The Big D

Very few players in the NBA are celebrated for their defensive abilities. Fans of the game look for high-scorers, fancy dunks, or dazzling moves with the ball. However, these showy abilities are only what bring fans to a game: it is the intangible qualities, not always the statistics, which will lead a team to championships. Dave DeBusschere never became a household name like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, or Larry Bird, but he worked harder and provided at least as much assistance, if not more, to his team than any other player in NBA history.

David Albert DeBusschere, “The Big D,” was born in Detroit, Michigan, on October 16, 1940, into a poor family. Even as a child, his incredible athletic talent was evident, mostly through his hard work. Later in his life, DeBusschere would become famous for his relentless practice. The term “blue-collar basketball” would be coined during his lifetime in order to describe the way DeBusschere put everything into every step of his game. Bill Bridges of the Atlanta Hawks once told Newsday that “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.”

DeBusschere may not have been the flashiest player, but he was tough as nails. On the court, few other players in the history of the game were as intimidating. DeBusschere would stalk the offense with a completely expressionless face. With his wild black hair and rugged looks, DeBusschere looked more like an asylum patient than a professional basketball player. The great basketball players of his day, including many who would later be inducted into the hall of fame, talked openly of fearing him more than any other player they would ever face.

Early Athletics

His athletic talents did not end at the basketball court, either. During his stay at Austin Catholic High School, he would lead both the basketball team and the baseball team, as a pitcher, to state championships. He later pitched his team to the National Junior Championship, with his cold stare and trademark grimace. He gained nationwide attention before he was even a senior in high school.

Despite what might have been hundreds of offers from colleges across the country, DeBusschere opted to stay home and play for the University of Detroit. He averaged 24.8 points a game for the Titans in addition to his stonewall defense, leading them to the NCAA tournament and two National Invitation Tournaments despite a having a weak team overall. He transferred his skills to baseball in the spring, leading them through his fiery pitching to three NCAA tournaments. DeBusschere’s skills would lead him to become an All-American three times from 1959 to 1962.

After his graduation, DeBusschere was faced with a tough decision. He was a guaranteed first-round pick in both baseball, the most popular sport in the country, and basketball, which was on the rise and had excellent competition. DeBusschere, who loved both sports, astounded the country when he decided to play both professional sports. There was no break for DeBusschere now, he was playing a professional sports game almost every day of the year. The rising talent received a $75,000 signing bonus from the Chicago White Sox and a $15,000 contract from the Detroit Pistons.

Major League Baseball and the NBA

After seeing little play in Chicago, earning a 3-4 record and 3.09 ERA, DeBusschere quit in 1963 after two years to focus on basketball. During his first season in the NBA, DeBusschere averaged 12.7 points as a forward and was selected for the NBA All-Rookie team. He brought a physical style to the game that would later become the mark of the Pistons. Very few players could take the offensive rebound like DeBusschere did, and even fewer wanted to be near him. Although he seemed like a brute, behind his façade he was a coolheaded, analytical player. In tight situations, the Pistons would even use him as a guard, where he could take advantage of his quick-thinking and surprisingly accurate long shot. He led to the Pistons to the playoffs, where they lost in the first round.

Unfortunately, DeBusschere broke his leg in a freak accident during his second season and only played in 15 games. The following season, after a poor start for Detroit, Fred Zollner made a bold move and appointed DeBusschere player-coach of the Pistons, who was only eighteen months out of college. At 24 year old, DeBusschere became the youngest coach in NBA history. He was, however, plagued by one of the worst surrounding casts in the league and, as a result, failed. When DeBusschere asked what team member the other managers were willing to trade for, they responded only with “you.”

At the end of the 1967 season, Donnis Butcher replaced DeBusschere, with his measly 79-143 record, as head coach. He was traded by the Pistons soon afterwards, which was possibly the greatest thing to happen to him in his NBA career. The New York Knicks, who were no short on talent, ravenously pursued DeBusschere, trading established center Walt Bellamy and the guard Howard Komives.

Finding a Home in New York

DeBusschere flourished in his new environment, with hall of famer Willis Reed at center, Bill Bradley as the other forward, and the quick, accurate Cazzie Russell at guard. He averaged 16.3 points a game and earned a spot on the All-NBA second team. Despite his talented teammates, DeBusschere quickly became the star of the team, leading the Knicks to the Eastern Divison finals, where they lost in a nail-biter to the Boston Celtics.

DeBusschere played an important role in the Knicks’ game plan. He was most famous for his offensive rebounds and would often play as a defender to the opposing team’s best player. In addition, DeBusschere could be a surprisingly efficient offensive force. He would often catch opponents off guard and score in streaks; when he got hot he was often unstoppable. NBA coach Richie Guerin said, “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.” For his efforts, DeBusschere was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team in 1969, the first year of the team’s existence. He would remain on the team for the next six years until he retired.

The 1969-1970 New York Knicks team was laden with stars. In addition to their former cast, they now had Walt “Clyde” Frazier, one of the most popular players in the NBA. DeBusschere remained a fan favorite, though, due to his normal personality. Instead of being a rock star, DeBusschere was just a normal man playing basketball. People felt that they could relate to his down-to-earth nature. Although he was just a regular guy, he was a god on the basketball court and helped lead the Knicks to a 60-22 record during the regular season.

They defeated (barely) the Baltimore Bullets in the first round of the playoffs and then proceeded to best the Milwaukee Bucks, boasting their new center Lew Alcindor (who would later be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). In the finals they faced the Los Angeles Lakers in one of the most hyped NBA finals of all time. It was the great showdown: the old East Coast center of America versus the sparkling heart of the West Coast. The LA team was one of the best the team had ever assembled, including Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West. In a breathtaking seven games, the Knicks emerged victorious after a 113-99 victory. Although Willis Reed won the MVP award due to the fact that he played in the final game despite a rather serious injury, DeBusschere contributed the most throughout the series. He was the finest player to ever guard the omnipotent Chamberlain, completely shutting him down whenever he was called upon even though his 6 foot 6, 225 pound figure was worlds smaller than the Los Angeles beast. Chamberlain himself later admitted that DeBusschere was the toughest defender he had ever faced. The rest of the time DeBusschere spent denying Baylor of any chance whatsoever at having an impact on the game. In the finale of the series, DeBusschere shut down their top scorer in addition to scoring 18 points and garnering 17 rebounds.

DeBusschere would later lead the Knicks to another victory during the 1972-1973 season against the Lakers, again establishing himself as the leagues top rebounder. In the semifinals their conference, DeBusschere performed one of the greatest shows of defensive prowess in the history of the league when he smothered Boston Celtics center and NBA MVP Bill Cowens. Unlike every other professional basketball player, DeBusschere was like a fine wine; he would only improve with age.

Retirement and Further NBA Involvement

After retiring in 1974, DeBusschere accepted a position as general manager and vice president of the New York Nets. He later became the commissioner of the American Basketball Association and pioneered the merge of the ABA and NBA. He returned to the Knicks in 1982 to become the director of basketball operations. In a smart move, he picked up Patrick Ewing, one of the greatest centers to ever play for the Knicks. A year later, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

DeBusschere preferred to live a peaceful life away from the press after his retirement. The few who knew anything about were for those who played for his team. DeBusschere was quietly involved with the Knicks for the rest of his life. On May 14, 2003, DeBusschere died of a heart attack.

Awards and Honors:

NBA All-Rookie Team (1963)
Eight time NBA All-Star
Six time All NBA Defensive Team
Two NBA Championships (1970, 1973)
Elected into the Hall of Fame (1983)
NBA 50th Anniversary All-time Team (1996)

Career Averages:

Rebounds: 9,618
Rebounds per game: 11.0
Points: 14,053
Points per game: 16.1
Assists: 2,497
Steals: 67
Field goal percentage: .432
Games played: 875


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