Dolph Schayes was one of professional basketball’s early superstars, a crack shooter and top rebounder whose career stretched from the NBA’s inaugural year to basketball’s emergence as a major sporting attraction. Although Schayes represented a bridge between the old game and the new one — he was canning two-handed set shots long after the jumper had come into vogue — more than anything, he was known as the star of the Syracuse Nationals.
He was practically the only scoring leader Syracuse ever had — the top scorer in 13 of the club’s 17 years of existence. Schayes never played for another organization, logging 15 seasons with Syracuse, following the team as it became the Philadelphia 76ers, and then becoming its coach. A member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, his legacy lasted long after his retirement with his son, Danny, having an extensive NBA career.
Born in 1928, Dolph Schayes found himself in the basketball limelight early on. A native of New York City, at age 16 he was on the floor with New York University against Notre Dame in a sellout at Madison Square Garden. Upon Schayes’s graduation from NYU in 1948, the services of the All-American were eagerly sought by teams in two leagues — the New York Knickerbockers of the Basketball Association of America and the Syracuse Nationals of the National Basketball League. Syracuse had obtained Schayes’s rights from the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, who had selected him in the 1948 NBL Draft.
The BAA and the NBL were rival leagues, fishing in the same pool for talent. When the “Nats,” as they were known, offered 50 percent more money than the Knicks, Schayes boarded the upstate train. He was an immediate hit in Syracuse.
The Nats, who debuted in the 1946-47 season, had managed a 24-36 record in their second year. Schayes came to the team for the 1948-49 season along with Al “Digger” Cervi, a competitive guard who had been a leader of the Rochester Royals before tangling with the team’s owner.
Cervi, who would play alongside Schayes and then serve as his coach for a number of years, was just the kind of hard-edged teacher Schayes needed. Coming out of school, Schayes lacked some of the toughness required for a professional game in which hacking, body checking, and shoving were requisite skills.
As Schayes later told HOOP Magazine: “The coaching was done by the old pros. They taught a tough game. You had a shooting guard and a defensive guard, a shooting forward and a defensive forward. The defensive guys weren’t dirty, but they were tough. You either learned to be aggressive or you didn’t make it.”
While Schayes had to learn the art of the elbow fling, his talents with the basketball were obvious. He was a different kind of player for the time: at 6-foot-8, he was among the taller players in the league, but he had an outside shot as accurate as most guards. In Schayes’s rookie season, 1948-49, he scored 12.8 points per game, and the Nats improved to 40-23.
The following season brought the NBL-BAA merger and the creation of the NBA. The NBL had been struggling, particularly since the Minneapolis Lakers had jumped from that league to the BAA, taking with them the sport’s marquee player, George Mikan. Rochester, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis all bailed out with Minneapolis. The NBL survived only one more season before the six remaining teams, including Syracuse, merged with the BAA to form the NBA.
In its first season, 1949-50, the NBA had an awkward alignment, with 17 teams in three divisions. Syracuse was placed in the Eastern Division along with New York and Boston, sowing the seeds of the rivalries that would flower far longer between its future legacy of the 76ers, the Knicks, and the Celtics.
The NBA’s first season was Schayes’ second and he began his string of 12 consecutive years as the Nats’ team leader in scoring. In 1949-50 he knocked in 16.8 ppg (1,072 total points), sixth best in the league (in those days the league ranked players by total points scored; Schayes’ average was fifth best).
The Nats, who played mostly former NBL teams during the season, rolled up a 51-13 mark in 1949-50. They beat the Philadelphia Warriors and then the Knicks in the playoffs to advance to the first-ever NBA Finals, against the Minneapolis Lakers. The Lakers won the first game on the Nats’ court, thanks to a 40-foot shot by Bob Harrison at the buzzer, and went on to take the series in six games. Schayes had reached the NBA Finals in just his second year; it would be four more seasons before he would return. Yet in those seasons he would develop into a steady scorer and one of the best all-around players in the league.
In 1950-51, several of the smaller-market teams, including Sheboygan, Anderson and Waterloo, left the NBA. The Nats’ schedule now featured a steady diet of clashes with New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Syracuse finished in fourth place in the Eastern Division with a 32-34 record, defeated Philadelphia in the playoffs but then lost to New York in five games in the Eastern Division Finals.
Schayes increased his scoring average to 17.0 ppg, seventh best in the league. But he was showing he was more than just a shooter. In the first year that the league compiled rebounding numbers, Schayes ranked first in that category with 16.4 boards per game, 2.3 better than Mikan. And he placed ninth in the NBA in assists with 3.8 per contest.
Schayes also played in the NBA’s first All-Star Game on March 2, 1951. As one of the East All-Stars’ starting forwards, he scored 15 points and collected a game-high 14 rebounds. He would go on to be selected to play in a total of 12 such games, and when he retired he ranked among the all-time All-Star Game leaders in free throws made and attempted.
Syracuse was balanced and deliberate in 1951-52, attributes that enabled the team to win the Eastern Division with a 40-26 record. Schayes was again the high scorer on the team with 13.8 ppg and he ranked 17th on the league’s scoring chart (his lowest finish in his 13 years as Syracuse’s top man). He also cleared 12.3 rebounds per game, fifth best in the NBA.
But his Nationals were denied a shot at the title when they fell to New York in four games in the Eastern Division Finals. Schayes was recognized as a member of the league’s elite with his first selection to the All-NBA First Team along with Mikan, Ed Macauley, Bob Cousy, Paul Arizin and Bob Davies, who shared the fifth spot with Schayes. All of these players would eventually reach the Hall of Fame.
Schayes and the Nationals drew closer to an NBA Championship in 1953-54. They finished tied for second place with Boston and only two games behind the first-place Knicks. The league experimented with a round-robin tournament for the first round of the playoffs, and Syracuse won three games to advance to the division finals. There the Nats beat Boston in a two-game sweep to meet Minneapolis in the NBA Finals. But the Lakers won the series in seven to capture their fifth championship in six years and keep Schayes from winning his first.
For the season, Schayes averaged 17.1 ppg and 12.1 rpg. He ranked second in the league with an .827 free-throw percentage, just behind Bill Sharman, the Celtics’ ace guard.
Accurate free-throw shooters were at a premium in those days, because the game had largely deteriorated into an organized shoving match. Drives down the lane were often greeted with a mugging, and good shooters were controlled with hard fouls. The number of fouls was slowing the sport to a virtual standstill.
Syracuse owner Danny Biasone found a way to speed up the game: the 24-second shot clock. His suggestion, along with a new rule adding a bonus free throw after six team fouls per quarter, revitalized the NBA beginning in 1954-55 and shaped the fast-paced game we have come to know.
Schayes adapted well to the new style of play. Though Coach Al Cervi always stressed tough discipline and ball control (the Nats yielded the fewest points in the league at 89.7 ppg), Schayes finished sixth in the league in scoring with 18.5 ppg. He also ranked third in free-throw percentage (.833) and fourth in rebounding (12.3 rpg).
Schayes was joined by guards Paul Seymour and George King and post player Ephraim “Red” Rocha. The Nationals won the Eastern Division and advanced to the 1955 NBA Finals against the Fort Wayne Pistons, the winner in the Western Division the year after Mikan’s retirement. The series was a classic — a seven-game battle with four contests decided by four or fewer points and no games with a margin of victory larger than seven points.
The exciting series came at a time when the NBA was still seeking attention. Fort Wayne’s “home” games were played in Indianapolis because of a scheduling conflict. “Their building had contracted for the circus or some ice show,” Schayes told HOOP, “which proves where basketball rated in those days.” The matchup helped generate interest in the game. Schayes hit for 28 points in Game 6, a 109-104 Syracuse win.
In Game 7, the Nats trailed by 16 points at halftime but, thanks to the shot clock, it had the time to rally in the second half. King sank a free throw and came up with a steal in the closing seconds to give Syracuse a 92-91 win and seal the championship. It would be Schayes’s only title.
Scoring in the league increased throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s with the advent of the shot clock and a succession of offensive stars: Bob Pettit, Clyde Lovellette, Jack Twyman, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Oscar Robertson. Schayes’s name was also a fixture on the list of top scorers.
Schayes scored 20.4 ppg in 1955-56, ranking fifth in the league; 22.5 in 1956-57, third; 24.9 in 1957-58, second only to George Yardley of Detroit; 21.3 in 1958-59, sixth; 22.5 in 1959-60, seventh; and 23.6 in 1960-61, sixth. All told, he turned in six consecutive years averaging more than 21 ppg and never finished lower than seventh among the NBA’s best point producers during that span.
Schayes often ranked among the league leaders in free-throw shooting, and he led the Nationals in rebounding 10 of 11 years, averaging in double figures in each of those 11 seasons. In fact, he averaged a double-double for a decade.
What kept Schayes from becoming a basketball icon during his day was, in part, the dominating presence of the Boston Celtics, who won 7 championships in Schayes’ last 8 seasons from 1957 to 1964. Still, the Nationals remained competitive with Schayes on the team. After winning the championship in 1955, Syracuse reached the Eastern Division Finals in 1956, 1957, 1959 and 1961 — losing to the Celtics in three of those five trips.
By the 1961-62 season, his 14th, Schayes was winding down his career. A broken jaw limited him to 56 games, in which he averaged 14.7 ppg. Hal Greer had taken over as the team’s main gun, with 22.8 ppg In 1962-63, Schayes played 66 games and averaged 9.5 ppg.
For the 1963-64 season, new owners Irv Kosloff and Ike Richman moved the team to Philadelphia, where it became the 76ers. Schayes became player-coach, and he appeared in 24 games and averaged 5.6 points. The team finished 34-46 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. He hung up his sneakers for good after the season.
Schayes retired with 19,249 career points, having played in what was then an NBA-record 1,059 games. He made the All-NBA First Team six times and the All-NBA Second Team six times. In 1972, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and in 1996 he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
After his retirement as a player, Schayes stayed on to coach the Sixers for two more seasons. In 1965-66, he guided the club to a 55-25 record and was named NBA Coach of the Year. It was Chamberlain’s first full season with the team, and the 76ers surpassed the Celtics to win the Eastern Division regular-season title. However, the Celtics whipped Philadelphia in the playoffs and went on to win the championship.
At season’s end, Schayes was replaced as coach by Alex Hannum. The following season Hannum coached the team to a 68-13 record and the NBA Championship.
Schayes had a brief coaching stint with the Buffalo Braves in 1970-71, then served as supervisor of NBA officials. His son, Danny Schayes, starred at Syracuse University and then entered the NBA with Utah in 1981. A 6-11 center with a good outside shot, Danny showed skills reminiscent of his father, a star for all times.
Dolph Schayes died on Dec. 10, 2015. He was 87.