By Matt Robinson/JNS.org
Baseball Hall-of-Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax are household names both in their sport and in the pantheon of Jewish professional athletes. But why has basketball Hall-of-Famer Dolph Schayes not achieved similar name recognition?
Noted sports historian Dolph Grundman, author of the newly published biography “Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball” (Syracuse University Press), blames demographics and technology.
“I think Dolph is not better known because he played in a small city before televised sport became so pervasive,” he says. Only after the “domination of the Boston Celtics in the late ’50s and the ’60s” did the popularity of basketball expand across the nation, says Grundman.
Though he may fly under the radar, Schayes occupies a special place in National Basketball Association (NBA) history. Named to the NBA All-Star team 12 times, he was known for his high-arcing jump shot (named “Sputnik” by opposing players) and lifted the Syracuse Nationals (who later became the Philadelphia 76ers) to the 1954-55 NBA championship while leading the league in minutes per game, rebounds, and points per game. He was also the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 1966 and coached the U.S. team to a gold medal in Israel’s 1977 Maccabiah Games, an event for which Schayes raised attention and money. His NBA career even extended to officiating, as he supervised the league’s referees from 1966-70.
Despite his varied and accomplished basketball resume, Schayes’s story has not been significantly documented—until now. Grundman’s book details the life and career of a son of Romanian Jewish immigrants whom the author would watch on television as a teenager. The NBA star and his fan had one unique thing in common.
“In one sense, he was one of the few people with a national presence who shared my first name,” says Grundman, a professor of history at Metropolitan State University in Denver, noting how unpopular the name “Adolph” was in the 1940s. In fact, Grundman says his own basketball coach at Michigan-based Albion College “morphed” his name to Dolph due to that Holocaust-related stigma.
It was not until he started doing basketball research in the 1980s that Grundman became aware of Schayes again. “It struck me as odd that there was no biography of one of professional basketball’s great players who also happened to be Jewish,” Grundman says.
Though some NBA coaches and owners (such as Eddie Gottlieb, Ben Kerner, Les Harrison, Red Holtzman, and Red Auerbach) were Jewish, Grundman explains that there was a dearth of Jewish players when he was growing up.
“At the professional level, there were few Jewish basketball players who had significant careers,” he says, noting that Max Zaslofsky is the only other one he can name “off the top of my head.”
While Schayes’s playing career may be under the radar historically, he did start a legacy by giving birth to a number of other successful athletes, including his son Danny, who also played in the NBA. Dolph Schayes’s grandchildren later were medal-winning athletes at the Maccabiah Games. While some may attribute this to good genes, Grundman suggests a different reason.
“Children of immigrants were encouraged to play sports,” explains the author. “In this sense, there was nothing unusual about Dolph.”
The fact that he was the tallest person in his family may have made Schayes stand out in one particular crowd, but Grundman says it took more than height for him to stand out among his NBA peers. He suggests that it was Schayes’s immigrant work ethic that allowed him to be so successful.
“Schayes was the first to practice and the last to leave,” he says. “He demonstrated that hard work paid off.”
Grundman hopes his book will help Schayes achieve more fame and recognition, and that the NBA legend’s story will inspire other players and Jews to act in the same way that he did.
“He was a role model, although he never thought of himself this way,” Grundman says.
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