Dave DeBusschere: The Man Who Filled Four Positions, 1971

[Blame it on Otto Moore of the Detroit Pistons. To start the 1968-69 NBA season, the skinny seven-foot rookie was struggling in the paint, and Detroit GM Ed Coil had to make a move to bring in a veteran post player. His trade bait: Dave DeBusschere or Dave Bing. Coil fielded several calls from the around the league, including the whaddy-ya-want from Knicks GM Eddie Donovan. The two GMs decided to sleep on center Walt Bellamy and guard Butch Komives for DeBusschere. Donovan said he’d first need to run the trade past Irving Felt, the head of Madison Square Garden Corporation. Felt’s orders.

What happened next rarely, if ever, gets mentioned to describe one of the most-celebrated trades in New York Knicks history. Here’s the New York Daily News columnist Dick Young:

On December 19, 1968, Eddie Donovan was striving to make a deal with Detroit. He wanted DeBusschere. The Pistons said they would do it, right now, for Walt Bellamy and Butch Komives. The Pistons were negotiating with some other clubs, they said, and expected to hear from them within the hour. But if Donovan could commit Bellamy and Komives, it’s a deal. 

Eddie Donovan called every place that he felt an Irving Mitchell [Felt] could possibly be, but couldn’t raise him away. He contacted Ned Irish, president of the Knicks in the great new Garden setup. Ned Irish does not have the weight he did in the great old Garden setup. Eddie explained the predicament. Go ahead, Irish told him. If you think it’s a good deal, make it. 

Eddie Donovan made it. The next day, he got to the office feeling mighty proud. There was a message. Mr. Felt wishes to see you. Ah, a raise. Maybe a bonus. Maybe a bonus and a raise. 

“Weren’t you told to clear everything through me?” Eddie Donovan was asked/told. “How could you make that deal without my approval? From now on, I want a written report on my desk every day concerning the activities of the basketball team.”

Eddie Donovan was left there, hanging. Nobody went into Irving Mitchell Felt’s office and said Donovan had done the right thing. Nobody said it was a good trade, which it was. Hell, it was a great trade. It put the Knicks together, like magic, and they had been playing .750 ball ever since. 

In this article, reporter Murray Janoff describes just what a GREAT trade it was. DeBusschere’s addition rejiggered four positions in the Knicks’ starting lineup, and the rest is Knicks history, minus the mention of Mf. Felt. The article appeared in the magazine Sports All Stars 1971 Pro Basketball. While we’re at it, let me offer a quick “great life lived” for Gene Shue, who just passed away at age 90. He figures prominently in this piece.]


Hey there, Dave DeBusschere . . . 

Was Willis Reed really the Most Valuable Player in the National Basketball Association playoffs last spring? Or were you?

Was Walt Frazier, indeed, the league’s best defensive player? Or were you?

Did Reed and Frazier and the others . . . Bill Bradley and Cazzie Russell and Dave Stallworth and Dick Barnett and Mike Riordan . . . provide more inspiration and produce more than you as the New York Knickerbockers ignited hysteria in Gotham and amazement in the pro basketball climates?

Forget the emotion. Let’s get down to the cold facts. The thinking is that the Knicks could never have accomplished it without you. 

True, the same thinking prevails that they never could have done it without Reed or Frazier, without Bradley or Barnett, or possibly without any of their glamorous subs .  . . the so-called Minute Men. 

But certainly, not without you. 

Because you started it. Back on that cold December night in 1968, the night the Knicks came to Detroit, their beautiful dreams splintering because of a 6-13 start, after they had turned from despair to ambition just a year before when Red Holzman became their coach and began to teach them that defense is a very nice way to play the game. 

Everybody knows about this; how you, Dave DeBusschere, gingerly climbed down a step ladder being utilized in the annual Christmas tree decorating in your Detroit home to answer the telephone and discover that there had been a trade and you were a Knick. 

Five months later in New York, the Knicks had just completed whipping the Baltimore Bullets four straight in the Eastern semifinals of the playoffs. The Bullets had attained the league’s best won-loss record. Gene Shue, their coach, swallowed his despair as he did this past April when the Knicks beat him again and said: “When the Knicks acquired DeBusschere, they got help in more than just one position. DeBusschere helped them in four positions.”

Eyebrows were raised in cadence by Shue’s audience. Certainly, DeBusschere is a big man as the average man is known. He is a bulky 6-foot-6, and he weighs somewhere in the 235-pound range before a game. He loses a few of these pounds oncourt and requires at least four cans of beer and a load of salt pills to counter a dehydration process. 

And he has muscles and power beneath his proud Belgian hide. But good God, Gene Shue, he can’t play four positions. 

“Four positions,” Shue insisted . . . and then he explained what he meant.

“First of all,” said Shue, an old Knick himself, “when the Knicks got DeBusschere, they got the best forward they ever had.” Okay, now that’s one position. 

“When they got Dave,” Shue continued, “it allowed them to move Willis Reed from forward to center, where he belongs.”

So it did. After all, Willis had been the league’s rookie of the year as a center, and then was shoved into the corner when the club acquired Walt Bellamy. 

But when Bellamy and Butch Komives were swapped to Detroit for DeBusschere, Willis was the center again. And he can thank DeBusschere for all those nice awards and cars that came his way this year. Okay, Number 2.

“When Willis was moved to center,” Shue point out, “it left an opening up front for a smaller forward. So, Bill Bradley became a full-time player.” Shue smiled. Why not? Bradley as a key team man was just the kind of partner DeBusschere needed up there. He had been moving between frontcourt and backcourt like a yo-yo. Right. Three positions. 

“When Komives moved to Detroit in the deal, it meant Frazier became a regular starter and a 48-minute guard for the Knicks,” Shue said. “And we all know how he developed.”

DeBusschere, you devil, see what you did?

We’re not going to spend the remaining words reiterating the fabulous rise of the Knicks since all this occurred. But think of the DeBusschere contributions. 

His steal of an inbound pass from the inimitable Bob Cousy on the night of November 28, 1969, in Cleveland when the Knicks rallied from five points down in the last 16 seconds to defeat Cincinnati and establish the NBA’s record string of 18 victories. 

All through the year against the league’s toughest forwards . . . Chet Walker, Bill Bridges, Bill Cunningham, Jerry Lucas, Gus Johnson . . . and into the playoffs and finally into the fifth game against Los Angeles when Reed fell to the court injured with the Lakers leading by 10 points and about to open the lead to 16. 

It was DeBusschere who did the key job on mighty Wilt Chamberlain that night after taller men couldn’t, and the Knicks rallied and won it. His long outside shooting, his rebounding, but mainly the determined attack on Chamberlain in the pivot, like a snarling puppy going after a Great Dane, this was it. This was a championship in the waking. 

Through the playoffs, it had been a struggle against Gus Johnson and then Bob Dandridge, and the aging-but-dangerous Elgin Baylor. The key shot, the key rebound, the key defensive maneuver . . . somehow it came from DeBusschere. His duels with Johnson in the seven-game Baltimore series were too-soon-forgotten. And then it came down to the fifth game against the hungry Lakers, who had failed so often in the finals, and the teams were tied, 2-2. 

Reed went down only eight minutes into the game, the Lakers ahead 25-15 because Chamberlain was moving on his repaired knee better than the Knick captain, who is playing with sore knees himself. And when Reed fell, New York saw the whole year dissipate. 

But against the 7-foot-1, 275-pound Chamberlain finally came DeBusschere, seven inches shorter, 40 pounds lighter. Nate Bowman and Bill Hosket couldn’t halt Chamberlain, but DeBusschere did. And the Knicks won the game and the whole championship pudding right there, because two nights later in L.A., they were slaughtered by a revengeful Chamberlain with Reed out of action because of injured thigh muscles. And the teams had to come back to New York for the seventh game that the Knicks were to win.  

“We lost it in the fifth game,” Fred Schaus said when the season had finally ended. He is the Lakers’ general manager. “No way we should have lost that game.”

And when the teams came to New York on May 8 for Game Number 7, it was DeBusschere who appeared heading for the playoff MVP car if his team could win. But Reed, who had been sidelined, made an emotion-packed appearance and played in pain, and the Lakers were psyched right out of this world. You had to be there, to see it, to understand. You had to be one of the lucky, fanatic, screaming 19,500 New York fans to realize how it could happen—how Willis, in pain, beautifully took Chamberlain out of the game with a defensive show, hit the team’s first two baskets (the only ones he scored). Even DeBusschere said:

“It’s hard to explain, there’s so much emotion. There was joy and pride. Willis getting hurt was a major setback for us. Yet he came back like that. He proved what a great team we are.”

But with Reed unable to get up for the ball, it was DeBusschere who took the boards against the Lakers. He also held Baylor in check through the early going, as New York went to a 29-point lead before halftime. And he scored 18 points. 

Then he went home with his wife, Gerri. And a week later they returned to Detroit, and DeBusschere was back in business. 

The intensity with which he plays basketball might be explained fully by an incident that occurred in November, five months before the Knicks won their first crown. That was during the Knicks’ unprecedented sweep of five games on a trip through the West. It was the night Dave suffered a broken nose, and it happened in Los Angeles. 

Rick Roberson, who was the Los Angeles center while Chamberlain was beginning recuperation from knee surgery, swung in an effort to hit the ball out of DeBusschere’s hands. He missed the ball, but made contact on the left side of DeBusschere’s nose. 

It was a close game, but finally DeBusschere was convinced he should go to the hospital for a nose-setting rather than go back on the court. In the car enroute to Freeman Memorial Hospital, he insisted the car radio be turned on so he could listen to the game. When he was shuffled into the hospital’s emergency room, he made a deal: He’d go quietly, if somebody remained with the radio and brought him communiques. 

A specialist, Dr. Leo Turgeon, had been called in to reconstruct the nose. Dr. Turgeon took one look at this big man with a yapping mouth who was still insisting on getting back to the basketball court less than a mile away. When Doc touch the nose, he was greeted with a howl. Then a messenger walked in from the parked car outside and said, “Relax. The Knicks just scored 13 straight points and are doing okay without you.” DeBusschere relaxed.

After Dr. Turgeon fixed the nose, a former Knick came walking in. Dr. Ernest Vandeweghe, who had played with New York 15 years ago, was visiting a patient in the hospital. “In the old days, we didn’t get the money you guys are getting,” Vandy said. “Now, you’re really getting paid to have your nose broken.”

DeBusschere looked at him and announced, “I want a mirror.” He wouldn’t leave unless he could look at the finished product. They couldn’t find a mirror, but DeBusschere accepted the reflector doctors where on their foreheads. He saw his reflection and accepted the job. “It’ll take 10 days to heal,” the doctor said. 

But DeBusschere played the next night in San Francisco, and this is part of the story that has made the Knicks the team they are today. Before they left Los Angeles in the morning, Dave was greeted by an old friend in the hotel lobby. “Mr. Buffalo,” an old friend said. “I’ve got just what you need.” The friend was Bud Shockro, the Detroit Pistons’ trainer, who produced an aluminum-and-foam-rubber noseguard. 

Dave laughed, took it, and wore it that night. He taped it to his face, and he was ruthless. He had 16 points and 12 rebounds in the second half alone—including a burst of 10 straight points—and the Warriors lost by 13. It was the Knicks’ 10th win toward their record 18, their fifth straight to complete the Western sweep. 

“Don’t forget that San Francisco had been the only team to beat us,” he reminded. The Knicks were 15-1 now, heading toward the 23-1 breakaway that was to give them a 60-22 NBA-leading record. 

Of course, DeBusschere had to explain why Shockro called him “Mr. Buffalo.” He played more like an angry bull. 

“They call me ‘Mr. Buffalo’ because I’m of Belgian descent,” he smiled. “They call us buffaloes because of our build, and because most Belgians who migrated to the Midwest after coming to this country went through Buffalo.”

Of course, he’s had other intricate tasks. Don’t forget that he coached the Pistons while playing for them. He’s shown the savvy as well as the skill. And then he was assigned to room with Bill Bradley on the road. This is Bradley the scholar, the quiet one, whose problem at the start was tension. Loosen him up was the Knicks’ big aim. 

They give DeBusschere the credit for getting Bradley to take a beer after a game, to forget the night, to look ahead. 

It’s unfair to speak of DeBusschere in relation to statistics. He’ll be 30 this winter, a homegrown Detroiter who pitched for the White Sox, but gave it up to devote full-time to basketball. And now, he’s returning for his ninth year in the pros as an integral—perhaps the most integral—link on the ballclub. 

The Knicks are what Richie Guerin in Atlanta described as “togetherness.” And what Jerry West said was “physical and quick.” These, and other descriptions of their basketball, still don’t adequately portray DeBusschere. It was like he said the night he stole Bob Cousy’s inbound pass on a desperate, but beautiful, maneuver and roared downcourt to score a layup. Then whipped the remaining seconds, as the Knicks came from behind to win. 

“We,” he said matter of factly, “just had to have this game.”

And like the many other nights the Knicks were successful toward their beautiful dream . . . the seven games he bumped and bruised with Gus Johnson . . . and finally the Knicks had reached Milwaukee in the Eastern finals . . . and then that fifth game against Los Angeles when he found himself playing Mt. Chamberlain. 

Think about everything for a moment. Do you believe the Knicks would be the NBA champions if Willis Reed had to play forward? . . . or Walt Frazier, who was narrowly voted the league’s No. 1 defender by the NBA coaches, was spending a lot of his time on the bench? . . . or Bill Bradley was still quietly worrying and shuttling between frontcourt and backcourt?

Do you think the Knicks would be champions if they hadn’t made Dave DeBusschere climb down the ladder to answer the telephone back on December 19, 1968?

He is, without a doubt, the team’s Most Valuable Player. 

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