Basketball recently lost one of its pioneers. While that term is thrown around whenever a player from the black and white era passes away, the true understanding of what it means to be a pioneer is lost. In my view a pioneer is someone who is a visionary who transforms and then defines how things are done moving forward, creating an enduring standard.
My dad, Dolph Schayes was such a person. As a player in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s my dad set and held many records … but those records don’t begin to describe his influence on the game.
He entered the NBA at the age of 19. While he would have qualified under today’s One and Done rule, the difference was that he had already graduated from college. After skipping two grades in high school, he holds the distinction of being the youngest player to start a Final Four game at age 16. He graduated from New York University in three years with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He used to joke that he took that major because since the airplane had just been invented he figured there wasn’t that much to learn.
As an NBA player, he holds the distinction of being the only player in history to lead his team in scoring every year that they were in the NBA (the Syracuse Nationals). He also scored the first basket in All Star Game history. He used to love to ask trivia questions about the NBA. People soon figured out that he was always the answer.
He reinvented the power forward position. He changed it from being the team’s enforcer to a face up scorer with a deadly outside shot. His game was defined by constant movement, aggressive rebounding, and tremendous durability. His consecutive games record was one of his favorites. He was Karl Malone before it was cool.
He was a student of the game. As a young player he developed a smaller rim that fit inside the regulation rim. Practicing on that smaller rim improved his accuracy. He regularly made shots that would be 3-pointers today.
Hot Rod Hundley used to comment that Dolph was the only player whose team would set a triple pick to get him an open 30 footer. And he was such a good shooter that defenders would fight to get through the screens! One of his accomplishments that he was most proud of was leading the league in free throw percentage.
His was so durable that one year he broke his shooting wrist and transformed into a left-handed player. He later broke the other wrist and still scored 18 points a game with both wrists in casts. When the casts came off he found that his ability to go both ways made him unstoppable on offense. In an era when few players had long careers, my dad played 16 years and to the end regretted that he retired too soon.
He also started one of the earliest basketball camps in America. He and Bob Cousy started camps around 1951 and created an industry. I went to his basketball camp every year and received a tremendous basketball education. People still come up to me 30 years later and relate how my dad’s camp was the best time of their lives.
But what truly defined my dad is his impact on people. My dad loved being Dolph Schayes. He was remarkable in the interest he took in others and the influence he had on so many people’s lives. Even though he grew up in New York City, he lived his entire adult life in Syracuse, New York. He was such a part of the community. His name and address was always in the phone book and he connected with people everywhere he went. A friend related a story of how my dad met his son at a banquet when the boy was 8. They kept in touch over the years with my dad asking about his grades, his game, and other things that mattered to the boy when they would see each other. Years later my dad went to see him play in college. He was not just interesting but interested!
Years later when my mom became ill he nursed her back to health and was at her side 24/7 for months taking care of her. For a guy who lived his life as the center of attention, it was remarkable to see him love my mother so completely.
While he was a great player, he was a better person. A true pioneer.
I will be proud to see his number raised to the rafters Saturday night in Philadelphia. But believe me, I was already a very proud son.
Danny Schayes, after a two-year stint as columnist for SheridanHoops, is a Director of Business Optimization at Intensity and a leader in the business of professional sports. Schayes frequently advises sports organizations in complex business matters that include contract negotiations, pricing strategy, marketing optimization, and executive leadership. Follow him on Twitter.