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For LeBron and Cleveland, the lesson Dolph Schayes learned Upstate

LeBron James wept on the court Sunday at the Oracle Arena in Oakland. His Cleveland Cavaliers had just upended the Golden State Warriors for the third straight time. The comeback gave the Cavaliers their first National Basketball Association championship. It brought a major sports championship to Cleveland for the first time in 52 years.

James, a native of Akron, wiped his tears and talked about what it meant to win a title for the people of northeast Ohio. He talked about how it felt to earn a trophy for an industrial region that had gone through decades of hard times, an industrial region that he considers home.

One of the few people who could fully appreciate what James was saying, a basketball Hall of Famer who predicted years ago that James would feel this way, barely missed being here to see it come to be.

Dolph Schayes died in December, at 87. He was a witness to the beginning of the entire Cavaliers dream, which really got underway in Buffalo. On Oct. 14, 1970, Schayes was head coach of the Buffalo Braves when the Braves played the Cavaliers, their expansion counterparts, at the old Memorial Auditorium. It was the first NBA game for both teams.

The Braves won, 107-92. No one could foresee how difficult the road would become for both clubs. Schayes was fired a year later, after posting a 22-60 record in his first season – although the expansion Braves weren’t exactly deep in talent. That changed quickly: By the mid-1970s, the Braves seemed on the brink of NBA greatness, but ownership troubles led to the disintegration of the franchise. Within a decade, Buffalo was without an NBA team.

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As for Cleveland, Sunday’s title is the pinnacle of a tumultuous 45-year journey. What gave it particular resonance was James, the star at the heart of the triumph. He is an Ohio guy whose return to Cleveland after four seasons in Miami brought even greater significance to a town, like Buffalo, whose industrial background on the Lake Erie shoreline equates to struggle.

Schayes understood. He lived it out in upstate New York. He sensed what the professional game could mean to people tied to cities whose fortunes had suffered. Almost six years ago, when James left Cleveland to join the Miami Heat, Schayes gave me an interview for the Syracuse Post-Standard, offering words that amounted to a sigh:

"I think if he had stayed, and won it in Cleveland, it would have been a more satisfying thing with him as the go-to guy," said Schayes, who’d seen it happen firsthand.

LeBron James (Getty Images)

LeBron James (Getty Images)

In the late 1940s, Schayes was a New York City kid who joined the old Syracuse Nationals of the NBA. Team president Danny Biasone, who ran a bowling alley, outbid the New York Knicks by $2,500 to sign the young star out of New York University.

Schayes didn’t just bring his skills to Syracuse. He brought his heart. He moved Upstate in 1949, and except for occasional basketball-related absences – such as the years when he coached in Philadelphia - he stayed here until his death, 67 years later. He was a sharpshooting forward in Syracuse, the league’s all-time leading scorer until Wilt Chamberlain obliterated all the records.

On an Easter Sunday in 1955, Schayes led the Nationals to their only NBA championship, a seventh game comeback win over the old Fort Wayne Pistons. The league was barely surviving at the time. The Nats celebrated over beers at Biasone’s bowling alley. The players didn’t even get championship rings until the Syracuse Crunch, a minor league hockey team, held an emotional ceremony last year and awarded rings to Schayes, Jim Tucker and Billy Kenville – the last survivors of the team.

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No, the championship came with a different kind of reward, one Schayes received on a lifetime basis in Syracuse. People revered him. He often stopped for coffee at the old Mimi’s bakery, a downtown cafe, where he was a gentle, approachable presence. Students at Syracuse University were surprised to learn that the landlord handing over the apartment keys was one of the greatest players in the history of basketball. Schayes even named one of his sons after Biasone, team owner of the Nats; Danny Schayes went on to his own long career in the NBA.

"From my point of view, this was just a wonderful place, and everyone on the street would pat you on the back and say hello, and we had an owner who preached teamwork and loyalty," Schayes told the Post-Standard in 2010, when James left Cleveland for Miami.

That same realization has played out countless times in Buffalo, where so many former Bills – including Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas – have gone through the same transition. The city stops being only a location where they play a sport for a few months a year. It turns into their home.

They understand what brought James back. There are countless places in this country with warm weather all year long, places of glamour, of international renown. But there is nothing quite like the embrace of a community whose people have gone through years of difficulty, who have felt deserted all too many times – and who respond to the loyalty of standout athletes with an appreciation of such ferocity it transcends easy description.

When that devotion ascends into a championship season, when it answers that aching emptiness in the civic gut, it achieves a quality that really equates to one word:

Love.

LeBron James is feeling that championship communion now, because he returned to Cleveland.

Dolph Schayes felt it for a lifetime, because he won a title in Syracuse – and then chose to stay.

Someday, in some way, it will come true for Buffalo.

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Schayes was a member of Temple Concord, a Jewish congregation in Syracuse that always kept faith with its old city neighborhood. At the temple, he was part of the men’s brotherhood, a group of men – most  of them middle-aged, or retirees – who’d get together in a room downstairs on Sunday mornings to tell stories as they used plastic knives to spread cream cheese on bagels.

He was a regular in a gathering in which you felt no pretension. As Schayes moved gracefully into his 70s and then into his 80s, the basketball Hall of Famer sat side-by-side in this roomful of everyday guys, joining in their animated and sometimes raucous tales about grown kids and grandkids, basically becoming part of the tapestry.

After Schayes died, those friends gave him a simple tribute: They left his chair empty, for a long time. His basketball resume was only a part of the equation: In a much bigger way, he was someone who could not be replaced.

That was all Schayes ever really wanted for LeBron James, a celestial player who would be celestial in any city in the world. But to put a place of struggle on your back, to show its people that you understand the obstacles they’ve faced, to give them the loyalty and commitment that so often seemed beyond their reach ….

Only a handful of players ever generate that kind of soulful bond.

Many win rings. Schayes knew it takes much more to earn that empty chair.

Sean Kirst is a contributing writer for The Buffalo News. To offer a reflection on this column, leave a comment below or email Kirst at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com.

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