of it. I have good genes. I love the game. In the early ‘60’s, I bumped heads with Al Attles and I guess his head was harder than mine and I broke a cheek bone. I was unable to play and that stopped my streak. Johnny Kerr, who I played with, broke my streak, Randy Smith broke his record and AC Green holds it now. I think basketball players are the best athletes of any sport. Soccer players have to run all game long with very few substitutions. Hockey players are great too but they’re on skates. The Romans had gladiators… now that was a tough sport! Half the time they got killed!
S.C: You were one of the top free throw shooters of your era. Can you talk about the technique you employed to get better?
DS: I was a good foul shooter… about 80%. I noticed the rim was 18 inches in diameter and the basketball was 10. So I made a rim 14 inches in diameter and I attached it to the regular rim. That made me shoot higher because of the physics. I practiced a great deal. Practicing wasn’t easy because you get a lot of rebounds when you’re shooting at a contraption that I made but I gave a kid a few bucks to keep throwing the ball back. I practiced with Wilt [Chamberlain] a lot when I was coaching the Sixers. I challenged him. I said we’ll shoot 25 foul shots, but if they touched the rim, they didn’t count. I would get like 20 out of 25 regularly. That would piss him off. He’d make them, but he’d touch the rim. If a kid wants to really work at it, they can do that and improve their game. My percentage went from 80% to 90%. There was a player named Bill Sharman, who was also a great foul shooter, and we would battle it out every year. He had a little advantage I think, because I shot about twice as many foul shots as he did.
S.C: Why were field goal percentages so low in your era?
DS: That’s an interesting point. I think a lot of the greater percentages today come from big men who are around the hoop. The jumpshot was an improvement over the two-hand shot or the one-hand runner. I have no reason except the players today practice shooting more. I can’t figure it out. I could say the defense was better at that time. I think they’re taking better shots today so that’s why I think the percentages today are better than they were in the old days.
S.C: What was the first year like when the Nationals moved to Philly and became the Sixers? Were the fans supportive even though the team initially struggled some?
DS: We played a good brand of basketball. We didn’t have a superstar in those days and Philadelphia always had a superstar with Joe Fulks, Paul Arizin and Neal Johnston. Also, Eddie Gottlieb [Owner/Coach of the Philadelphia Warriors] would put a lot of local guys on the team. One thing that hurt our popularity early on was that the owner of the newspaper got a little annoyed at the management of the Sixers. We did not get write-ups in a couple of the papers. They finally worked it out. We weren’t a good team. Our first year, we were 34-46 and then we were .500. Then we got Wilt and the attendance went through the roof because we started winning. The Sixers started out slow but they finally developed.
S.C: What did you think of the Sixers play last season?
DS: I love the way they play. They’ve got a great coach… Doug Collins is fabulous. They work hard. All of those guys give everything they have every game. Doug really knows how to get the most of them. They have some excellent ballplayers. I think the Sixers are on their way up.
S.C: Was it bittersweet for you to see the Sixers win the title the season after you were let go as coach?
DS: They were my team. Even today, the Sixers are still my team; they’re the only team I root for. It was kind of bittersweet. It was nice to see Wilt, [Billy] Cunningham, Luke Jackson, Hal Greer and Larry Costello finally win one. Wilt won it for the team because he decided he could score 35 points with ease but they never won with him scoring. The Sixers had plenty of scoring. They didn’t need Wilt’s scoring so he decided to pass and rebound and that made them one of the greatest teams in the history of the NBA.
S.C: Is Wilt the greatest player of all-time?
DS: I think so. He wasn’t a great outside shooter but why would you put a 7-foot guy outside shooting the ball? He took advantage of his size and his strength. He averaged 50 points a game but he proved he could rebound and be a team player. It’s a terrible shame that Wilt left this earth too early because I think he’s very misunderstood as a person. [Bill] Russell got all of the accolades because he’s Mr. Right and Wilt was Mr. Wrong but that’s not the case. They were both wonderful guys. Wilt was as great a player that’s ever played this game and a very good person as well.
S.C: How important was the implementation of the 24-second clock?
DS: At first everyone thought 24 seconds would be one or two passes and that’s it but you can pass the ball six or seven times. It had to happen. The game stunk. Teams would get a lead and sit on the ball, then you’d have to foul them and they’d foul you back. The 24-second clock is the greatest rule in the history of the game. The person who got the credit for it, Dan Biasone the owner of the Syracuse Nationals, should be considered a saint. The game would have never had the Magics, the Birds and the Jordans without the clock. They should put a statue of Danny Biasone someplace! It also helped on the defensive end too because of the pressure you could put on as the clock was running down.
S.C: What can you tell us about a young man named Harvey Pollack who worked for the Sixers when you played and coached there and who still works for the team today?
DS: Harvey is Mr. Statistic. If you want a statistic, Harvey will get it for you, no matter how remote or miniscule it is. Harvey really helped me. When I was coach of the Sixers in the ‘60’s, there were no assistants. Today, you go to a game and it seems like there’s an assistant for every player but I didn’t have any! Harvey was like an assistant coach who never got paid.