By Neil Beldock
When constructing my personal All-Time Starting 5, Dave DeBusschere gets serious, serious consideration as my starting power forward. This may surprise many, but none who actually saw him play.
Growing up in New York in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and being a die-hard Knicks fan, I was lucky to have experienced Dave DeBusschere. Yes, I watched him play, but watching DeBusschere play undermines his true value; you had to experience Dave DeBusschere to truly understand what he was about and how great he was.
DeBuschere’s nickname was “Big D” and the “D” stood for “Defense” in a very big way. At 6 feet 6 inches tall and 225 pounds, DeBuschere was a bruising, hard-nosed, blue collar, tenacious player with an unparalleled work ethic. He is widely recognized by those of his time as one of the great defensive players of all time. He was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team in each of the first six years the NBA named an all defensive team.
When DeBusschere stepped on the court he meant business. With a “set jaw and determined grimace” opposing players knew they were in for a battle when playing against DeBusschere. Said Bill Bridges, another bruising power forward of the time, ” There’s not one other guy in the league who gives the 100% DeBusschere does, every night, every game of the season, at both ends of the court”.
Said legendary New York Knicks coach Red Holzman: “I didn’t realize he was as good as he was until we got him. I always knew he was an outstanding player, but not this good.”
Said Hall of Fame player and coach Richie Guerin: “Dave is one of the 10 best forwards I have ever seen play basketball, and he may just be one of the 5 or 6 best I’ve ever seen.”
DeBusschere worked so hard that by the end of the game his jersey would be soaked with sweat and he would be seen sitting in the locker room, exhausted and drinking a six-pack of beer.
But DeBusschere was by no means a one-dimensional player. He was not just a defensive tour-de-force. He had an offensive game as well as evidenced by his career scoring average of 16.1 points per game, averaging a career double-double when combined with his 11.0 rebounds per game career average.
DeBusschere had unlimited range which projects to him being a highly effective 3-point shooter if he were to play in today’s game. (The 3-point shot was not a part of the NBA when DeBusschere played.) In many ways, when watching film of DeBusschere and the shooting range he possessed, although the terminology wasn’t recognized as such back then, he may have been the first true “Stretch 4”. Few if any power forwards of that time period could step 18-23 feet from the basket and consistently stick jump shots. Not only could DeBusschere do that, he did.
Never was DeBusschere’s prowess more on display than in Game 5 of the 1970 NBA Championship Series against the Los Angeles Lakers. Early in the game the Knicks captain, leader and league MVP Willis Reed went down with a serious hip injury. A stunned Knicks team fell behind badly. At halftime the strategy was devised whereby DeBusschere would move from his standard power forward position to center and battle the powerful and dominant Wilt Chamberlain, to whom DeBusschere was giving up half a foot in height and over 50 pounds.
The strategy worked to perfection. DeBusschere’s physical strength allowed him to control Chamberlain in the low post despite giving up so much size and weight, and his shooting range pulled Chamberlain away from the basket opening up the lane for the Knicks offense to thrive. The Knicks stormed back and won Game 5 keeping them alive in the series.
In game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals, a game in which the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers to win their first NBA championship, Walt Frazier is the player who is most remembered as he had maybe the greatest Game 7 in NBA history with a stat line of 36 points, 19 assists and 7 rebounds, overshadowing the amazing game DeBusschere put forth. Once again, battling in the paint and on the boards against Wilt Chamberlain, DeBusschere posted a stat line of 18 points and 17 rebounds, a truly dominant performance in it’s own right.
As great a defender as DeBusschere was, and as effective an offensive player as he was, what really set DeBusschere apart was his leadership skills. Said DeBusschere: “The best teams have chemistry. They communicate with each other and they sacrifice personal glory for a common goal”.
What may very well be a forgotten or unknown fact is that Dave DeBusschere was and is the youngest head coach ever in the NBA. During the 1964-65 season, at the age of 24 DeBusschere was named player-coach of the Detroit Pistons.
Now, I am going to go out on a limb and say this will be maybe the most unbreakable record of all time. Yes, Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak will be a real challenge to break, and may in fact never be broken, but can anyone really imagine a 24 year old being given the head coaching job of an NBA team today? It was an almost absurd thought back then. A 24 year old is not given that level of authority without having shown exceptional leadership qualities and great maturity, to say the least.
And speaking about baseball, another perhaps forgotten and/or unknown fact is that DeBusschere started out as a two-sport star, playing both professional basketball and baseball at the same time.
In 1962 DeBusschere was drafted by both the Detroit Pistons of the NBA and the Chicago White Sox of the Americn League. His major league baseball accomplishments include pitching a shutout against the Cleveland Indians on August 13, 1963, allowing just six hits while striking out three and walking one batter. He remained in the White Sox organization for two more years before giving up baseball in order to focus upon playing and coaching basketball.
It was the trade of DeBuschere from the Detroit Pistons to the Knicks on December 19, 1968 which provided the Knicks with the final piece of the puzzle which led to the only two NBA Championships won by the Knicks in 1970 and 1973.
I am of the opinion (having watched every game of the series) that, had DeBusschere not sprained his ankle, tremendously limiting his effectiveness during the 1972 NBA Finals against the Lakers, there would be a third Knicks championship. The Knicks had won game 1 of the series in Los Angeles. After DeBusschere’s injury they were just not the same and lost 4 straight with a very, very limited DeBusschere.
DeBusschere’s career is marked with being a 2-time NBA Champion, 8-time NBA All-Star, 6-time NBA 1st Team All Defensive Team, 1-time NBA 2nd Team All Defensive Team, NBA All-Rookie 1st Team and being named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. He was elected to the Basketball Hall-of-Fame in Springfield Massachusetts in 1983 and the College Basketball Hall-of-Fame in 2006.
In 1981, DeBuschere’s #22 was retired by the Knicks. What made this on-court ceremony particularly poignant and emotional was that when introduced to the sell-out crowd to make his acceptance speech, the sell-out crowd immediately broke into an unrelenting cheer of “Defense, Defense, Defense”, a cheer made popular by the fans at Madison Square Garden during Debusschere’s playing days for the Knicks and due to DeBuschere’s style of play and defensive dominance.
His accomplishments didn’t stop once he retired from basketball in 1974. In 1975 he was named Commissioner of the American Basketball Association (ABA) and was instrumental in bringing about the merger between the NBA and ABA later that year. During the 1980’s he was the Director of Operations for the Knicks and, in that position, drafted Patrick Ewing in 1985.
Unfortunately, DeBusschere was lost way too early. In May 2003 he collapsed on a street in downtown Manhattan, suffering a fatal heart attack at the age of 62.
For more about Dave Debusschere please click on the amazon link below to review and purchase the book he authored “The Open Man”, a chronicle of the Knicks 1969-70 championship season and one of the books on our Recommended Reading list.