Dave DeBusschere was nicknamed "Big D". The "D" stood for Defense. A hard-nosed, tenacious forward, DeBusschere was one of the game's all-time best defenders. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team in each of the award's first six years of existence. DeBusschere was average in size at 6-6 and 225 pounds, but he possessed a work ethic that was second to none. During his 12-year NBA career he represented the epitome of the blue-collar basketball star.
"There's not one other guy in this league who gives the 100 percent DeBusschere does, every night, every game of the season, at both ends of the court," Bill Bridges of the Atlanta Hawks once told Newsday.
The "D" could also stand for Detroit. DeBusschere was a folk hero in that city, where he grew up and starred at baseball as well as basketball. He attended Austin Catholic High School and led its basketball team to a state championship; was the star hurler on an Austin baseball team that won the city championship; and also pitched a local team to a national junior championship.
Colleges everywhere beckoned, but DeBusschere stayed home and attended the University of Detroit. He averaged 24.8 points for a hoop squad that went to the NCAA Tournament one year and the National Invitation Tournament twice. He also starred as a pitcher for the Titans baseball team, which played in three NCAA Tournaments.
Upon graduation in 1962 DeBusschere was faced with a choice between baseball and basketball. In the early 1960s, basketball featured talented players and spirited competition, but it didn't match the popularity of the diamond. Bucking tradition, DeBusschere decided to try his hand at both sports. He snagged a $75,000 signing bonus from the Chicago White Sox and received a $15,000 contract from the Detroit Pistons, who had claimed him as a territorial draft pick.
DeBusschere played professional baseball for four seasons. A tall right-handed pitcher with a lively fastball, he was called up by the White Sox in 1963 and went 3-4 with a 3.09 ERA. He showed enough promise that the White Sox protected him by exposing another player to the draft -- future Detroit Tigers star and 31-game winner Denny McLain. During the next two years DeBusschere compiled a 25-9 record for Chicago's Class AAA Indianapolis farm club.
Meanwhile, DeBusschere's NBA career got off to an auspicious start. During the 1962-63 season he averaged 12.7 points and was selected to the NBA All-Rookie Team. From the very beginning DeBusschere exhibited solid offensive skills. Although he battled for many of his points under the basket, he also proved that he could score with a good, if inconsistent, long-range shot. He handled the ball well for a big man, and occasionally the Pistons used him at guard. DeBusschere also displayed uncommon maturity for a rookie. He may have looked like a bruiser, but he was smart, analytical and coolheaded on the court.
The Pistons made the playoffs during DeBusschere's rookie season, but the following year bad luck struck. DeBusschere broke his leg and played in only 15 games in 1963-64. Detroit managed only 23 wins. Although DeBusschere began the 1964-65 campaign fully recovered, the team limped through a poor start. In November, Pistons owner Fred Zollner made a dramatic move -- he appointed DeBusschere player-coach. At age 24, DeBusschere became the youngest coach in NBA history.
It was speculated that DeBusschere had been given coaching duties to entice him away from baseball. If so, the stratagem worked. Although he played one more season of minor-league baseball, DeBusschere ended his dual-sport career shortly thereafter when he refused to accept a call-up from the White Sox at the end of 1965. He was reportedly unhappy that Chicago hadn't kept him on the major league roster that spring. With basketball training camp beginning, his coaching duties were needed and he had to make a choice.
DeBusschere's stint as coach was not successful. With the notable exception of himself, his Detroit teams were handicapped by a lack of talent. When Coach DeBusschere asked the general managers of other teams which Pistons they would trade for, the answer was always the same: "You."
Inexperience and youth probably limited his effectiveness -- DeBusschere was barely 18 months out of college when he assumed coaching duties. He labored for almost three seasons at the helm before he was replaced by Donnis Butcher at the end of the 1966-67 campaign. DeBusschere retired as a coach with a 79-143 record and no playoff appearances; however, he remained with the Pistons as a full-time player.
Over the years, DeBusschere's talents were coveted by a number of teams, but the New York Knicks were more persistent than most. Every year the Knicks tried to pry him loose from Detroit but were continually rebuffed. "DeBusschere was our Holy Grail," Knicks Coach William "Red" Holzman later revealed in his book, A View from the Bench.
The situation changed, however, when Paul Seymour took over as the Pistons' coach. Eager to revamp the club, he wanted new players, and DeBusschere was the team's most marketable star. In December 1968, Detroit finally agreed to part with its hometown hero, sending him to the Knicks in return for talented center Walt Bellamy and guard Howard Komives.
For DeBusschere, escaping to New York was like being reborn. Although Detroit was his hometown, he had grown weary of the perennial losing campaigns. "As a coach I was very frustrated, losing all the time," he said. "And as a player all I could look backward on was six years of losing. When they announced the trade, I was happy to be coming to a winner."
The Knicks had high hopes that DeBusschere would prove to be the final component in their plans for a world championship. The move was meant to solidify their frontcourt. With Bellamy gone, Willis Reed was able to shift from forward to center. DeBusschere's muscle and his rebounding prowess at the power forward position allowed the Knicks to play sharp-shooting Cazzie Russell and to use finesse player Bill Bradley at the other forward spot.
DeBusschere enjoyed immediate success in New York, finishing the 1968-69 season with 16.3 points per game and a berth on the All-NBA Second Team. He then helped the Knicks advance to the Eastern Division Finals, which they lost to the Boston Celtics in six games.
Although he wasn't a great shooter, DeBusschere had the potential to score 20 points every night. He tended to score in bursts, now and then rattling off a string of long jumpers from the corner. Like Bradley, he also excelled at sneaking behind picks to find an opening from where he could pop a 5-foot jumper. And he was masterful at sliding past his man to tap in an offensive rebound.
His chief role with the Knicks, however, was to collect key rebounds and shut down the opposing team's best forward. A defensive catalyst, DeBusschere put his coaching experience to good use for New York, leading a smart, cagey Knicks unit that sacrificed individual achievements for team goals.
"I didn't realize he was as good as he was until we got him," Holzman told writer Steve Jacobson. "I always knew he was an outstanding player, but not this good. It's often that way, I suppose. You don't realize how good a guy is until you see him play every night."
Atlanta Hawks Coach Richie Guerin shared Holzman's high opinion of DeBusschere. "Dave is one of the 10 best forwards I have ever seen play basketball, and he just may be one of the 5 or 6 best I have ever seen," he said.
In 1969-70, the talent-laden Knicks found themselves in the national spotlight. This was partly because of their location in New York, the media capital of the country. But the Knicks of that era also had undeniable personality. The team boasted center Walt "Clyde" Frazier, a flashy guard with an even flashier wardrobe. Rhodes Scholar "Dollar Bill" Bradley was a thinking man's player, who would become a well-respected U.S Senator from New Jersey and presidential hopeful, but then was a great passer and shooter. And at the hub was gutsy 6-9 Willis Reed.
The physical DeBusschere was indeed the final piece in the Knicks' championship puzzle. "Sometimes he'll score only 4 or 6 points in 40 minutes," Holzman told Newsday. "People say to me: How come you play him so long? I say because he does a hell of a rebounding job for us, a hell of a job on defense for us."
DeBusschere was an immediate hit with the fans, too. In contrast to Frazier and Bradley, DeBusschere was a "regular guy. " A plain-spoken working stiff who enjoyed drinking beers in the locker room after games.
During that 1969-70 season, the Knicks lived up to their fans' expectations. With chants of "DEE-fense" rocking Madison Square Garden, DeBusschere and his teammates roared through the league to a 60-22 record. During the playoffs they shut down the Baltimore Bullets in seven games, then blew past the Milwaukee Bucks and Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in five games to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The championship round was pure drama. It was East versus West and the teamwork of the Knicks against the glamour of the Lakers, who were led by superstars Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. The final contest of the seven-game series is now legendary. Willis Reed, injured and expected to watch from the sidelines, electrified players and viewers alike when he took the court at Madison Square Garden at the start of the game. Limping up and down the floor, he nevertheless scored the Knicks' first two baskets and inspired the team to a 113-99 victory.
Although the courageous Reed won the series MVP Award, DeBusschere had helped contain the much taller, stronger Chamberlain during the Knicks' crucial Game 5 victory. In the deciding Game 7 DeBusschere was superb, firing in 18 points and collecting 17 rebounds while hounding Baylor all over the court.
DeBusschere distinguished himself with stellar defense and reliable offense right up to his retirement at the end of the 1973-74 season. He was the top rebounder and second-leading scorer for the 1972-73 Knicks, who again won a championship. That year he scored 16.3 points per game and made key contributions in a dramatic playoff win in the conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics. With the series knotted at three games apiece, New York traveled to Boston to face the Celtics, who were minus an injured John Havlicek. The Knicks rolled over the feisty Celtics as DeBusschere's defense thwarted Boston center and NBA MVP Dave Cowens.
In his final three seasons, DeBusschere averaged at least 15 points and won selection each year to the All-Star Game and the NBA All-Defensive First Team, a spot seemingly reserved for him since the award's inception. Following his retirement, DeBusschere showed little interest in a coaching position. "My coaching experience at such a young age was one of the best things that happened for me, but I wouldn't want to go back to coaching," he said.
He didn't leave basketball, however, as his leadership skills and coolheaded approach landed him various executive positions in the basketball world. In 1974, DeBusschere served as vice president and general manager of the American Basketball Association's New York Nets. The following year he was hired as commissioner of the ABA and he helped the league merge with the NBA after the 1975-76 season.
In 1982, DeBusschere returned to the Knicks and was appointed executive vice president and director of basketball operations. Perhaps, most remembered in that capacity when he was visibly elated during the broadcast of first NBA Draft Lottery in 1985 that the Knicks won. Winning the lottery enabled the Knicks to select the highly coveted Patrick Ewing. DeBusschere retained the post until the start of the 1986-87 season.
DeBusschere was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, and was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996. He had earned two world championships and had participated in eight NBA All-Star Games, but -- most tellingly -- he had won the universal respect of his peers. During DeBusschere's farewell season Bill Bradley spoke for all his fellow players when he said, "You don't replace a Dave DeBusschere."
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