I had the pleasure of speaking at the Beth Israel Center on Sunday evening. I think it’s safe to say a good time was had by all, and, I must say, the carrot cake was delicious.
Obviously, that’s not the central theme for this week’s column. This isn’t the Chosen Baked Goods, after all. The topic of the talk, it had been decided, would be on Jews in basketball. If this had been a discussion of today’s NBA and Jews, it would have been a very short lecture, though as it was pointed out by one of the members of the audience, there are a pair of Jews currently playing — Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings and Jordan Farmar of the Los Angeles Clippers.
No, the focus was largely on a bygone era, a time when Jews dominated the basketball scene. We were able to discuss all the stars from that generation. The biggest one, especially when talking about the start of truly organized professional basketball in this country, was Dolph Schayes. The biggest conclusion I made after doing research about him is: Why don’t we talk about this guy more?
Sure, he’s considered the greatest Jew to play in the NBA. Beyond that, though, this guy needs more press. One ranking of all-time Jewish athletes had him No. 9. Granted, this wasn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s indicative of perhaps just how little people knew about Schayes. Allow me to illuminate.
Generally considered to be the first modern forward, Schayes went from being a star at New York University to the Syracuse Nationals in the nascent National Basketball League in 1949. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year that season, a time when two leagues — the NBA and the Basketball Association of America — merged to form a stronger National Basketball Association. In his second season, he led the league in rebounding.
He spent his entire career with the Nationals organization, including his final season when they moved and became the Philadelphia 76ers. His accomplishments go on almost in perpetuity. He was an All-Star for 12 years in a row. He was named to the All-NBA first or second team a dozen times as well. While he never won a scoring title in any given season, when his 16-year professional career came to an end, he was the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (he’s in the 50s now).
There are two things, I think, that make a player great, in any sport. One is a desire to get better, to always be looking to improve one’s game. The other is making others around you better, which in turn allows the team to succeed. That’s not to say there haven’t been great players who never played a postseason game, but rather that it’s a good sign if a player does lead his or her team to the playoffs.
Schayes was a tireless worker, who twice led the league in minutes played and finished in the top 10 three other times. He was first or second in games played for nine seasons, very rarely missing a day of work. When he retired, not only did he lead all NBA players in points, he also topped the games played list.
To improve his game, he developed a novel approach to practicing free throw shooting. He would practice on a 14-inch diameter hoop, which he would fit inside the standard 18-inch hoop they used during the season. That helped him lead the league in free throw percentage three times and he twice shot over 90 percent from the line.
Schayes played for just one NBA champion, in 1955, but it wasn’t from a lack of effort. Over 16 years, the forward led the Nationals to the postseason 15 times. He averaged 19 points and 12.8 rebounds per game during that title run and according to basketball-reference.com, had a double-double average during the playoffs (19.5 points and 12.2 rebounds) throughout his career. Not a real surprise when you notice that his regular season totals of 18.5 and 12.1 are in the same neighborhood. He even won a Coach of the Year Award after he retired for good measure.
All of this landed Schayes, rightfully, in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1973. In 1996, the NBA named him to its 50 Greatest Players list as part of the league’s 50-year anniversary. Clearly, he’s gotten his due from the basketball fraternity.
Now, it’s time for the Jewish community to do the same, and being in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame isn’t enough. If it’s up to people like me to write about him more, so be it. But the next time you’re having one of those “best Jewish athletes” debates — and who doesn’t have those — be sure to move Dolph Schayes up a few notches.
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)