The DeBusschere Debacle

Homegrown icon DeBusschere could have sped Pistons’ rise to prominence

It took the Pistons almost a full quarter-century after landing in Detroit to really belly up to the bar. It would have been a tough slog for them even if they’d done everything right in those early years. Mostly, they did much wrong.

Maybe their biggest gaffe? Trading away Dave DeBusschere after abusing him for the six-plus years – making him a player-coach at age 24, for starters – they were lucky enough to have him.

When the Pistons arrived in Detroit from Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1957, look at the landscape that greeted them. The Lions were weeks away from winning their third NFL title in five years, led by swashbuckling Bobby Layne. The Red Wings were on a streak of seven straight first-place finishes in the NHL with the peerless Gordie Howe having led them to four Stanley Cups over that span.

And the Tigers were the Tigers – they’d owned Detroit since the Ty Cobb days. Baseball was king, the Tigers had World Series titles in 1935 and ’45 to sustain them, and an adored star, Al Kaline, carved into the Mount Rushmore of Detroit sports.

The Pistons needed someone who could muscle his way onto that marquee with Layne and Howe and Kaline. They couldn’t have drawn up a better candidate than Dave DeBusschere if they had ordered him from central casting.

DeBusschere had led Detroit Austin to the 1958 Michigan Class A state title, winning in one of the most anticipated matches in state history by downing Benton Harbor and another future NBA great, Chet “The Jet” Walker.

From there, he starred for four years at the University of Detroit in an era when college basketball in most markets – Detroit among them – held far more resonance than the fledgling NBA. That’s another way of saying that when DeBusschere became a Piston in 1962, granted to them by the NBA’s territorial draft of the day, he was in position to do far more for them than they were for him.

DeBusschere also was an accomplished baseball pitcher good enough to crack the White Sox roster at 22. Before giving up baseball for basketball, DeBusschere put up a 2.90 ERA in more than 100 innings. He was Chip Hilton and Jack Armstrong rolled into one and he was homegrown, to boot. Any half-witted marketing guy – and the NBA was wholly dependent on marketing in the early days – would have pushed ownership to build the franchise around him.

The Pistons didn’t have championship parts in place – not in an era where Red Auerbach had Bill Russell and more smarts than the rest of his peers running NBA teams combined – and what little they did have, they managed to rid themselves of. They traded Gene Shue after the 1963 season – Shue’s parting shot: “Detroit has the worst management in the league” – and then, to appease gruff coach Charley Wolf, sent Bailey Howell, Don Ohl, Bob Ferry and Wally Jones away after a 23-57 1963-64 season. That was DeBusschere’s second year, one in which he was limited to 15 games by injury.

By the 1967-68 season, DeBusschere’s sixth, the Pistons had crept back toward respectability. With the No. 2 pick in the previous draft, they’d taken Dave Bing – after being crushed because they’d lost a coin flip with New York for the right to grab Michigan All-American Cazzie Russell – and Bing had averaged 27.1 as a rookie.

Bing and DeBusschere should have been the foundation for a great five- or six-year run. With Bing’s scoring flair reducing the onus on DeBusschere to produce points, he could blossom as the phenomenal all-around player he would come to be known as with the Knicks.

DeBusschere, at 6-foot-6, was a tremendous rebounder and defender, but he could shoot the ball past 20 feet – if there’d been a 3-point line back then, he would have made it a weapon – and he was as clutch as they come. There’s a reason DeBusschere was named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all-time.

The story goes that new Pistons coach Paul Seymour, who went 22-38 after taking over for Donnis Butcher 22 games into the 1968-69 season and wasn’t invited back for the following year, urged the trading of DeBusschere because he was tired of his sulking. If, indeed, DeBusschere had grown weary of being the good soldier, is it any wonder given the managerial incompetence that had surrounded him for his tenure in Detroit?

The return was journeyman point guard Howard Komives and 7-footer Walt Bellamy, who had splashed into the NBA in 1961-62 with Chamberlainesque impact, averaging a stunning 31.6 points and 19.0 rebounds as a rookie. But he’d worn out welcomes in Baltimore and New York and had a reputation as a malcontent. He proved it in Detroit, lasting a mere 109 games. In his second season with the Pistons, his scoring sunk to 10 a game before they moved him to Atlanta in a trade that netted the Pistons one John Arthurs, whose NBA career consisted of 22 games the previous season for Milwaukee. He never suited up for the Pistons.

The Pistons had turned one of the 50 greatest in NBA history and a player embraced by the hard-bitten New York audience as one of that city’s most beloved teams into a try-hard guard, Komives, and a non-entity.

Ultimately, Bing was traded away when the spinning of the wheels continued, and later still Jack McCloskey rightfully concluded it was time to trade away Bob Lanier, too, for the chance to rebuild and finally get it right.

Properly run, the Pistons could have put either Bing or Lanier up on that marquee and sped up the timetable on the franchise’s rise to relevance in Detroit. Dave DeBusschere should have beat them both to the punch. Instead, it was left to Isiah Thomas and the work McCloskey subsequently put in that got the Pistons finally bellied up to the bar.