NBA Hall-of-Famer Says Games in Israel Forged His Jewish Identity

Dolph Schayes first visited Israel for 1977 Maccabiah as coach of the U.S. basketball team.

Steve Klein
Steven Klein
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Dolph Schayes, circa 1951
Dolph Schayes, circa 1951.Credit: Wikimedia Commons / JTA Photo Archive
Steve Klein
Steven Klein

For someone who retired from the NBA as the league's all-time scorer, Dolph Schayes is about as down-to-earth as it gets. A friendly gentleman who talks to everybody from strangers to Tal Brody with equal regard, he is not shy to express humility. "In life I was tall - 6'8" [2.03m]," he said Wednesday before the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Induction at Wingate. "In Jewish life, I wasn't very tall - I was stunted."

Schayes says the seminal moment in his Jewish life was coming to Israel. He explains that his parents were not religious, and he never had a bar mitzvah. He did not make his first trip to Israel until 1977, when he coached the U.S. basketball team in the Maccabiah. He said it was the first of many emotional moments, marching into the stadium despite the afternoon heat and seeing thousands of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators. "I grew up as a Jew," he says of that moment. "Every time I come I grow up even more."

Another emotional moment for Schayes came in 1993, after the Soviet Union fell apart and the first Russian team marched in. Schayes, who coached the U.S. Masters basketball squad that year, recalls how he saw the team enter decked out in red. "I went up to this guy and told him, 'I want to trade you warm-up suits.' Ours were very-well tailored and theirs was a red rag," he says. "I still have it. I treasure it."

The 81-year-old Hall-of-Famer explains that he did not know about the Maccabiah when he was playing for the Syracuse Nationals in the 1950s and 1960s (they moved to Philadelphia in 1963), and in any event would not have been ineligible because Olympic sports were strictly amateur then. He almost made it to Israel when the U.S. State Department sent the Syracuse basketball team on a Middle East goodwill tour of Lebanon, Iran and Egypt. Schayes suggested Israel but was told it was impractical because it was forbidden to cross the border into Israel from its Arab neighbors.

Dolph Schayes in Israel in 2009.Credit: Courtesy

Walking in Tehran, Schayes - who retired in 1964 with 19,247 points, a record later broken by Wilt Chamberlain - jokes how he learned a little humility from a local, who noticed the group of tall Americans and asked them who they were. "We told him we're the best basketball team in the world - we had just won the NBA world championship," he says. "'No you're not,' the guy told us, 'the Harlem Globetrotters are!'"

Though it took until 1977 to attend his first Maccabiah, Schayes has been to several since and has seen three generations of Schayes participate. His son Danny played for the 1977 basketball squad. Three of his granddaughters - Abi, Carla and Rachel Goettsch, won silver for the U.S. volleyball team as starters in 2001, and his grandson Mickey Ferri won a gold medal in the 4x100 relay in 2005.

Yet it's the Jewish character of the games that moves him most. He recalls how he attended the Pan Am Maccabi Games in Santiago, Chile in 2001. At the ceremony, a picture was shown of one of the slain Israeli athletes from the Munich Olympics with his baby daughter just prior to those fateful games. "Then a 29-year-old walks onto the stage, and it's the daughter," he says while fighting back tears. "That was something."

Reflecting on the moment, Schayes adds: "My motto for these games would be, 'Be part of the Maccabiah Games and grow up.' And I did."



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