[No intro needed for this gem. The headline says it all. The headline and story ran in the April 1974 issue of SPORT Magazine, and the great Dick Schaap has the byline. Enjoy!]
Frank and Stu and Shorty and Bill and Holly and John were sitting around a table in Nemo’s, a saloon in Detroit, drinking Calgary beer and Dewar’s and doing what they like best. They were arguing sports. They were arguing whether Bob Lanier of the Pistons had become the best center in the National Basketball Association. The majority opinion was that he had come a long way, but he hadn’t quite caught up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“I got to admit I was wrong on him,” said Shorty, who is about 6-foot-5 and threatening 300 pounds, “I didn’t think he had the heart, but I was wrong.”
“Oh, he’s great,” said Holly. “He’s really good.”
Everybody nodded, and Shorty jumped into the silence. “Let’s face it,” he said. “There’s only one really great player in the NBA, just one guy who’s great at both ends of the court, and I’d never tell it to his face. And that’s the Big Buffalo over there.”
Everybody nodded again, and at the bar, the Big Buffalo Dave DeBusschere, drained a Dewar’s. He turned to his friends at the table. “Where we going to eat?” DeBusschere said.
“Shut up, you washed-up bum,” said Shorty.
Dave DeBusschere is washed up at the age of 33. Sometime in the next few weeks, depending on how far the New York Knicks, go in the playoffs, he will play his final professional basketball game. He will retire from active competition—to become general manager of the New York Nets of the ABA on a 10-year, $750,000 contract—after his 12th NBA season.
After more than 1,000 NBA exhibition, regular-season, and playoff games, DeBusschere has every right to be dragging, yet he is going out with the finest season, statistically, of his career. Late season, he was shooting 46 percent on field-goal attempts, 75 percent on free-throw attempts, and averaging 18.5 points a game, each of those numbers a personal high. Barring a tremendous upset or downright fraud, he will be voted to the NBA All-Defensive team for the sixth time in the six years the coaches have been electing the team. He has no regrets about stepping down now. “I would rather quit two years too soon,” he says, “than two years too late.”
His friends, Frank and Stu and Shorty and Bill and Holly and John, may be prejudiced; Dave DeBusschere may not be the greatest player in the NBA. But he is certainly the greatest player who has never been named to the NBA first-string All-Star team.
Frank is 64 years old, retired after a lifetime of hard work for a beer company. Stu runs a large and successful accounting firm. Shorty is a beer-and-liquor distributor in Detroit. Bill writes sports for a Detroit newspaper. Holly is a Black man in the liquor business. John is a prominent lawyer. They all have at least one thing in common: Dave DeBusschere’s friendship. They are the guys DeBusschere looks for when he goes back to the old neighborhood in Detroit.
DeBusschere’s friends are almost as varied as his talents. He is the complete basketball player. He rebounds at both ends of the court, he can score from inside or out, he hounds the men he guards, and, unlike an Abdul-Jabbar or a Frazier, he is equally likely to block a shot or to steal a pass. Over his 12 seasons, he is averaging better than 10 rebounds a game and exactly 16 points a game.
Yet taken separately, DeBusschere’s skills are not immense. He is not a brilliant shooter. Still, he has made his long jump shot from the corner a deadly weapon. His moves to the basket are not especially fluid, nor does he have the wicked unpredictability of a Monroe or a Frazier or even a Bradley. When DeBusschere drives, instead of feinting and gliding, he is more like [football’s] Larry Csonka hitting the line. He fakes one way, swinging the ball in front of him, then starts the other way, and once he gets started, he is a Big Buffalo, unlikely to be stopped by anything less than a brick wall or a Wilt Chamberlain, whichever is harder. Driving, he has one noticeable gift; he can shoot equally well lefthanded or righthanded.
As a rebounder, DeBusschere is no kangaroo, no octopus, not gifted with exceptional spring or exceptional reach, only with exceptional determination. He will risk broken noses and battered limbs to grab a rebound, or to come up with a loose ball, or to penetrate a clogged middle. On defense, his hands and his body are always cutting down the path to the basket, always forcing the off-balance shot. No forward ever had more, or better, offensive moves than Elgin Baylor, and Baylor says flatly that DeBusschere was the best defensive forward he ever faced. DeBusschere killed himself to win that complement. No man in any sport ever lifted himself so far above his natural gifts.
There is one story that illustrates, beyond all others, how hard DeBusschere has driven himself. In the middle of a May night in 1970, less than 30 hours after the Knicks had won the first NBA championship in their history, DeBusschere lay in his bed, unable to sleep, his heart pounding so furiously he says he could see his T-shirt palpitating. He broke out in a cold sweat. He listened to the pounding as long as he could bear. Then he woke his wife and asked her to drive him to a nearby hospital, where he underwent an electrocardiogram. He discovered that he was not having a heart attack, that he was simply suffering from the exhaustion of 19 pressurized playoff games.
If DeBusschere’s heart had been damaged, New York Knick fans would have been deeply anguished—but not at all surprised. If you had to describe in one sentence the way DeBusschere plays, it would be this: He plays like a man trying to bring on a coronary.
DeBusschere was at home in Nemo’s. He runs around Colorado with Robert Redford, and he runs around New York with Dustin Hoffman, and he goes to opening nights at the theater, and he dies his gray hairs black—originally so that they would not betray his age in contract negotiations; now so that he can endorse a hair-coloring product—but he is at home in a workingman’s bar. His father was a workingman, a guy who hauled beer for a living.
DeBusschere was a baseball star first, a pitcher with a fastball so live the Chicago White Sox gave him $100,000, to be spread over four seasons, when he graduated from the University of Detroit. He was an All-America basketball player, too, at the U. of D., and when he signed with the local pro club, the Pistons, he decided he would try to play two sports professionally.
For four years, he played baseball and basketball, and by then, he was player-coach of the Pistons, the youngest head coach in major professional sports history. He elected to give up baseball. He had been pitcher of the year once in the Sally League, but in the big leagues, his chief distinction was that he served up the fourth- and 10th-longest home runs Harmon Killebrew ever hit. His potential, however, was great. So great that the White Sox when forced to choose between protecting DeBusschere or protecting [future Cy Young winner] Denny McLain in the draft one year, chose to protect DeBusschere. That was only one of many contributions DeBusschere made to Detroit athletic history.
For that, and other reasons, the night after the reunion in Nemo’s was going to be Dave DeBusschere night at Detroit’s Cobo Arena. The arena had been sold out for more than a week.
DeBusschere took a long time dressing for the game the next night. He kept being interrupted by people who worked in Cobo Arena coming to wish him well. DeBusschere turned to a teammate. “Who we playing tonight?” he said.
DeBusschere smiled easily. “I really don’t feel anything about playing my last game here,” he admitted. “It’s not like my first game as a Knick. That was here, and that felt funny, playing against guys who had been my teammates the day before.”
The Pistons traded DeBusschere to the Knicks for Walt Bellamy and Howie Komives, a few days before Christmas 1968. It was the best Christmas present DeBusschere, and Knick fans, ever received.
When the Knick starting lineup was introduced on Dave DeBusschere Night, DeBusschere got a big hand. Two banners hung from the balcony. One said: THANKS BIG D—DETROIT FANS. The other said, THE BUFFALO IS THE BEST. DeBusschere is of Belgian descent, and in Detroit, Belgians are called Buffaloes, but not always to their face.
The first three shots DeBusschere took—two drives and a long jumper—all went in. His Detroit fans didn’t get another chance to cheer for DeBusschere until the halftime ceremonies. Then Dave was introduced, and his mother, and his wife, and his former high school and college teammates. Then it was announced that a scholarship in DeBusschere’s name was being established at the University. DeBusschere thanked everyone and spoke of all the people he loved who had come to the game. “I’m flattered and honored,” he said. He did not say he was thrilled. DeBusschere saves his stronger emotions for use on the court.
The Pistons won the game. They won it in the closing minutes when DeBusschere missed a rebound, a pass, and three straight foul shots. When he was shooting the last two foul shots, with the Knicks three points behind, the Detroit fans booed. They love DeBusschere—up to a point.
DeBusschere had scored 16 points, tying Earl Monroe for high on the team; had grabbed 15 rebounds, five at one end of the court and 10 at the other; and had blocked two shots and made one steal. By DeBusschere standards, it was an unsatisfying night. Nothing satisfies, really, except victory. On the ultimate team, he is the ultimate team player.
Afterward, in the locker room, DeBusschere gulped down his normal five or six beers. He dressed and then, while his teammates boarded a bus to go to the airport, went to join Stu and Frank and Shorty and Bill and Holly and John at Nemo’s. Coach Red Holzman had given him permission to stay in Detroit overnight. The ultimate team player was going out again with his team.
[As a special Big Buffalo bonus, Dave DeBusschere contributed to the Basketball Digest series The Game I’ll Never Forget. His answer was published in the April 1975 issue.]
It was the NBA Championship Game, May 6, 1970. The big one. The night the Knicks won the title. It was their first one, and it was my first one.
Midway in the previous season, I was playing for the Detroit Pistons. I was trimming a Christmas tree at home when the phone call got me off the ladder. I was told I was traded to the Knicks for Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives.
Because of that trade, I became a part of the Knick drive to the title in 1970. We got into the playoffs, then the seven-game title series with Los Angeles. In the fifth game, Willis Reed fell to the court with a torn muscle in his thigh. Several of us tried to cope with Wilt Chamberlain’s height. Then I took over and helped the Knicks pull out the win that kept the series going.
That fifth game was a great one because we had to win it to keep going. And it was a challenge. There are many like it in basketball. But it didn’t have the climactic ending to it that the seventh game did. And there was all that emotion in that seventh game, too.
I’ve played in more than 800 pro games, but never one I recall as vividly. I can tell by the way I recall almost every minute of the championship seventh game. I remember my every point, every rebound, all the action, the crowd, the way it started with Willis coming out to play hurt, the pure emotion of it all. There’s been nothing like it ever.
The Lakers had tied the series, 3-3, at home while Reed couldn’t play, and the clubs returned to New York for the payoff with the basketball world wondering if Willis Reed would play. The buildup to the game was monumental.
I was on the court warming up and wondering if Willis would be out there with us. Then he came out just before we were about to line up for the tap. He had been in the locker room being treated by the doctor.
It was melodramatic to say the least. The Knicks were caught up in it as their Garden fans kept up a steady roar. It had to be contagious. But once the game started, I found myself oblivious to everything around me, the mob of writers around the court, the noise of the crowd.
I lined up against Happy Hairston for the tap. Wilt got it, but they couldn’t score, and then Reed hit a shot from the top of the key. We were ahead, and we stayed there. With Reed limping and the Knicks riding the crest of the emotional scene, we fed Willis again . . .
It was 8-2 before you knew it. Los Angeles took a timeout. When we resumed play, Walt Frazier hit one and then I hit one. The score got to be 15-6, and we just kept rolling. We had a 29-point lead late in the first half, and it was 69-42 at intermission. It was 94-69 at the end of the third quarter. Reed had long since been sent to the bench. Now it was up to Frazier and me and the other Knicks.
The boards were tough that night, but we weren’t going to be denied this one. Chamberlain played 48 minutes and had 24 rebounds as the Lakers won the boards, 61-47. But I had 17 of the Knick rebounds in 37 minutes. Frazier scored 36 and had 19 assists.
You play a lot of games and most of them become lost in your mind. But when you win an NBA championship, it helps to keep things alive in your memory. We played a lot of good games that season (good enough for a 60-22 regular-season record), but this one was so full of emotion and had so much hinging on it, it’s easily the most outstanding one in my mind.
When something so emotion-packed occurs, many people don’t remember their expressions or reactions. After we won the title, there was a picture that was printed in the papers. It showed us on the court, our hands raised. The final horn had just sounded, and we had won the game, 113-99.
I was in the middle of the picture with both my arms raised high above my head. Well, I remember that, too. I actually remember my arms going up like that. I didn’t do it. It happened by itself. I had been watching the clock tick down the last few seconds . . . closer and closer. . . to the end of the game. Then I remember jumping with my arms up like that.
It meant more than a game. It meant an NBA championship. Something like that you just don’t forget.