So who’s my favorite Detroit Piston of all time? That’s a question I’ve been wrestling with in recent weeks. I have long liked Bill Laimbeer, whose unsportsmanlike persona always overshadowed his skills in shooting and rebounding. Vinnie Johnson was always fun to watch, given the way that “The Microwave” could enter a game and carry the team’s offense, sometimes for a full quarter at a time. And in more recent years, I have appreciated the talents of Chauncey Billups, one of the most underrated point guards of the current century.
To find my favorite, however, we need to go back to the 1960s. That’s when Dave DeBusschere starred for the franchise. DeBusschere would gain greater fame for his future assignment with the New York Knicks, a team that he would eventually help to two NBA titles. It’s easy to forget that DeBusschere played the first eight seasons of his professional career with the Pistons, where he began to establish a reputation as one of the game’s all-around forwards. He was all of six feet, six inches tall, but he played greater than that height would indicate, in an era when seven footers were still rare and skills like rebounding, passing, and defense were highlighted more than sheer height and athleticism.
DeBusschere’s connections to Detroit ran deep. Born and bred in the city, he starred at Austin Catholic Preparatory School. As a junior, he earned All-State honors. As a senior, he led the school to a high school championship. He fouled out in the title game, but not before scoring 32 crucial points to help seal the win.
In addition to basketball, DeBusschere starred in baseball at Austin Catholic. (It was a sport that he would pursue as a professional, but without the success of his hardwood career.) As a collegian, he chose to keep his talents in the city, signing a letter of intent to attend the University of Detroit Mercy. Continuing to play both sports at the college level, he became a regular participant in postseason play. In baseball, he pitched in three NCAA tournaments. In basketball, he helped the Titans to two berths in the National Invitation Tournament and one appearance in the NCAAs.
The rules of the day allowed DeBusschere to continue his professional career locally, at least in the NBA. At the time, the NBA employed a territorial draft. The Pistons took him with their top selection in 1962—and didn’t regret the home grown nepotism for a moment. As a rookie small forward, DeBusschere moved right into the starting lineup and averaged over 12 points and eight rebounds per game, a major factor in pushing the Pistons to the playoffs. He wasn’t yet a star, but his solid first-year performance earned him selection to the league’s all-rookie team.
Seemingly on the verge of becoming an All-Star, DeBusschere suffered a setback in his second season. An injury limited him to only 15 games, stunting his development. The injury killed the Pistons, who were forced to play without their rugged rebounder and supreme defender and won only 23 games all winter long.
By his third season, DeBusschere regained his health. He also gained the trust of Pistons management. With his incredible intelligence and basketball IQ, DeBusschere so impressed the Pistons that they made him their player/coach. (The Pistons also hoped that the extra assignment would convince him to give up pursuit of a baseball career. The strategy worked—eventually.) Becoming the Lou Boudreau of basketball, DeBusschere assumed the coaching reins at only 24 years old. Remarkably, DeBusschere was out of college only 18 months when the Pistons asked him to become the youngest head coach in NBA history.
As it turned out, the coaching assignment was an example of too much, too soon. DeBusschere struggled to balance both jobs. With the Pistons, he had little talent, other than himself, at his disposal. After three seasons, the Pistons removed DeBusschere from coaching duties, allowing him to concentrate on his playing career. Not surprisingly, DeBusschere played better without the burden of day-to-day coaching. “As soon as I was back on my own again, I had my best season,” DeBusschere once told Newsday. “I was scoring better, rebounding better, defending better, and doing everything else better.” His shooting percentage improved from 41 to 44 per cent, while his rebounding averages climbed from just under 11 per game to 12 and a half per night. Not so coincidentally, the Pistons made the playoffs that spring.
DeBusschere’s continued production—and effort—drew praise around the league. No one’s motor ran as endlessly as DeBusschere’s. “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,” veteran power forward Bill Bridges of the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks once told Newsday.
That level of effort was especially evident on the defensive side of the ball. Known as a stopper, DeBusschere played rugged man-to-man defense. Though he often matched up against taller forwards, DeBusschere held most of his opponents below their scoring averages.
In 1968, DeBusschere moved from small forward to power forward, his more natural position, but the team struggled so badly out of the gate that it cost head coach Donnis “Donnie” Butcher his job. With the team spinning its wheels and in need of help at center, new coach Paul Seymour pushed for a Piston makeover. On December 18, the Pistons announced a blockbuster deal, sending DeBusschere to the Knicks for center Walt Bellamy and veteran guard Howard “Butch” Komives.
With the trade, the Pistons felt they had solidified themselves at two key positions, center and point guard. But the reality turned out much differently. The Pistons sputtered, winning only 32 games on the season and performing worse for Seymour than they had played for Butcher. The Pistons would remain a sub-.500 team the next season, not beginning to show any promise until the 1970-71 season, when they won 41 games under coach Butch van Breda Kolff.
In the meantime, DeBusschere emerged as the glue to the Knicks, who made him a fulltime power forward. A perfect complement to Willie Reed at center, DeBusschere gave the Knicks interior defense and rebounding, while adapting well to the unselfish system of team basketball espoused by head coach Red Holzman. That spring, the Knicks qualified for the playoffs, advancing to the Eastern Division finals before losing to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics.
Not to worry. The next season, the Knicks were ready to play for a championship. They defeated the Baltimore Bullets in the Eastern Division semifinals, dismantled the Milwaukee Bucks in five games in the Eastern finals, and then took down the favored Los Angeles Lakers in a memorable seven-game championship. DeBusschere played brilliantly in the finals, leading the Knicks in rebounding while scoring over 19 points a game, second only to the heroic Reed.
By the time that DeBusschere finished his playing tenure in New York, the Knicks had won two championships. Along with Reed, fellow forward Bill Bradley, and the backcourt of Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, DeBusschere helped create a mini-dynasty. No one seemed to care that the Knicks lacked the size of many other NBA teams; the way they played the game, emphasizing passing, precision, and defense, made the Knicks a legitimately great team.
Once DeBusschere retired from playing, he remained in the game—but not as a coach. Discouraged by his first tenure coaching the Pistons, he opted for the front office, becoming the vice-president and general manager of the New York Nets of the rival ABA.
It’s not often that retired players become commissioners of their sport, but that’s exactly what the highly intelligent and businesslike DeBusschere did. Giving up his post at the head of the Nets, he agreed to become commissioner of the ABA, giving the upstart league some instant credibility. Under DeBusschere’s guidance, the ABA eventually negotiated a merger with the NBA, allowing four of their teams to integrate into the more established league.
Later on, DeBusschere returned to the front office, this time with the Knicks. Though his tenure as Knicks GM was generally disappointing, he did oversee the selection of Patrick Ewing, who was gifted to the Knicks through the draft lottery.
That turned out to be DeBusschere’s last job in basketball. Though seemingly healthy, he suffered a massive heart attack while walking on a Manhattan street in May of 2003. Taken to a nearby hospital, he was pronounced dead, at the relatively young age of 62.
While DeBusschere is best remembered for what he did as an executive and as a member of those wonderful Knicks teams, it’s advisable not to forget what he did during nearly a decade of professional basketball in Detroit. He was the working man’s star, a tireless player who rebounded and defended his way right into the Basketball Hall of Fame.