Debusschere, David Albert (“Dave”)

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Debusschere, David Albert (“Dave”)

(b. 16 October 1940 in Detroit, Michigan; d. 14 May 2003 in New York City), professional basketball and baseball player and basketball executive.

DeBusschere was the son of Marcel DeBusschere, a tavern owner whose father, Renae, had immigrated from Torhout, Belgium, and Dorothy DeBusschere, a home-maker. He had one sister and was raised on the East Side of Detroit in a community reflective of his family’s roots and attended Austin Catholic Preparatory School, an all-boys school in Detroit. At Austin, DeBusschere starred in baseball and basketball and acquired the nickname “Buff” or “Buffalo,” an apparently affectionate name for members of the Detroit Belgian community. In high school DeBusschere wore weights in his boots to strengthen his legs and jumping ability, an indication of the hard work and dedication that would characterize his efforts for the rest of his life. DeBusschere led Austin to the finals of the city basketball championship in 1955–1956 and 1956–1957. Austin won the city and state class A titles in 1957–1958, defeating a Benton Harbor team led by the future All–National Basketball Association (NBA) player Chet Walker. DeBusschere was selected to the Michigan All-State basketball team in 1957 and 1958, averaging twenty-four points per game in his senior year. That same year he also led his baseball team to the state championship tournament and the national junior championship tournament finals.

After graduation DeBusschere was offered $50,000 to sign with the Detroit Tigers baseball team, but he enrolled at the University of Detroit (later University of Detroit Mercy), where he again starred at baseball and basketball. Playing under the coach Bob Calihan, DeBusschere led his basketball team to the National Invitational Tournament in 1960 and 1961 and the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament in 1962. He averaged 24.8 points per game and 19.4 rebounds per game over the course of his college career. In his senior year the rugged six-foot, six-inch, 235-pound forward averaged 26.8 points and 19.2 rebounds per game and was named an All-America player for the third consecutive year. DeBusschere graduated in 1962 with a BS in business administration.

DeBusschere played professional basketball and professional baseball. He was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the first round as the territorial pick, a distinction that no longer exists. He also was signed by the Chicago White Sox for a bonus of $75,000, having attained All-American status as a pitcher and leading his team to the NCAA Baseball Championship Tournament in two different years. DeBusschere compiled a record of three wins and four losses and a low earned run average of 2.90 in thirty-six baseball games for the White Sox in 1962 and 1963. He spent the 1964 and 1965 seasons pitching for the White Sox minor league team in Indianapolis before deciding to concentrate on basketball.

In his first year on the Pistons (1962–1963) DeBusschere averaged 12.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and made $15,000. He played only fifteen games the next year while recovering from a broken left leg.

In November 1964 the Pistons’ had a 2–9 record, and DeBusschere was named the team’s player-coach. At the age of twenty-four, he was the youngest coach in NBA history and the youngest coach of a major professional team in any sport. Although DeBusschere averaged sixteen to eighteen points and more than eleven rebounds per game in the three years that he coached, the team’s record was 79–149. DeBusschere stepped down as coach in the spring of 1967. Free to concentrate on playing, DeBusschere continued to improve and was named to the NBA All-Star teams from 1966 to 1968. DeBusschere married Geri Warnock in 1968, and the couple had three children.

On 19 December 1968 DeBusschere was traded to the New York Knickerbockers, known as the Knicks, for the center Walter Bellamy and the guard Butch Komives. The trade transformed the Knicks from a good team into a great team. DeBusschere was, as his teammate Walt Frazier and coach Red Holzman declared, the missing piece that made the Knicks a championship squad. DeBusschere was a tenacious defender and rugged rebounder for the Knicks. He scored fourteen to eighteen points per game each year and snared eight to fourteen rebounds per game. The Knicks finished three games out of first in the Eastern Division of the NBA. The team won the opening series in the playoffs but lost in the divisional finals.

In DeBusschere’s first full season with the team (1969–1970) the Knicks won the Eastern Division championship, then swept through three teams in the NBA playoffs to secure their first NBA championship. The next year the Knicks won the Atlantic Division title in the expanded NBA but were defeated in the second round of the playoffs. In 1972–1973 the Knicks repeated as NBA champions, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers led by Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West in the championship series. DeBusschere scored 15.6 points per playoff game and led the Knicks in rebounding. DeBusschere’s roommate was Bill Bradley, later a U.S. senator from New Jersey. Bradley said that DeBusschere’s “strength, dedication and modesty lay at the core of our great Knick teams.” DeBusschere was considered the original “blue-collar” player who always guarded the toughest man on defense and worked hard to get the important rebounds. DeBusschere was usually drained physically and emotionally after a game.

DeBusschere retired after the 1973–1974 season with NBA career averages of sixteen points and eleven rebounds per game. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team from its inception in 1969 through 1974, was an eight-time NBA All Star, and was on the All-NBA second team in 1969.

After retiring as a player DeBusschere became the vice president and general manager of the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association (ABA). The next year he became the ABA commissioner at a salary of $100,000. The ABA suffered financial losses, and a number of franchises folded during the 1975–1976 season. In June 1976 DeBusschere was instrumental in bringing about the agreement whereby the NBA took in four ABA franchises: the New York Nets, the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Denver Nuggets.

With the demise of the ABA, DeBusschere eliminated his own job and went into private business for six years. He had often worked as a stockbroker between seasons and returned to that and invested in real estate. In May 1982 DeBusschere agreed to return to the NBA as the executive vice president and director of basketball operations, essentially the general manager, of the New York Knicks. The Knicks had finished last in their division but made the playoffs in DeBusschere’s first two years as a Knick executive. The team collapsed again in 1984–1985. Their last place finish made the Knicks eligible for the NBA draft lottery, and DeBusschere selected Patrick Ewing when the Knicks picked first in the draft. DeBusschere was fired by the Knicks in January 1986.

In 1982 DeBusschere was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and was inducted in 1983. Soon afterward his jersey, number 22, was retired by the Knicks and is displayed in the rafters of Madison Square Garden. DeBusschere’s University of Detroit Titans jersey, also number 22, was retired in 1978. Although he played only three years because freshmen were not eligible for varsity play in the 1960s, as of 2005 DeBusschere was the school’s third-highest scorer and leading rebounder and had the highest career scoring average. He was inaugurated into the university’s Titan Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977.

In 1996 the NBA named the top fifty players in the league’s history, and DeBusschere was among them. He was honored at the NBA All-Star Game in San Antonio, Texas, that year. On 14 May 2003 DeBusschere suddenly collapsed on a street in lower Manhattan, New York City. He was rushed to New York Downtown Hospital but died there as the result of a heart attack. He was sixty-two years old. DeBusschere is buried in the cemetery of Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Garden City, New York. The City of Detroit declared 14 February 2004 Dave DeBusschere Day, and DeBusschere was honored by the city and the University of Detroit Mercy at a ceremony before the Detroit Mercy basketball game, which was attended by DeBusschere’s wife and children. A memorial mass was held after the game.

DeBusschere describes playing for the Knicks in Dave DeBusschere, The Open Man: A Championship Diary (1970). For accounts of DeBusschere’s play, see Bill Bradley, Life on the Run (1976); and Red Holzman, My Unforgettable Season: 1970 (1993). A tribute to DeBusschere is in the Detroit News (18 May 2003). An obituary is in the New York Times (15 May 2003).

Murry R. Nelson