(Originally posted May 2003)
By Dennis D’Agostino
When the call came that May morning that Dave DeBusschere didn’t make it, that they just couldn’t get him to the hospital in time, the yellow legal pad on my desk was turned to the page headed “DeB”, and sat next to a copy of The Open Man.
Dave and I had been playing phone tag for several weeks. I’d leave messages for him, he’d leave messages for me. I knew someday soon we’d have that long talk, about the trade that brought him to New York, about the Camelot years, about his fabled teammates, about Red, about Lost Battalion Hall and the Vitalis commercial, about winning the Ewing lottery, about everything. It would be any day now, I knew, so I’d have the legal pad turned to the “DeB” page and the copy of his book handy, everything ready to go when the call came.
And then the other call came. The one that said that Dave DeBusschere didn’t make it.
It was a shock unlike any other. Not only for its sheer suddenness and swiftness, but for the fact that the image of Dave DeBusschere was one of sheer indestructibility, of the blue-collar hero of the Knicks’ glory days. Not stylish like Clyde, not dominant like Willis, not smooth like Barnett. The guy in the trenches who, every single night, would take on the NBA’s biggest and brawniest.
Just try getting him out of the lineup. Broken nose? Put a mask on and look like the NBA version of Jacques Plante. A Gus Johnson elbow to the chin? Hell, just give one right back. Pulled muscle? Sprained ankle? We’ll rest tomorrow.
“Dave is a hard-working, straight-forward, meat and potatoes, go-out-and-do-the-job, have-a-beer-afterwards, go-out-and-think-about-the-game guy,” Dave’s old roomie, Bill Bradley, told me earlier this year. “He was a very experienced pro and that was very important to me, but he was also a dear friend. Any time you live with somebody as much as you did with a teammate in those days, you get to know that person very well. And we just had a great personality mesh.
“He was always the guy who was experienced and I was the guy who was learning from him. On the court we had our distinct roles, and he was always somebody with whom I had a free flow of information; he’d suggest this, I’d suggest that. We talked the game a lot.”
People are always amazed to learn that Dave actually played one more full season as a Detroit Piston (six) than he did as a Knick. The deal that brought him to New York during the final days of 1968 --- for Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives --- would, eventually, simply be known as “The Trade”.
Already a three-time All-Star with Detroit, DeBusschere came to New York and provided the final missing ingredient for an already-emerging team. In all of the history of New York sports, it may be the single most perfect transaction ever.
Talk to any number of Knicks fans from that era and they’ll go on and on about Willis’ bravery and Clyde’s coolness and all that. But a surprising number of them will also end the conversation with, “But you know, my favorite was always DeBusschere.” And that wasn’t hard to figure. Not too many of us had mink coats and Rolls Royces like Frazier (the closest we came was a battered pair of Puma Clydes). We couldn’t all be Rhodes Scholars like Bradley, or memory experts like Jerry Lucas or playground magicians like Earl the Pearl.
But everybody could identify with Dave DeBusschere, the down-and-dirty, whatever-it-takes, no-nonsense guy. We could admire the work ethic, the commitment, the attitude (back when that word had a whole different meaning than it does now). We could marvel at the player whose number retirement would be greeted not with a standing ovation or a parade of gifts, but with one final, unprompted chorus of “Dee-fense! Dee-fense!” from the blue seats.
And yet, in so many ways, Dave was a pioneer in his own right. He was a major league pitcher, and not a bad one either (2.91 career ERA). During the Detroit days, he was the Pistons’ player-coach for three seasons, and he’s still the youngest coach in NBA history (24 years old, for goodness sake). His diary of the 1970 season, The Open Man, written with Dick Schaap, was a groundbreaking piece of sports literature. He retired from the Knicks in 1974 to become general manager of the Nets, a job that segued into his becoming the last commissioner of the ABA and a central figure in the merger of 1976.
And even if he never played a game as a Knick, Dave the general manager would still have left one of the indelible images in the franchise’s history: pounding the table in front of him upon winning the Patrick Ewing Lottery in 1985 ---- a single burst of unrestrained joy that signaled the course for the next 15 years of New York City basketball.
Look in the NBA Register, of course, and the accomplishments of a lifetime are there in black and white: Hall of Fame enshrinement in 1982, recognition as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1996. DeBusschere made the NBA’s All-Defensive Team in every season he wore the orange and blue. He tacked on five more All-Star Game appearances, giving him eight in all. He’d average 16 points and 12 rebounds per game in the Playoffs, capped with NBA titles in 1970 and 1973. Three decades after his last game, he’s still the seventh-best all-time rebounder in Knicks history. And number 22 has been in the Garden rafters since 1981.
He did not have any single defining moments as a Knick, like Willis or Frazier did or like players like Bernard King or Allan Houston would. And yet when the Knicks won their first NBA championship, it was Dave and Dave alone who made the cover of Sports Illustrated, face sweaty, hair matted, mouth agape in an expression of intensity and exhilaration.
And perhaps his greatest game as a Knick came in a game they had to have: Game 4 of the 1973 Finals against the Lakers. Thirty-three points, 13-for-21 from the field, 14 rebounds. And the Knicks would need every single bit of it. A 13-point lead had melted down to two with under a minute left, and now Bradley missed badly from the corner. DeBusschere somehow got a hand up over Wilt Chamberlain, grabbed the rebound, put it back, laid it in, got fouled. Yesss, and it counts. They’d wrap up the championship two days later.
It was the greatest play in Knicks history that absolutely no one remembers. It was the one I couldn’t wait to ask him about.
Then the Knicks ---- young and old ---- came together in sadness again, just as they did five years ago when Red Holzman died. And once again, they will dedicate their season to the memory of a departed legend. This is so different, of course. Red had lived a rich, full life, had given so much over the course of 78 years before falling ill. But Knicks Nation never, ever, had to deal with something as shocking and sudden as this.
The legal pad and The Open Man stayed on my desk for a long time. And a lot of New Yorkers my age --- who don’t have to go to the history books to remember Kent State and the Miracle Mets and Mayor Lindsay --- had a hard time getting out emotions around it all.
But ultimately, what Dave DeBusschere left behind will outlast the way he left us. And what he left us was a single image, a work ethic, a philosophy of life and basketball that would stamp him as forever indestructible.