Forward Thinking, 1971

Dave DeBusschere did it all during his pro basketball career—NBA all-rookie team, eight-time NBA all-star, two-time NBA champion, NBA player-coach at age 24, ABA commissioner, NBA general manager, and finally a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. His capsule description in the Hall of Fame, begins with this telling sentence, “Dave DeBusschere was a defensive stopper who could take the air out of opponents with his physical brand of ball.” 

As a defensive stopper, DeBusschere was eminently qualified to rank the best of his fellow forwards. In this article, written by the great Murray Janoff, DeBusschere ranks which forwards “give him the most trouble.” Big Dave, or “Mr. Buffalo” (read further), is reluctant to wax on about his opponents. But his perspective here remains valuable today when thinking back to the early 1970s NBA. The article ran in the magazine Pro Basketball Special, 1971-72.

Dave DeBusschere

Dave DeBusschere has his medals and his scars for being the No. 1 defensive player in the National Basketball Association. 

Undoubtedly, he would prefer to have the medals. His scars include memories of terrible leg cramps, pure exhaustion, nightly cuts and bruises, and a broken nose in what may be determined as the oddest play ever allowed in basketball. 

It was a simple play to start with. As usual, DeBusschere used his strong body and perfect timing to get the rebound in a duel with a couple of monsters in the muscular world of pro ball. 

But if you’re getting paid to score against the league’s best defensive player, sometimes a broken nose becomes good strategy. This night it was. DeBusschere let the ball go to grab his beak. He collapsed in full view of a packed audience in the Lakers’ Forum. 

And the strangest thing is that the officials working the game allowed the other guy to pick up the ball and score. However, this merely points out one of the sure ways to play well against DeBusschere. In those areas where athletic prowess, physical finesse, and muscular mayhem within reason is acceptable, DeBusschere is supreme on defense. 

He is the first forward ever voted the league’s top defensive player. For years, Bill Russell dominated this honor as Boston’s center. The last two years, the award, voted by the 17 NBA coaches, went to Walt Frazier, DeBusschere’s teammate on the New York Knicks, for his backcourt thievery. 

DeBusschere, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound cornerman who received 32 out of a possible 34 points in the coaches’ voting, was asked to rate the forwards.

Who gives him the most trouble?

Who is the toughest to stop scoring? Who is the toughest on the boards?

So he ranked his current opponents this way:

  1. Billy Cunningham, Philadelphia 76ers.
  2. Connie Hawkins, Phoenix Suns. 
  3. Gus Johnson, Baltimore Bullets.
  4. Tom Van Arsdale, Cincinnati Royals
  5. Chet Walker, Chicago Bulls.

He added:

“It isn’t easy to nail down one guy or even a few guys in this league. There are so many of them, and each one can be tough.

“I’m thankful, for example, that players like Tom Meschery and Bailey Howell have retired. And I can’t forget the forwards I played with on the Knicks. A smart player like Bill Bradley or quick players like Dave Stallworth or Cazzie Russell. A Cazzie Russell can be as explosive as anyone can get in basketball. He’s one of the best in the game. There’s no anticipation in wanting to guard men like them. I’m glad I didn’t have to. I don’t look forward  to facing Cazzie this year when he plays for San Francisco. 

“And now that Jerry Lucas is with the Knicks, I have to be glad I don’t have to play against him anymore. Lucas is good inside and outside. You always have to be conscious of him. When a team plays to him, he’s tough.”

They call DeBusschere “Mr. Buffalo” in some parts of the world. It provides a quaint mental picture of how difficult it must be to move around against him on a basketball court. The reason, however, is different:

“I’m of Belgian descent,” he explained. “They call us ‘Buffaloes’ because of our build and because of the fact most Belgians migrated to the Midwest through the city of Buffalo.”

It’s an entertaining explanation, but now about those trying nights on a basketball court. 

“First,” DeBusschere said, “I have to say that Elgin Baylor was the toughest I EVER had to guard. He isn’t anymore. He’s not what he used to be. The reasons I would have to say are simply age and the toll of his operations. But Elgin had more moves than any of them. He could do it all. He could jump, hook, drive, rebound. In his prime he was also strong , though not in the same class as a Gus Johnson or a Bill Bridges. He was great.”

Now with Baylor part of his past, DeBusschere picks Cunningham as his No. 1 problem. 

Billy Cunningham

“Cunningham and John Havlicek are probably harder to stop from scoring on a one-on-one situation than anybody else,” DeBusschere said. 

“Of course, I can’t consider Havlicek a forward , even though he plays up front sometime. I’m thankful I don’t have to play him often. Actually, I consider him a guard. He handles the ball for Boston more than a forward usually does.  

“But Cunningham does amazing things for Philadelphia. He is probably the quickest and fastest and best offensive forward in the league. He’s got a good outside shot. You have to play up on him, and then you have to be careful because he drives so well. He’s just tough to play.”

This brings us to No. 2 . . . Hawkins. 

Connie Hawkins

“No doubt about it,” DeBusschere said. “Hawkins is the second toughest offensive forward in the league. He handles the ball well for a big man and he’s a fine shooter. He moves very good and you have to be careful of his passing. He covers a wide area.“ 

Johnson, No. 3.

Gus Johnson

“Gus is a guy who loves to play inside,” DeBusschere said. “He’s somewhat along the lines as Bill Bridges who is a very physical individual. The main thing with Bridges is that he has an outside shot if you give it to him, and he’s strong under the boards. That’s where you have to work to keep him away. He does a fine job for the Hawks, but Johnson is a little quicker than Bridges. He’s more elusive. He moves more. I think he’s more conscious of the offensive end than Bridges is. He has more shots. He can do more.”  

Tom Van Arsdale, No. 4 . . .

Tom Van Arsdale

“Some people don’t realize what Tom does out there. I wish he’d play guard like his twin brother, Dick, does in Phoenix. He is strong, stronger than he looks, and he’s quicker than he looks. He penetrates and gets to the boards very well. It’s a tough night with him every night.”

Chet Walker, No. 5 . . .

“When you talk about Chet Walker, you talk about Chicago’s pair of forwards. He and Bob Love are somewhat similar. I think Love has improved tremendously and because he’s as good as he is, it makes Walker more effective, and vice versa. They are probably the strongest pair of forwards offensively in the league. Walker isn’t the physical type, just strong. And the whole pattern of things in Chicago makes it tough for me because they run a lot of plays for their forwards.”

Chet Walker

Asked to rate other forwards, in order, DeBusschere threw up his hands literally and said, “it’s impossible. So many; so many good ones.”

But he ran through a list of others . . .

Bob Dandridge, Milwaukee Bucks—”He’ll be one of the better ones. If he gets a little stronger, it will help him. He can run and shoot and jump; he can do a lot of things. His biggest asset is speed. On second thought, maybe if he puts on weight it would make him slower.”

Spencer Haywood, Seattle SuperSonics—“He handles the ball real well for a big man. He resembles Connie Hawkins a lot in style, perhaps not as good a shooter, but a better rebounder. Remember he’s young. Age will help him. I expect he’ll be a good one.” 

Johnny Green, Cincinnati Royals—”It’s difficult to describe him. His probably is quick and dangerous at 37 in most forwards are at 21. He’s phenomenal. He’s just so effective around the basket. He’s difficult to guard. I don’t enjoy this.”

In conversation, though he didn’t intend this, DeBusschere had produced another batch uppermost in his mind . . . Baylor, his Knick teammate, Bridges, Love, Green, Dandridge, Haywood. 

Then, going team by team . . . DeBusschere name the other men he guards . . .

ATLANTA—”I have to figure Lou Hudson more of a guard and when he’s playing forward I don’t guard him much. Jim Davis is 6 -9 or so. He is not an exceptional outside shooter , but is much taller than most. The problem is trying to keep him off the boards.”

BALTIMORE—”Jack Marin has improved tremendously the last couple of years. He runs very well and, with his long outside shot, he’s very effective. He’s another I’m glad I don’t guard much. John Tresvant is very aggressive. The whole idea with him is to keep him off the boards. He’s not a great outside shooter. He just does great things inside.   

BOSTON—”I’m happy Dave Cowens doesn’t play much at forward. Let them keep him at center. But they have typical Boston forwards, the strong, running type. Steve Kuberski is one. He’s getting his experience. Don Nelson is one of the veterans. He’s the deceptive type. He doesn’t look quick , but he isn’t slow. He throws a lot of fakes and tries to draw the foul a lot. The main thing is you can’t overplay him. Tom Sanders is quick for a big guy, but I haven’t seen much of him for a couple of years. 

BUFFALO—”Don May (he’s now with Atlanta) started driving to the basket when he was with New York. He’s smaller than most, but he’s quick. His game is based on the drive. But he can take that one step , stop, and jump it too. John Hummer worked to the hoop well for a guy in his first season. If he had one glaring weakness against us, it was his outside shooting.”

CLEVELAND—”I guess Bobby Smith was their best offensive forward. But like the rest of the team, he needs more experience. 

CHICAGO AND CINCINNATI—”I’ve already spoken about their guys . . .”

DETROIT—”One man I’ve got to play all over the floor is Terry Dischinger. He’s a good shooter. He’s got the outside shot , and a good hook shot in close. The others, Terry Driscoll, Bill Hewitt, Erwin Mueller, don’t have the consistent outside shot. They like to get the ball in. They got a lot of tip-ins.”

LOS ANGELES—”Like I said, I don’t think Elgin Baylor will ever be the same Elgin Baylor. I don’t guard Keith Erickson when he’s playing up front, and I haven’t been against Jim McMillian yet. But Happy Hairston is someone you have to watch all the time. He moves so well. He takes off for the hangar before you know it, and he can outrun most guys too.” 

MILWAUKEE—”In addition to Bob Dandridge, they’ve got Bob Boozer and Greg Smith. Boozer Is an inside shooter. He likes the ball around the key. He’s big. He doesn’t outrun you, but you have to be careful when he gets the ball in close. Smith jumps well. You have to concentrate on keeping him from getting to the basket.”

PHILADELPHIA—”I’m glad Bailey Howell retired. He’d just as soon run over you than around you. But they have plenty with Cunningham. And Jim Washington is another who shoots well from the outside. He’s also an exceptional leaper and has a knack of keeping the ball alive around the hoop.”  

PHOENIX—”Paul Silas is very physical. He’s a great rebounder and uses his strength very well. He resembles Bill Bridges in type of play, but Bridges is better all around. Mel Counts is seven feet tall. For a guy his size, he shoots very well from the outside.” 

PORTLAND—“Gary Gregor, LeRoy Ellis, Ed Manning, all can be dangerous. They’re the kind of guys with an expansion team who can break out at any moment.”

HOUSTON (nee San Diego)—”John Block is another tall guy who is offensive-minded. His size is the problem. John Q. Trapp can be surprising. You never know what he’s going to do. He’s unpredictable.”

SAN FRANCISCO—“Clyde Lee isn’t a great shooter, but he’s a great rebounder and he has size. Joe Ellis loves that jump shot from far out. This offers a problem. And now, they have Cazzie Russell. 

SEATTLE—”A bunch of good shooters, Barry Clemens Don Smith Don Kojis. Kojis is the most dangerous with an assortment of shots and his outside accuracy.”

One man DeBusschere didn’t mention is Rick Roberson of Los Angeles. Roberson plays a little forward, but mostly backup center for Wilt Chamberlain. He swung at the ball one night and a broken nose appeared on DeBusschere’s face. Counts, then a Laker, picked up the loose ball and scored. 

“Normally,” said the No. 1 defensive player in the NBA, “I don’t guard either of them.” 

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