The Sixers will honor Dolph Schayes, who is arguably the greatest Jewish player of all time, during the team’s Jewish Heritage Night on March 12.
It’s easy these days to poke fun at the Sixers. And it’s not only because of their worst-in-the-NBA 8-55 record in the midst of a 12-game losing streak.
The front office, with hoops legend Jerry Colangelo taking over for Sam “Tank Now, Win Later” Hinkie, has been like a circus sideshow. The fan base has been ridiculed, especially those buying in to what they call “The Process” of losing as many games as possible for three years in a row in order to stockpile draft picks for future success. And some of their promotions have fallen flat as well.
But as far as Danny Schayes is concerned, when the franchise honors its first coach — his Hall of Fame father, Dolph Schayes, who is arguably the greatest Jewish player of all time — to highlight the team’s Jewish Heritage Night on March 12, they’re doing it right. Forget the fact that the Sixers may have botched a few other things — particularly not having kosher food available until halftime for those interested. Despite the fact that the 7 p.m. start time makes it impossible for anything to be prepared earlier — and that center Nerlens Noel will keep wearing his No. 4 jersey — Schayes’ jersey retirement ceremony alone should make this a special occasion.
“For me, it’ll really be a great validation of what he meant to the franchise,” said the 56-year-old Schayes, a pretty decent 18-year NBA veteran himself, of his dad, who passed away last Dec. 10. “Obviously, one of the issues for much of his post-playing career was he didn’t live in an NBA city. He made Syracuse his home, and was a big part of the local landscape. So for him to be recognized in an NBA arena means a great deal. I think it’s great they’re doing it; it’s a shame it wasn’t a year ago when he could enjoy it.”
Don’t blame the Sixers, though. It was never their plan to honor Dolph Schayes posthumously. “It was in play when he was alive,” said Danny, a career 7.7 points-per-game scorer with seven NBA teams, topped by eight seasons in Denver. “The sad part was, it had all been arranged and he knew they were retiring his number. He was obviously very excited to go down and see whole thing unfold. He’d been one of the star players in franchise history, so this was certainly deserved any time in the last 50 years. It’s nice for him to be remembered here, because they didn’t see him on the same level as he was in Syracuse.”
Indeed, by the time the Syracuse Nationals moved to Philadelphia in 1963, Dolph Schayes was on the downside of his career. A career 18.5 points-per-game scorer who also averaged 12.1 rebounds each time he stepped onto the hardwood, Schayes never averaged below 14.7 points per game until 1962, the franchise’s final year in Syracuse, when he averaged 9.5. Maybe that’s why he agreed to become the new 76ers’ player/coach — a decision his son said he lived to regret.
“He wasn’t at his peak in Philly,” said Danny Schayes, referring to his father’s 5.6 scoring clip in just 24 games while shooting a career low 31 percent from the field. “One of his regrets was when he decided to be a player/coach. He really wanted to go back to being a player. He wished he had played his career out fully and then went into coaching. I was just a little kid — 5 or 6. I don’t remember the games. I remember the house we lived in. I really don’t have memories of him as an active player like my oldest sister, Debbie does.”
But from what Danny Schayes has since learned is that Dolph Schayes was a special breed. “Probably the closest to him was Karl Malone, someone who could shoot the ball pretty well, went to the line a lot, could rebound and set a lot screens,” said Danny, who now lives in Phoenix, where he runs Intensity, an economics firm that specializes in sports analytics. “My dad was a real pioneer. Power forwards in his era were not shooters. They’d mostly defend and be bangers. For a 6-8 guy to shoot from 3-point range and to play the movement game — square up from 18 feet, drive and be an aggressive rebounder — that forward didn’t really exist. He was a motion guy — move the ball move all the time. He used to call it ‘hot potato’ — the ball didn’t touch the floor.”
If there was any pressure growing up as Dolph Schayes’ son, Danny never felt it—even though he was the one who played ball. His older brother, David, who studied music, actually felt it more.
“For me it was great,” said Danny, whose wife, Wendy Lucero, was an Olympic diver in 1988 and a nine-time NCAA champion. “I got access to things you didn’t get back then. My dad had one of the earliest basketball camps — he started one with Bob Cousy. I went to the Hall of Fame. I was a ball boy for the team in Buffalo” —the Braves — “when he coached there. I credit my ability as an NBA player — my fundamentals were exceptional even for an NBA player — to growing up in the house I did and getting a basketball education.”
His “teacher” also had a strong Jewish identity. “His Judaism was a very big part of his life,” said Danny, who hopes his mother, Naomi, will be able to make the trip down from Syracuse to join the rest of her children and their families for the occasion. “One of the charities he was most active in was Maccabi USA. He actually coached in the Maccabiah Games twice and coached me. I played twice and then coached, and five of his grandchildren have competed in it. There’s always been a Schayes involved the last 30 years. And my son, Logan, who’s 13, is gearing up for the next one. He was very involved with his local synagogue and was continually active in Jewish life.”
In terms of the ceremony itself, Schayes would rather downplay the fact that the No. 4 they’re retiring will still be worn by Noel, and simply focus on the honor. “The Sixers are doing a great thing by hanging his number,” said Schayes, who adds the current players will wear No. 4 during warm-ups that night and the team will have a Schayes display on the concourse — courtesy of Maccabi USA — and giveaway posters. “I want to focus on my dad and what he meant to the organization and to the game itself.
“He was a guy who loved basketball on every level,” he added. “He lived it on every level, brought innovation to the game in many ways. He coached teams all over the world. He was an ambassador all over the world. He was a guy who was a great force in basketball. That’s what the night’s about.”
It’s also about being Jewish, which is where the home team pretty much dropped the ball. When a massive snowstorm forced Jewish Heritage Night to be rescheduled from its original Jan. 23 date until nearly two months later, the team failed to take into account how late Shabbat would last. As a result, Chicago-based Kosher Concessions, which operates the arena’s new Kosher Grill during games and concerts when it doesn’t conflict with Shabbat, won’t be able to open until 8 p.m.
According to the Sixers, the NBA insists all jersey retirements take place on Saturdays. Otherwise, they would have had Jewish Heritage Night when Shabbat was not an issue. They’ll attempt to rectify the situation in the future, presumably at a point when the product on the floor has also been somewhat rectified.
In the interim, Danny Schayes and his family are looking forward to Saturday, when his father will receive an honor long overdue. “They’re finally getting around to doing the right thing,” he said.
These days, when it comes to the Sixers, those are words seldom heard.
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