Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dolph Schayes (1928-2015) - A basketball legend

Dolph Schayes (1928-2015)

There’s a summer camp in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains of New York State, up a big hill from the towns of Bolton Landing and Lake George, on a small body of water called Trout Lake.  It’s called Camp Walden and this special place has been operating continuously since 1931.  I found out about Camp Walden when I was 11, because my best friend Bernie’s dad had a connection to the camp. In many ways, Camp Walden changed my life.

What brings this up is my attendance on Monday in Syracuse, New York, at the funeral of long-time friend Dolph Schayes.  Dolph was a basketball player (it’s strange how one minute we refer to someone as ‘is’ and in the next instance, it becomes ‘was’).  In fact, Dolph was named one of the 50 greatest basketball players in NBA (National Basketball Association) History!  And for many years, Dolph ran a week-long basketball camp following the end of the regular 8-week summer camp season at Walden.  While there is now a proliferation of these camps, Dolph’s was the second of its kind when he started.  Then at some point, Dolph became a part owner of Camp Walden with Mel Besdin and was there for the entire summer.  Like a number of children in that era, Dolph and his wife Naomi’s children, David, Debbie, Carrie and Danny Schayes, spent their summers from a very young age at Walden. 

Walden was - and still is - a special place. Life-long friendships (and some marriages) started there and, even if there’s 30 years - or more - between interactions, when you run into a fellow ‘Waldenite’ the conversation picks up as if it were yesterday.  I actually had this experience Monday when, at the reception following Dolph’s beautiful funeral service at Temple Concord in Syracuse, I ran into Mike Stark.  Mike was the head counselor at camp when I was a camper and later a counselor.  While I had seen his daughter Cindy a couple of times over the years, this was the first time I had seen Mike in, oh, more than 40 years!  Mike was a teacher in Syracuse and then a school administrator.  And he was also a basketball coach and referee and was a star guard on the Syracuse University basketball team.  Now 88 years old, and sharp as a tack, Mike and I reminisced about the old days and a few of the old crowd.  It was wonderful to see him again.

Because of Dolph’s involvement, Camp Walden attracted some basketball players who became camp counselors.  Virtually all were involved in the Syracuse basketball program but due to NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) rules at that time, only 2 or 3 (if memory serves me well) players from the same college team could be at a summer camp at the same time otherwise it would be seen as the team trying to get a head start on the ‘legal’ first day of practice - October 15 (This date has since evolved into a ritual on many college campuses called ‘Midnight Madness’ - where the first practice of the season starts at midnight on October 15 – and the basketball arenas are filled).  One of those Syracuse players that was a counselor at Walden for several years is Jim Boeheim.  Jimmy played for the Syracuse Orangemen in the 1960’s and has been connected with the team in a coaching capacity (first as an assistant and now as head coach) since 1969 – being named head coach in 1976.  Jim’s counselor days at Walden were in the mid/late 1960’s and that’s when he and I met. In an online piece reporting Dolph’s death last week, Jimmy is quoted, "Dolph is a legendary figure in Syracuse. He was an all-time great, great player. His camp had a big influence on me." 

At Dolph’s funeral, some of his 9 grandchildren spoke talking about their Grandpa, not as a basketball legend but as a person.  They talked about the funny games he played with them (many of them made up by the man himself) and his involvement with their lives.  Then Dolph’s four children spoke about their dad.  His humility. His passion for history. The eulogies included a number of comments, which drew laughter from the packed temple audience.  Dolph would not have had it any differently – he had a great sense of humor and was always playing games – and not just basketball games!  His son Danny was also a star basketball player at Syracuse University and went on to an 18-year career in the NBA.  He told a few ‘funny’ stories about what it was like for him, growing up playing basketball, with his Dad in the stands.  Dolph was a passionate competitor who not only played professional basketball but also coached the Philadelphia 76ers and was the supervisor of the NBA referees.  Danny related one story when, during a professional game he was playing in, there was a bad call made against him.  Dolph ran down in the stands to get behind the scorer’s table (right at courtside) and shouted to the official, “I should never have hired you!”  Hearing this story, the mourners totally broke up in laughter – that was Dolph.

You see, Dolph Schayes was a special person – who cared, really cared, about people.  It was mentioned how he would talk with random people, everywhere he went, showing sincere interest in them.  People looked up to Dolph – not just because he stood 6’8” – but because of who he was as a man – a guy who grew up spending a lot of time on the basketball court in the Bronx (NY), as a star basketball player at DeWitt Clinton High School and New York University (NYU) and graduating from there with a degree in, what is now called aerospace engineering - the primary field of engineering concerned with the development of aircraft and spacecraft. 

Sitting amongst Dolph’s family and friends yesterday, it struck me that Dolph was not a man who you felt would ever die.  He was a truly larger-than-life figure, someone whose smile was ever-present and who made everyone he came in contact with feel important. How special is that?  Some of what I heard yesterday got me thinking about my own life and maybe some things that I’d like to change before my time comes – 30+ years down the road. 

Dolph Schayes was one of the kindest, most generous men I have ever known.  My brother Jay included this in an email to the family:

I have strong memories of his gentleness and kindness.

I remember first meeting him when I was 10 years old.  He was by far the biggest man I had ever seen.  I believe my eyes were at his belt buckle.  Standing close to him, I looked up to see his smiling face and warm eyes.  This memory is vivid.  I have other memories of Dolph, but none of them nearly so clear.

What I do recall was that he was ALWAYS soft spoken, kind, warm, and NEVER harsh or critical.  Even when I was caught doing things that were highly inappropriate, Dolph was ALWAYS the most gentle, sincere and empathetic adult at Camp.

Camp Walden was a very important part of my life.

Dolph was a very powerful influence on me.

I carry him with me.

Jay, this is a beautiful testament to a special guy.

Camp Walden has been owned since the early 2000’s by Lauren and Mark Bernstein. They are wonderful people who have done amazing things with the camp.  Lauren and Mark also appreciate and respect Walden’s history and alumni community.  Those of us old-timers are always welcome to visit, something I’ve done in the past two seasons.  Under them the camp embodies the same special family feeling that it had when I was there and I know many life-long friendships are still beginning there.  I believe it’s one of the finest summer camps anywhere with facilities that none of us, back in the day, could even imagine.  But the property is still the same beautiful place – built on a hill, overlooking Trout Lake with newer buildings having been constructed to ‘fit in’ with the older bunks and administrative buildings. 

In 2003, a bunch of us organized a camp reunion – if it weren’t for the Internet and email it wouldn’t have been possible.  More than 50 of us converged on Montreal.  The camp has always attracted campers and counselors from Montreal, Syracuse and the greater New York City area.  It was a special time.  The camp is sponsoring a reunion day next June and some of us are already in touch and plan to make a weekend of it.  I have a feeling that Dolph would have come to that reunion but while the big man with the even bigger heart won’t be there, his spirit will be and I’m sure we will be sharing ‘Dolph Stories.’ 

I have a few of my own Dolph stories, which I’ll be happy to share if you’re interested the next time we see each other.  Camp Walden was a very important part of my life. Those of us that knew Dolph from Camp Walden share special memories, of him and of a time when things were very different in the world – much simpler than today.  They are times that I would not trade for anything.

Bud Poliquin, Syracuse sportswriter and host of a daily sports talk show on ESPN radio wrote an excellent piece about Dolph’s funeral, which can be found here.

I know all my Walden friends join me in sharing our sincerest condolences to Dolph’s family – Naomi, his wife of more than 60 years (an accomplished pianist I learned this week); their four children - David, Debbie, Carrie and Danny; his nine grandchildren  - Abbi, Bengie, Carla, Hannah, Julia, Kevin, Logan, Mickey and Rachel) and all those whose lives he touched in a way similar to how he touched mine and my brothers’ – and there are a lot of those folks out there! Given Dolph’s college degree in aerospace engineering I can visualize him right now, in his own spacecraft, traveling the heavens and visiting with people he knew, and those he’s never met.  Dolph loved people and everyone loved Dolph.

Dolph and me 

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