An NBA game can be the ultimate showcase of individual talent. It can also be the ultimate showcase of teamwork, five players in synch, where the whole is greater than the individual parts.
The 1969-70 New York Knicks were that team. The pieces fit, the players were in the right roles, the ball moved on offense and they were the best defensive team in the NBA. They reached the pinnacle of the sport, winning the franchise's first championship by defeating the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of The Finals.
Seventeen months earlier, the Knicks were in a rough spot. They had talent, but two future Hall of Famers -- Walt Bellamy and Willis Reed -- clashed on the frontline. Another, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, had yet to blossom in the backcourt. But on Dec. 19, 1968, the Knicks traded Bellamy and guard Howard Komives to Detroit for Dave DeBusschere, and the Knicks became that team.
In his book "When the Garden was Eden," Harvey Araton wrote that the Knicks, led by coach Red Holzman, "developed a cohesion that was impossible to plan for on paper.
"As the team grew better, and tighter, often there was no play called at all, just fundamental screen-and-roll movement. The players would communicate with their eyes and body language, five men linked to the central nervous system of the coach, who believed in their basketball IQ and allowed them freedom as long as they followed the scripture: Make the extra pass, find the open man."
DeBusschere's most important performance was in Game 5 of the 1970 Finals, when he was tasked with guarding Wilt Chamberlain after Reed was lost to a right leg injury. The 6-foot-6 DeBusschere held his own against the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain, while forcing the big man to guard him on the perimeter on the other end of the floor, sparking the Knicks to a comeback victory.
Dave DeBusschere was an elite athlete, and his name is on a very short list of players who competed in two professional sports. He pitched two seasons for the Chicago White Sox, amassing an ERA of just 2.90 in 102.1 career innings and throwing a shutout in one of his final Major League Baseball appearances in 1963.
He transitioned full-time to basketball, and the Detroit Pistons made him a player/coach at the age of 24. Being the youngest coach in league history is a remarkable piece of his resume, but DeBusschere humbly looks back at that time and says that it "was a mistake on my part to think that I could do it."
There’s no arguing DeBusschere was a great player, averaging 17.3 points and 12.0 rebounds over his last four full seasons in Detroit. Before the 3-point shot, DeBusschere was a unicorn: a big forward who could outmuscle his opponents on the glass and out-shoot them from the perimeter, as highlighted in this game from 1967 -- against the Knicks no less.
But he was at his best playing with the Knicks. And he was the final piece of the championship puzzle.
DeBusschere's career playoff high came when he scored 33 points in Game 4 of the 1973 Finals, a five-point victory that gave the Knicks a 3-1 series lead. Once again, he came up big in a big moment, helping New York to its second title in four years. Of course, those Knicks, like the '70 title team, had incredible balance, with five guys averaging between 15.6 and 18.6 points per game as they beat the Lakers in five games.
"The Knicks team is like a machine," Frazier said. "If any part is missing, we're not going to function well. But I think without Dave, we'd be in a lot more trouble than maybe without myself or without Willis."
DeBusschere averaged 16.0 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists in his six seasons with the Knicks. But his value went well beyond the numbers. And he was, by one measure, the best defender in the NBA.
There was no Defensive Player of the Year award until the 1982-83 season. But coaches started selecting an All-Defense team in '68-69, the season that DeBusschere was traded to New York. Not only was he selected to the First Team in all six seasons with the Knicks, he also received the most votes in each of his last four seasons in the league.
DeBusschere retired in 1974 but would return to the Knicks in the '80s, serving as director of basketball operations. He was the man who pumped his fist on stage at the 1985 Draft Lottery where New York won the right to select Patrick Ewing with the No. 1 pick.
DeBusschere was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983 and he had his jersey retired by the Knicks in 1981. He died in 2003 at the age of 62.