Growing up, Dolph Schayes was my idol. That’s because, like me, he was from the Bronx, was 6’8” and was Jewish. I saw him play live with my G.O. (General Organization) pass that was made available to all high school students in New York City for some modest fee that I can’t recall. But I do remember that the pass allowed me entrance into any and all events at Madison Square Garden for only 12 cents. I also saw Schayes play dozens of times on TV.
When I practiced shooting one-on-none in the schoolyard, I fancied that I was Dolph Schayes. I even tried to perfect his deadly high-arcing, two-handed set-shot that he released from over his head. But once I was old enough to hoop in high school, the game had changed. Set shooters were ridiculed, one-handed push-shots were barely tolerated and jump shots were “in.”
In addition to Dolph’s extraordinary scoring and rebounding feats, and his participation in 12 consecutive All-Star games, I was unduly impressed by how, in 1951, he adjusted his game plan after suffering what was called “an incomplete fracture of a small bone in his right wrist.” A “lightweight cast and rubberized cover” was applied to the injury and Schayes was allowed to play. With his trademark set shot in temporary abeyance, he simply used his not-so-lightweight cast as a battering ram and concentrated on driving/blasting his way to the basket, and shooting with his off hand. He played this way for six weeks until the cast was removed. Schayes claimed the injury was a blessing in disguise since it forced him to develop shots, passes and dribbling with his heretofore barely used left hand.
I almost wished that I would somehow suffer a similar injury — but to my left hand — so I could duplicate my hero’s legal mayhem.
After my freshman year at Hunter College, I was a counselor at Camp Walden, an up-state summer camp that was owned by Schayes — and that’s when I first made a personal connection with him. It was a brief meeting to be sure. He shook my hand, told me to practice hard and often, wished me luck and half-heartedly agreed to meet me on the basketball court to give me “a few pointers.” Unfortunately, he spent a few hours with the camp’s accountant, then made a hasty exit.
I encountered him again many years later at Kutsher’s Hotel, a fancy resort in the Catskill Mountains. I was there to interview Darryl Dawkins for a profile that would appear in Sport Magazine. Dawkins was there — along with numerous other NBA players — to compete in the annual Maurice Stokes Games. This was a charity event designed to raise funds necessary to provide health care for Stokes, an All-Star player who’d suffered severe brain damage after being knocked to the floor during a ball game.
Schayes was there to serve as the honorary coach of a team of retired NBA players that would face a similar team in another exhibition contest. However, only four players on his team were on hand during the pregame warmups.
In any case, Schayes invited me to sit beside him on the bench while his abbreviated squad rehearsed their layups. We reminisced about playing ball in the Creston Avenue schoolyard, where the only games permitted were 3-on-3, 2-on-2 and 1-on-1. We both laughed at how easily the resident star of that game — Jack Molinas — had so easily embarrassed both of us, Dolph in the late 1940s and early ’50s, me in the early ’60s.
“Jack was arrogant, and as crooked as the baskets were there,” Dolph said. “But he was one of the greatest players I ever faced.”
Meanwhile, game time was getting closer. Dolph quickly checked out my standard-issue sneakers, then said, “I see you’re wearing Chuck Taylor’s. Are you in any kind of shape?”
Imagine my enthusiasm when I said, “Absolutely!”
“Okay, then. Why don’t you start the game until some other guys get here?”
“Yes! Yes! Thank you!”
So I tightened my sneax, gave Dolph my wallet to hold and prepared to do battle with Zelmo Beatty, the roughest-toughest player of his generation. How intimidating was Z? So much so that opposing centers would be unable to sleep the night before they played against him.
Yet a beating at the hands and elbows of Z would be a small price to play for actually…
Uh-oh. Before I had a chance to get up from my seat, Jumping Johnny Green ambled into the gym.
Dolph was gracious enough to shrug and say, “I’m sorry, Charley. Maybe next time. But, hey. Why don’t you hang around in case somebody twists an ankle or gets a cramp or something?”
Which I did, but had to settle for handing towels to Schayes’s players during timeouts.
The next — and last — time I encountered Dolph was at the Naismith Hall of Fame back in early September 2007. For me, the occasion a personal invitation and a front-row seat to witness Phil Jackson’s induction. Dolph was there to be introduced the next morning and make a brief talk along with all the other surviving HOF members.
I was totally surprised and astounded when Phil, in his acceptance speech, cited my three-year stint as his assistant coach with the CBA’s Albany Patroons as being a significant contribution to his later successes coaching in the NBA.
I never thought that was the case (and still don’t), but I was thrilled.
The next morning, all those still present gathered for an informal buffet breakfast. Since our last encounter at Kutsher’s, I’d done a few phone interviews with Dolph in connection with various other pieces I’d written for various other publications. So we found each other in the loose crowd, and caught each other up on our current days-and-ways.
We shook hands and patted each other’s backs when the signal came for the official ceremonies to commence. And Dolph laughed as he said these last words words to me: “Charley, if you give me a hundred dollars, I’ll also mention your name.”
Thanks for the almost-run. And, most importantly, thanks for being an even better human being that you were a player.