- Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball by Dolph Grundman
For followers of professional basketball, the last fifteen to twenty years has provided a bonanza of meaningful historical writings on the game’s players, teams, and leagues from the 1960s and earlier. Continuing that trend is the recent publication of this important biography, Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball, which deals with one of the most significant players of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the 1950s and 1960s and a member of the league’s Fiftieth Anniversary All-Time team.
Born in 1928 in New York City to Jewish parents who had not long before immigrated to the United States from Romania, Dolph Schayes and his family lived in a predominantly Jewish section of the Bronx, and he rarely encountered any anti-Semitism while growing up. Surrounded almost exclusively by the children of other Jewish families, as a boy Dolph seldom strayed from his neighborhood, and he soon gravitated to the city game of basketball. In 1941, Dolph entered the nearby DeWitt Clinton High, a predominantly Jewish, all-boys school in the Bronx, where he was a good student and one of the basketball team’s stars by his junior year when he had grown to six-foot-five—being named center on the All-City team for 1944.
With a number of colleges interested in having Dolph play basketball for them, he decided to enroll at New York University (NYU). There he could attend his classes at the school’s Bronx campus, which was within walking distance of his family home where he resided throughout college. As a slightly shy individual, this environment allowed Dolph essentially to continue living primarily within the physical and ethnic security that he had always known while growing up.
New York City was a national “hotbed” of basketball in the 1940s, and the area featured several colleges that competed at the game’s highest levels while featuring quite a number [End Page 420] of outstanding Jewish players. Graduating from high school in mid-year, Dolph—still just sixteen years old—stepped in immediately in February 1945 as the starting center on the varsity team for NYU’s Violets. At the end of the 1944–45 season, NYU received a bid to the National Collegiate Atheletic Association (NCAA) tournament—then second in importance to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) and a much smaller tourney than today—and, surprisingly, the Violets reached the championship game where they lost to Oklahoma A&M, as Dolph battled the Aggies’ great seven-foot center Bob Kurland.
Dolph continued to improve and play good basketball throughout the next three seasons, as NYU fielded a series of very good teams—including opening the 1947–48 season in his senior year with nineteen straight wins. The streak came to an end with a narrow loss to Notre Dame, the only time in the book that any ethnic “incident” is mentioned occurring during Schayes’s college days—this one a verbal ethnic insult from one of the Irish players.
Schayes was readily available to the author of this biography, so the portrayal of such a harmonious ethnic environment throughout his basketball careers at NYU and in professional basketball is somewhat surprising. Schayes’ apparent experience stands in stark contrast to some of the problems described in other books about Jewish sports personalities, such as Marty Glickman, who encountered problems as both a member of the 1936 Olympic team and as a TV broadcaster, and Hank Greenberg in Major League Baseball. This book would have benefited from a brief comparison of Schayes’s experiences with those of other Jewish athletes, and in particular with those of African American players who were just being brought into the NBA in the early 1950s. Also, while the book portrays an almost complete absence of any ethnic difficulties for Schayes, with their possible resulting physical confrontations, throughout his career in pro basketball, he made up for it somewhat by seeming to get into quite a...