Review of Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball

Grundman, Dolph. Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014. Pp. xix+163. Illustrations, notes, works cited, and index. $24.95 clothback.

Reviewed by Paul Putz

When Dolph Schayes passed away last December, the New York Times devoted two stories to the legacy of the basketball Hall-of-Famer. One described Schayes, who played for the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers from 1948-1964, as a “bridge to modern basketball.” The second expanded on that theme, depicting the 6’8” Schayes and his deadly long-range set shot as a precursor to the modern “stretch four” exemplified by smooth-shooting big men like Dirk Nowitzki.

As the outpouring of remembrance at his death attests, Schayes is certainly not a forgotten player. But it is fair to say that he has been underappreciated. A twelve-time All-Star and All-NBA performer, Schayes used his high-arching set shots, drives to the rim, and superior free throw shooting (for his time, only Bill Sharman was better at the line) to become the NBA’s career scoring leader for a six-year stretch from 1958 until 1964. But despite that, and despite his inclusion on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list, as of 2009 no book-length biography of Schayes had been published. Recognizing this oversight, Dolph Grundman decided that year to take up the task of writing a biography of the NBA’s pioneering forward.

Dolph Cover

Syracuse University Press, 2014

Grundman’s Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball caps off an impressive run of basketball history publications from the author since 2004, including books detailing the history of the Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament and the “Kangaroo Kid” Jim Pollard. As with his previous books, Grundman’s main focus in Dolph Schayes is telling the story of basketball’s development. When Schayes joined the Syracuse Nationals in 1948 the NBA was not yet in existence. By the end of his playing career the NBL and BAA had merged to form the NBA, and the league had moved from segregation to integration and from stall tactics to the shot clock. Through Schayes, Grundman aims to provide “insight into the life of a basketball player during the decades of basketball’s emergence as a major American sport” (p. xix).

Few can outpace Grundman when it comes to understanding the personalities and intricacies of mid-twentieth-century American basketball, and this book shows his mastery of the material. Along with his own extensive knowledge of basketball history, Grundman has culled newspapers and conducted interviews with Dolph Schayes, his family, and his former teammates. Grundman organizes the book around five chapters that move chronologically through Schayes’s life, with the bulk of the material covering Schayes’s basketball exploits: for example, his college career at NYU, which culminated with Schayes being named New York City’s college basketball MVP; his rookie of the year performance for the NBL’s Syracuse Nationals; and his NBA championship with the Nationals in 1955, with Schayes leading all players in scoring and rebounding in the final series. From 1949 until 1961 Schayes was at the heart of the Syracuse squad, annually leading the team in points and (with one exception) rebounds.

Grundman generally relies on the season-by-season approach to move the narrative along, chronicling the highs and lows of competition. Although the narrative is driven by Schayes’s career, Grundman sprinkles in biographical vignettes of other players and discussions of relevant topics. He also includes longer sections that he titles “snapshots.” With these he takes a digression for a few paragraphs, usually to highlight players or coaches with whom Schayes interacted. For example, one snapshot deals with a trio of college coaches who held sway in New York in the years before the 1951 point-shaving scandals: Nat Holman, Joe Lapchick, and Clair Bee. Other snapshots describe Schayes’s teammates, with a special focus on pioneering African American players like Earl Lloyd, Bob Hopkins, and Jim Tucker. The snapshots allow Grundman to cover important themes related to Schayes’s career: the New York City basketball scene of Schayes’s early years, the racial desegregation of the NBA, and so on.

Grundman also underlines Schayes’s personality throughout the text, describing, for example, Schayes’s tendency to raise his fist after making a basket, a show of emotion that annoyed opponents and seemed somewhat surprising coming from a normally reserved man. Three decades after he retired, Schayes’s emotion once again got the best of him, and in a way that would have made Robin Lopez proud: in 1997 Schayes started wrestling with the Miami Heat mascot during a playoff game. But these bits and pieces of Schayes’s personality and playing style are sometimes overshadowed by details about game results, teammates, and opponents. So, too, the brisk nature of the book, which clocks in at just 163 pages (including twenty pages with illustrations), makes Grundman’s treatment of some aspects of Schayes’s legacy seem underdeveloped.

Take, for example, the fact that Schayes was the last great Jewish basketball star to dominate at the highest level of the game. Grundman takes note of this, of course. He writes that although Schayes’s family did not regularly attend synagogue and Schayes received no formal religious training, he lived in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx and thus “had no difficulty developing a Jewish identity” (p. 3). Grundman also describes an incident in 1947 when Notre Dame matched up with Schayes’s NYU squad. Notre Dame won the game, but one of their players caused an uproar when he called NYU’s Don Forman a “no good Jew.” A columnist for the NYU student newspaper took the Notre Dame player to task and played up the tri-faith angle that was then coming into vogue in the United States, writing that NYU’s “cooperation between men of different faiths . . . make us still one of the top teams in the nation” (p. 22). Later, as Schayes achieved success in professional basketball, he became a source of pride for fellow Jews, resulting in awards, such as being named the 1960 “outstanding Jewish athlete in the United States” by the Jewish Basketball League Alumni of Philadelphia (p. 109). And beginning in 1977 Schayes’s Jewish identity became a greater source of personal pride. Following his participation in the Maccabiah Games in Israel that year, he recalled that he “grew up as a Jew” (p. 156).

But while these details are noted, they are not explored in depth in the pattern of scholars who write about Jews and sports like Rebecca Alpert, Linda Borish, Ari Sclar, Peter Levine, or Jeffrey Gurock (the latter three in particular have all written about Schayes as part of larger projects). That said, Grundman is under no obligation to make religion a centerpiece of his book – the title, after all, is not Dolph Schayes and Jewish Identity. And since he focuses most of his attention on Schayes’s playing career, it makes sense that the religion angle is not emphasized. After all, Schayes himself tended to downplay it, at least until 1977.

Dolph Schayes may not be an exhaustive biography but it is nevertheless a solid book that follows through on exactly what is promised: chronicling Schayes’s career and also using it to explore the NBA’s early development and to describe the playing styles and backgrounds of Schayes’s fellow competitors. It stands as a much-needed record of an underappreciated basketball star, an illuminating lens into the early years of the NBA, and an essential starting point for scholars who wish to use Schayes to further explore other themes.

Paul Putz is a PhD Candidate in history at Baylor University. His research is focused on religion, sports, and region, and he is writing a dissertation on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. You can follow him on Twitter @p_emory.

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