Unsung Knick History – For Want of $2,500, a Hall of Famer Was Lost

This is the ninth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.

Throughout New York Knickerbocker history, if any one thing seems to have been consistent, it has been that the Knicks are quite willing to pay for good players. Heck, before David Lee was signed and traded this offseason, it had been quite a long time since the Knicks were outbid on one of their own free agents (and even there, that was only because the Knicks spent even more money on another player at the same position as Lee). This is a team that gave Allan Houston a six-year/$100 million contract extension in 2001! When other teams were worried about how to afford their star players during the 1970s, the Knicks were willing to take whoever was offered.

However, in 1948, the Knicks actually lost out on their #1 draft pick, a future Hall of Famer (who was a native New Yorker, no less!) over a $2,500 disagreement!

The Knicks were one of the original teams in the Basketball Association of America (BAA), which was founded in 1946, the third professional league in the United States at the time, going along with the American Basketball League (ABL) and the more professional National Basketball League (NBL). Unlike other challengers to incumbent pro leagues (like the American Football League to the National Football League and later the American Basketball Association to the National Basketball Association), the NBL did not respond harshly to the new pro league, feeling that the two leagues could co-exist harmoniously in a fashion similar to the National League and American League did in Major League Baseball, with perhaps a World Series-like finals eventually taking place between the two leagues. This lack of acrimony almost certainly was a major factor in the two leagues deciding to merge in August of 1949 to form what is now the National Basketball Association (NBA).

While the two leagues did not exactly war with each other, that is not to say that there were not some competition between them, particularly when it came to players. Most of the NBL teams were in the Mid-West, where the BAA did not have a lot of teams, so there was not as much of conflict over players in those areas. On the east coast, however, where the BAA proliferated, there was a lot more competition for players, and that is where the great 1948 fight for Dolph Schayes took place.

Adolph “Dolph” Schayes was born in the Bronx, New York in 1928, and attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He attended New York University from 1944 until 1948, where he was a star center (an All-American in 1948 – he helped make NYU a prominent basketball program at the time). At 6 feet, 8 inches tall (with that last inch being a bit iffy – he was likely closer to 6′ 7′) and 195 pounds, Schayes was slightly under-sized for a low post center, even in the early days of professional basketball (this was partially due to his game, as well, he was not a guy who played above the rim).

So when the New York Knicks used their first round pick (fourth overall) in 1948 on the center, they did not know that they were necessarily getting a no-doubt-about-it star player (Schayes feels that they likely were still considering using him on the low post, which he felt led to their slight reservations about him). Still, he was clearly very talented and the Knicks did want him. The problem was that Knick president Ned Irish had decided upon a self-imposed salary cap for the Knicks. Again, this was the early days of professional basketball, and in a lot of ways, teams were making things up as they went along. In addition, it was not like the league was a booming financial success. Therefore, Irish had come up with a “cap” of $100,000 for the entire Knick roster, with rookie salaries being “capped” at $5,000.

Meanwhile, the NBL’s Syracuse Nationals, led by their owner Danny Biasone (the fellow who would later invent the 24-second shot clock), also wanted to sign Schayes, so they brought him up to Syracuse with his father. Biasone offered him $7,000, plus a $500 bonus. The Nationals also let Schayes know that they were fine with him playing forward instead of center.

Another thing to take into account that had an impact on Schayes’ thought process at the was that he had a degree from a good school and had marketable skills outside of playing professional basketball. Schayes claims that he had an offer on the table from Boeing to work for them. So at the time, his thinking was, “Hey, let me get the most money I can get, play for a year in Syracuse and then go work at a ‘real’ company.”

The Knicks attempted to counter the National offer. Irish would not budge from his “cap” figure, but he told Schayes that they could make up the difference in the offers by getting him a job during the offseason. When they could not pinpoint for Schayes exactly what this job would be, Schayes turned the Knicks down and took the Nationals’ offer.

His “one-year experiment” with Syracuse turned into a sixteen-year career with the franchise over two cities, where he basically created the modern power forward position. Amusingly enough, the NBL, as mentioned before, merged with the NBA after Schayes’ rookie year, so Schayes played all but one year of his career in the NBA. When the NBA began having All-Star Games in 1951, Schayes made the team, as he would for the next eleven NBA All-Star games! He led the Nationals to the NBA Championship in 1955.

When the team moved to Philadelphia in 1963 to become the Philadelphia 76ers, Schayes came along as player-coach. He retired as a player after that first year in Philadelphia (at the time he was the NBA’s all-time leading scorer). He would coach the Sixers for two more years (winning Coach of the Year in 1966) before being fired by the team for not being able to get past the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. He had one more brief run as a coach of the Buffalo Braves in the early 1970s. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1973.

And for $2,500 more, he could have been a New York Knick!

Thanks to Terry Pluto’s classic book, Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA, for the Schayes story (straight from Schayes himself!).

If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at cronb01@aol.com! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!

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6 thoughts to “Unsung Knick History – For Want of $2,500, a Hall of Famer Was Lost”

  1. Great post!

    Penny wise, pound foolish in the the early days I see. These days, penny foolish also….

  2. Looks like Mike Miller has a pretty serious thumb injury and will miss 6-8 weeks, maybe longer. Gee, what a shame.

  3. Great story again, Brian.

    Is it just me, or are most of these about how the Knicks screwed up/missed out? I’d like to read another one like the OT game (4 guards against San Antonio, I think) or the John Starks ejection. Is there any other good “unsung history,” or is most of the past pretty bleak?

  4. When I did the OT game story, people mostly said they wanted to hear more stories of like this one! :)

    But I can certainly try to pepper in some more game stories.

    There are also a couple of behind the scenes stories coming up that actually turned out right for the Knicks!

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