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Remembering Dolph Schayes for his off-the-court connections

Photo of Dolph Schayes addressing the audience at the “Let’s Talk Basketball Legends” event held on November 19, 2014, at the Sam Pomeranz Jewish Community Center of Syracuse.
Dolph Schayes addresses the audience at the “Let’s Talk Basketball Legends” event held on November 19, 2014, at the Sam Pomeranz Jewish Community Center of Syracuse.

Two friends on a day trip to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia a few years ago, enjoying the exhibits without drawing attention to the fact that one of them was the NBA’s greatest Jewish basketball player. That’s just one of the many fond memories Steve Herwood has of his friend and basketball legend Dolph Schayes, who passed away from cancer at age 87 on December 10, 2015.

Photo of Dolph Schayes (left) and Steve Herwood at the Liberty Bell in Philadephia.
Dolph Schayes (left) and Steve Herwood at the Liberty Bell in Philadephia.

“Dolph was a very humble guy who wouldn’t use his NBA fame to gain attention,” said Herwood. “He was a history buff, avid reader, moviegoer and enjoyed the opera and symphony. Dolph was very cultured and had a strong volunteer ethic. I remember he used to jump at volunteering for things such as helping out with [Temple Concord] Brotherhood activities and handing out prayer books to congregants entering the sanctuary for high holy day services.”

Although Herwood and Schayes both attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx—25 years apart—they didn’t meet and become friends through their affiliation with Temple Concord until about 10 years ago. “Dolph was always coming up with ideas and looking for ways to help the Brotherhood,” said Herwood who served as the Temple Concord Brotherhood president from 2009–2011. “He was as active a member as anyone.”

Some of Schayes’ career highlights include leading the Syracuse Nationals to their 1955 NBA championship, he was a 12-time NBA All-Star (1951-62), led the NBA in career scoring at his retirement (1964), elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame (1973) and named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history (1996). Schayes also went on to coach the Philadelphia 76ers, was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1966 and coached the U.S. Maccabiah Games basketball team to a gold medal in 1977. Although these and other basketball achievements brought Schayes a certain level of fame and celebrity, he was first and foremost a family man.

Pictured from left is Dolph Schayes; Dolph Grundman, author of “Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball” (Syracuse University Press, 2014); and Sean Kirst, then Post-Standard columnist, taking a picture of Schayes with his cell phone during the November 2014 “Let’s Talk Basketball Legends” event at the JCC of Syracuse.
Pictured from left is Dolph Schayes; Dolph Grundman, author of “Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball” (Syracuse University Press, 2014); and Sean Kirst, then Post-Standard columnist, taking a picture of Schayes with his cell phone during the November 2014 “Let’s Talk Basketball Legends” event at the JCC of Syracuse.

“Everyone knew dad as this incredible sports figure and we knew him as an incredible father,” said daughter Carrie Goettsch.

A good storyteller who loved puns, Schayes often told stories with a moral to his children. The lesson of one particular story fondly remembered by his daughter, Debbie Ferri, was how Boston Celtic’s coach (1950–1966) Red Auerbach obtained 10 percent ownership of the Celtics. “If you don’t ask about something you can’t ever get it. The worst you can get is turned down,” said Ferri, repeating the words her father spoke to her. “That’s one thing he taught us kids.”

Outside of Schayes’ family life, some would argue that his ties to the Central New York community—especially the local Jewish community—were just as significant as his basketball success. Schayes loved to “pay it forward” by generously giving his time to hold children’s basketball clinics and to mentor youngsters at Camp Walden, a summer camp in the Adirondacks he purchased in the 1960s.

“There are so many good things that I could say about Dolph, I could literally write a book,” said Marci Erlebacher, executive director of the Sam Pomeranz Jewish Community Center. “He had a great sense of humor and could always make me laugh. Dolph was also a wonderful supporter of the JCC. He will forever be a part of the JCC family.”

Because of Schayes’ generosity to the JCC of Syracuse, the center named its new gym—the Schayes Family Gymnasium—after him in 2001. “When we began planning to build the gym over 15 years ago, Dolph insisted that the gym’s basketball court be collegiate sized,” said Erlebacher. “He was convinced that this would be best for the JCC’s members and the community. I’m so glad we listened to Dolph because it was the right thing to do.”

Dolph Schayes (seated) autographs a copy of the book “Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball” for fans during the JCC’s November 2014 “Let’s Talk Basketball Legends” event.
Dolph Schayes (seated) autographs a copy of the book “Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball” for fans during the JCC’s November 2014 “Let’s Talk Basketball Legends” event.

His generosity also extended to his place of worship, Temple Concord, where you’ll find the Schayes Lounge. Schayes also endowed the Schayes Community Fund. Temple Concord honored Schayes, along with his son Danny, at A Tribute to Jewish Americans in Basketball event in 2009.

“Dolph was a shul Jew,” said Temple Concord’s Rabbi Daniel Fellman. “He was involved in Brotherhood, holidays and holiday services. He understood what it was to be part of the Jewish people. Unless Dolph was standing you couldn’t tell he was any different.”

Connecting with other Temple Concord congregants allowed Schayes’ kindness to really shine through. On one particular occasion, during a temple service and bake sale/auction held at Onondaga Lake Park about 15 years ago, then preschooler David Becker got into a bidding war with Schayes over a cake. Because the two were at different ends of the park’s pavilion, Schayes didn’t initially know that he was bidding against a child. When Schayes realized this, he let Becker win the auction. In return, Becker shared his cake with Schayes, each indulging in a slice that day. Over the years that followed Schayes became an important mentor for the youngster, attending Becker’s Bar Mitzvah and influencing him to pursue a career in sports management.

Two of Schayes’ friends, Sid Ashkin and Mike Moss, recently got together to reminisce about their friend and some of the good times they shared. These three men, along with a few other friends, would regularly do lunch weekdays at some of their favorite local diners.

Pictured (L-R) is Naomi and Dolph Schayes and Mike and Joy Moss at Traditions at the Links in East Syracuse in March 2015.
Pictured (L-R) is Naomi and Dolph Schayes and Mike and Joy Moss at Traditions at the Links in East Syracuse in March 2015.

“Wherever we’d go, if someone recognized Dolph he always made it a point to stop and talk for a few minutes,” said Moss. “Then he would ask the person, ‘Give me your address.’ The very next day Dolph would send them an autographed photo.”

During their lunches Schayes would sometimes play a little game show of sorts where he would ask his friends basketball trivia questions. Each answer would always be the same: Dolph Schayes.

“Dolph was a great storyteller,” said Ashkin. “He loved to tell jokes and loved to hear them. Fame never went to his head. He was always a humble person and a generous person.”

It will certainly take some time for those who were touched by Schayes’ humor and kindness to process the loss of such a gentle giant.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever known anyone like Dolph who has such a contagious smile and heart of gold,” said Erlebacher. “His legacy as a basketball star and member of the local Jewish community will live on for a very long time. All of us who knew him as well as the entire local community are better off because of his kindness and generosity.”


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