NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Archive 75: Dolph Schayes

There are knowns and unknowns with the career of Dolph Schayes. He has been celebrated for his consecutive games streak, for leading the 1955 Syracuse Nationals to the title, and for accumulating a dozen All-Star Game appearances and just as many All-NBA selections. Those things we know and easily understand.

There are details, however, while still part of the fabric of the rich Schayes tapestry, that have become frail with time, in some instances lost completely. They also tell his story. The games played while sporting a heavy cast to protect a broken wrist. The player that scored the first points in All-Star Game history. And leading his Nationals on a ground-breaking trip overseas while representing their country.

Dolph Schayes is front and center to each of those tales, and his video vault is here to escort us through his fascinating career as one of the league’s first great forwards.

Schayes stood an imposing 6-foot-8, and his game was built around two primary motives. First was his ability to drive to the basket and finish with either hand. Second, he was deadly from the outside with a looping two-handed set-shot. Those elements worked in perfect harmony. Schayes was a disciple of the New York City game as played at the time, one of movement, pass-and-cut, make a play or get it to someone who would. And with the basket completed, Schayes was likely to do something not often seen at the time: Pump his fist in celebration.

Here’s where this gets cool. With limited film, not all the pieces to the Schayes puzzle are readily available. So why not get a fuller picture through a definitive scouting report from the man himself? Here’s Schayes — unique for his size, an oddity in his era — on his playing style, in his own words.

Schayes roamed in an era where the league’s players were judged in part by their pain threshold. He was once in possession of the record for consecutive games played, 706, before suffering a broken cheekbone late in 1961. What made that feat exceptional was that it was achieved in a time of arduous travel between games, modest medical care for players, and where you played hurt because the expectation was that your teammates did the same.

Archive 75 Dolph Schayes

Schayes will forever be the league’s original iron man, and that reputation was earned by refusing to allow even the most serious of injuries of denying him from taking his place on the floor. A fractured right wrist suffered in February 1952 originally left team doctors estimating he would miss four weeks. Schayes sought a second opinion — his own. He missed five days. His shooting arm, encased in a plaster cast extending to his elbow, simply meant he would shoot more with his already-adept left hand. When Schayes once again broke his wrist — his left — two years later on the eve of the 1954 Finals, he applied another cast and went back to work.

What exactly does it feel like to play an NBA game with a cast on your shooting arm? With a little help from clips we found in the archives, Schayes tells us.

Schayes was selected an All-Star 12 times in his career. He started in the very first, in 1951, alongside names such as Joe Fulks and Bob Davies, stars of the 1940s. In his last, 1962, Schayes competed with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, players whose reach would extend into the 1970s.

Schayes’ claim to fame in All-Star play: He scored the very first points in history. And yes, we have footage. Taking a look back at the very first All-Star Game, played in Boston.

The undisputed crown jewel on the Schayes legacy is the 1955 championship, which his Nationals claimed over the Fort Wayne Pistons in seven closely fought games. The series, tucked neatly in the pocket of history between dynasties in Minneapolis and then Boston, avenged Finals losses by the Nats in both 1950 and 1954. Schayes was the leading scorer and rebounder in the series, helping deliver Syracuse a major league professional sports title.

Schayes scored 24 points in Game 2 as the Nats went ahead 2-0. Here’s a detailed highlight package from that game, which outlines just how evenly matched those two teams were.

And one cannot examine the Nats-Pistons series of 1955 without acknowledging the climactic finish to an epic decider. Yes, the fate of a Game 7 of an NBA Finals once came down to the very final possession.

What exactly does the game’s long, winding path to eventual globalization have to do with the Syracuse Nationals? In the spring of 1956, at the request of the United States Department of State, they were among the first American professional sports teams to travel overseas. Jaunting to faraway lands such as Europe and the Middle East, the objectives were clear: Teach the game, exhibit sportsmanship, and spread goodwill.

Dolph Schayes and the Syracuse Nationals

For Schayes, as you’re about to see, the trip was also an opportunity to have fun. Flick on the projector, turn out the lights, and take an overseas trip with the Syracuse Nationals.

On the surface, the odds may appear against Schayes surviving the onslaught of time. Firsthand memories are becoming more elusive. The record books don’t fully capture him. And the accomplishments came in an era far too distant, far too different. But make no mistake: Schayes’ place in the history of the game is not open to refutation. Iron man, offensive anomaly, and champion. A sight unseen to a new generation of fans no longer.

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