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For the Love of the Game

Another entry from the “Way Back Machine,” first published May of 2003

May 15, 2003

Dave DeBusschere, 62, Forward on Knicks’ Championship Teams, Dies


Dave DeBusschere, the Hall of Fame forward whose tenacious defensive play, rebounding prowess and timely scoring helped propel the Knicks to their only two N.B.A. championships, died yesterday in Manhattan. He was 62.

For those who care about Knicks basketball, there’s an odd bit of symmetry here. It was 30 years ago that the New York Knickerbockers won its last championship with, among others, Dave, Jerry Lucas, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Bill Bradley (later to be Senator Bill), and a young Phil Jackson sitting out with injuries. That last championship season saw the Knicks start hot with a 43-13 won/loss record and then cool off to finish 57-25. In the playoffs, the team beat Baltimore, the hated Boston Celtics, and then finally the Los Angeles Lakers in five games, winning the final game 102-93. It was a very satisfying season for me, my dad, and my younger brother, all of whom would dutifully assemble down in the basement whenever the Knicks were on television in order to cheer and moan at the team’s every rise and fall.

DeBusschere was regarded as one of the greatest defensive players of his time. Many people think his finest personal performance came in an exhibition game when he went toe-to-toe with a very much in his prime Dr. J., Julius Irving, the high priest of flying and dunking before Michael Jordan had made his first high school team. As the legendary sports writer, Pete Vecsey of The New York Post said . . .

It was his first meeting with Julius Erving that, to me, epitomized DeBusschere’s greatness more than any other of his memorable moments on a basketball court. During an exhibition game at the Garden in the early ’70s, Big D and the Doctor clashed in one of those mythical matchups that basketball junkies fantasize about. Julius had all the talent and DeBusschere still manhandled him. With that dippy, schoolyard-101 head fake of his and relentless tenacity on defense, DeBusschere turned Erving into a mere mortal for an evening. There was work to be done and he did it.

DeBusschere held Doc scoreless for the entire first half and didn’t give him much in the second half either. Impossible. Never been done. But he did it. He was a bruising power forward who knew all the tricks and did all the little things to make the game work and to help his team win. He set hard picks, he moved without the ball, he could hit shots when his team needed him to, and he rebounded at both ends of the court. DeBusschere was a plow horse by today’s highflying standards, and yet he was a complete ball player and got more game out of what was a pretty unremarkable physical package than players with twice the athleticism.

Reading about DeBusschere’s passing put me into an unexpected introspection. I have been a casual fan of basketball these past years, but there was a time when I was rabid about the game. Indeed, from the time I was about 13 until I was about 40, basketball was one of the things that mattered most to me. I played it, watched it, read about it, and dreamed about it. I hung on the box scores every morning and went into a funk when the playoffs finally ended. I cared deeply what happened with a succession of heroes that started with the Knicks and wound through men like Connie Hawkins, Doctor J, Pete Maravich, and Michael Jordan. (As wonderful as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were, I never, not one time, liked either Boston or the Lakers. Not then, not before, not now).

As my mind wandered back to the time I first took interest in playing the game, I was startled at what I saw looking back at me. A young man coming of age. Racial awareness. Self validation. The longings of a former and fading jock. It was like a regular morality play that in many ways started with the Knicks.

I Had Game Once. Sort Of.

I can’t really say why I chose basketball over other sports. Maybe it chose me.

My father was born in 1932 in New York, and as was true for so many of the radio generation, baseball was the sport he followed. His team was the New York Yankees and he has an autographed photo from Babe Ruth that is inscribed, “To my good friend David” to prove it. I grew up in Rochester, New York, a minor league town. And although I remember going to baseball games at old Silver Stadium, I have much more vivid memories of watching sports on television with my dad on weekends: The New York Giants during football season and The Knicks during the winter.

When I was very young, my father taught me how to throw, catch, and hit a baseball. Later we tossed a football around and I can remember playing two hand touch down at the school yard. We loved tossing a Frisbee and I remember playing badminton out on the front lawn. After a tree fell on our garage, and the garage was rebuilt, we gained a regulation height basketball goal and backboard and we began to shoot hoops. And from about fifth grade to seventh or eighth grade, my mother got it into her head that we should all become figure skaters.

Kind of an eclectic mess. I enjoyed all of it, but didn’t get really excited by any of it. And then quite unexpectedly I caught the basketball bug. It was actually my mother who got it started, signing me up for a YMCA league the winter of my eighth grade year. As was true of the next three teams I played on, I was very much in the minority: one of two white boys who made the squad.

Years later I went back and looked at the YMCA gym I first played organized ball in. It’s impossibly small and dingy. But back then it was a place of awe and excitement. We practiced twice a week, learned some fundamentals, and were reasonably competitive in the games we played. Almost miraculously, I was part of the starting five and actually played pretty well for someone who’d never been on a team. I was completely and totally hooked.

That summer I went to a basketball camp put on by a former Boston Celtic star named Sam Jones. It was there that I really began my immersion into the fundamentals of team and individual play. I learned all the mechanics required to properly shoot a basketball. I learned the 1960s approved two-hand chest pass and bounce pass. I learned to dribble the ball. I learned how to play a zone defense and how to play man-to-man. We played two games a day, and lo and behold, I even scored some points from time to time. And it turned out I could jump.

Going Downtown

The late sixties and early seventies were to my mind the golden age of professional basketball. The giants of that time were people like Bill Russell, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, and all those wonderful Knicks. It was also the apogee of the civil rights movement as well as the beginning of the anti-war movement.

During that time, the city I lived in, Rochester, New York, had adopted something called “reverse open enrollment.” This meant that kids like me who lived in predominately white neighborhoods got on busses every morning to go to school in neighborhoods that were predominately black or Puerto Rican. My father felt strongly about this issue so my siblings and I were part of it from the beginning. Starting in my fifth grade year, I rode busses and went to “inner city” schools.

In September of 1970, I entered the ninth grade. The high school I attended that year was a multi-ethnic melting pot, with Caucasians making up just a bit more than 50% of the student population. Just two years before, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On June 4, Bobby Kennedy met the same fate. On October 16, John Carlos and Tommie Smith sent shivers through white America when they bowed their heads and raised glove-clenched fists at the Mexico City Olympics after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meters. Closer to home at Cornell University, armed, disaffected black students took over the student union building in September of 1969. It was, even in 1970, a very unsettling time.

It was against that backdrop that I tried out for the Monroe High School junior varsity basketball team. My friends thought I was crazy. Fourteen boys made the team, thirteen of whom were black. The fourteenth was me. Maybe I was the token white kid, or maybe I actually was good enough. But either way, I made the grade in what had come to be defined, at least on the east coast, as a black man’s sport. I realize this rings of political incorrectness, but I knew the stereotypes and I knew what I was up against. Basketball was my passion. To a self-conscious, not terribly confident 14 year old, making that team was a huge accomplishment.

Though I had solid fundamentals, I don’t think I made it into more than a couple of games. Truthfully, I wasn’t yet good enough to play regularly at that level, but I could jump and that counted in the circles that I was then moving in. The last game of the season never got played because of a lockdown due to rioting.

The Great Santini

Basketball is wonderfully multi-dimensional sport, calling on strength, speed, finesse, and good hand-eye coordination. It can be played equally as well by men and women of any size. Still, its defining move has come to be the slam dunk—the showier and more violent, the better. The ability to dunk a basketball, to be able to jump up and slam a ball downward through the hoop, was and is an instant ticket to playground ball credibility. In organized play, a spectacular dunk brings the crowd to its feet and can often set off a flurry of scoring that can change the flow of the game.

By that next summer I could dunk a basketball, and by the time I was 16, I could dunk a ball with two hands from a dead standstill . . . I could stand under the basket, jump up, and slam it through. In college I could nearly put my elbow on the rim, and even into my late twenties, I could dribble, jump, turn in mid air, and dunk a basketball two hands behind my head.

I suppose I was something of an oddity in this way. I was and am just 6-2, and we all know the popular adage that “white men can’t jump.” Well I could. Even though dunking was prohibited in high school and college when I played, you could do it in practice and in pickup games. I could, I did, and whatever my limitations as a player might have been, the fact that I could and did ensured me a place on every team I tried out for and most pickup games I played in for many years.

Some years ago, Pat Conroy wrote a book called The Great Santini that was later made into a movie that starred Robert Duval as Bull Meacham, the hard headed, dictatorial Marine pilot, and Blythe Danner as his soft as velvet, hard as steel wife Lillian. Every father and son who saw the movie remembers the scene late one afternoon when Meacham’s son Ben finally beats him at a game of basketball. It was electrifying. It was also an ugly scene that seemed to typify father and son relationships at their worst: The young Prince battling and then finally killing the Ogre King.

My father was no Bull Meacham. Far from it. He was and is a kind and decent man who was always supportive and probably raised his voice at me all of three times while I was growing up. Still, I was unprepared for what happened one day the summer before my tenth grade year. We were shooting around one Saturday afternoon and he suggested we play one-on-one. We had played one-on-one many times before but I had never beaten him. That game that day wasn’t a blood lust contest, but I remember that we were playing pretty hard. I also remember feeling that something was now different. Something had changed. I was just flat out better. I was faster, quicker, could jump higher, and could shoot better. I could fly, and he couldn’t.

Still, my father hung in and it came down to a tie, win by two, and I had the ball. I can’t tell you today what I felt at that moment, but you can surely appreciate that at some level we both knew that this might be a defining moment. Would the Prince topple the King or bow down and retreat?

I made two straight baskets and won. My father was very gracious about it and soon went inside. When I spoke to him about that day many years later, he professed to not remember any of it. Like I said, he was no Meacham. Me? I was crushed, I cried. After the initial flush of winning, I was overcome with an emotion that I barely understood then. Something had happened. I had beaten my father at a game he had taught me to play and had later taken as my own. I was no longer an innocent. I had been initiated.

As Time Goes By

My tenth grade year I transferred to another high school. The racial mix was more representative of the population as a whole. Once again I made the junior varsity team, this time one of two white boys. I started a number of games and played with more confidence. I wore 44 in honor of my then hero, Pete Maravich, a floppy haired, floppy socked phenom from LSU who set college scoring records that still stand thirty years later and who played college and pro basketball like a white Harlem Globetrotter.

The following year—my last year as I graduated from high school in three years—I played varsity ball. Actually, I mostly sat on the bench. Our team won the sectional championship and featured two high school All-Americans. Still, I made it into our local newspaper a couple of times. The first happened when I scored the 99th and 100th points in a much anticipated game between us and Madison High School, a game we won in a rout. Thus the fact that I was in at the end. I think it was the first time that year that a high school team had gone for 100 points. I made the shot on a put back, so I got the ink. Go figure.

The second time occurred late in the season. A local sports reporter was fascinated by me, mostly by the fact that I was one of four white players on the team, and one of perhaps a dozen or so in the entire city, though nothing about that was specifically mentioned. The article was the lead in the Sports section one day and featured a line drawing of me sitting on the bench with a clipboard in my lap. It was entitled, “There’s Always Room on the Bench,” and made note of the fact that I kept game stats, got to eat an entire orange at halftime, and got to scrimmage every day against the best team in the city. I said all the right things when I was interviewed, and my coaches and teammates, to their credit, were gracious if not a bit envious that I had been the object of so much attention.

I played one year of college ball at a tiny school in southern Illinois after which I decided that it was time to think about other things. So I just stopped playing. In fact, it wasn’t until I had gotten married and moved to San Francisco six years later that I picked up a basketball again. The sound of pickup games in the park near our apartment finally got to be too much for me.

My first few games back were miserable and I’m sure that the locals hoped fervently that I would stop showing up and taking up space. But my game and springs returned, and for the next year or so, I reigned as one of the forces to be reckoned with in my little corner of Pacific Heights. Not much to brag about, but enough that I still remember the details of many of the games to this day.

My playing career stopped once again when we had our first and then second child and moved to the suburbs. As before, it resumed (by now I was in my mid thirties) some years later when the sound of the bouncing ball became too much to ignore. As before, I began to habituate the local playground, this time on Saturdays to play pickup ball with some guys my age. By then, I had lost my springs. But what I was missing in athleticism I made up for in solid fundamentals, good mechanics, and a long looked for sense of confidence that finally showed up now that I truly had nothing left to prove. At that point, I just wanted to play.

Over the next couple of years the Saturday thing grew into a circus. What started as eight to 10 “old guys” looking for a little competition and a workout turned into three simultaneous games with guys waiting on every court. Some days there would be 50 guys hanging around and we’d play for hours. The middle agers steadily lost ground to the high school, college, and recently graduated and usually hung over crowd, which is not only right and good, but the way it should be. A generation of Kings must step aside so that the Princes that follow may ascend to the throne.

Still, magic would strike from time to time. The most magical would be those happy times when by design or by fortuitous foul shooting, five of us duffers would get on the same team. And sometimes when that happened, we’d run the table all afternoon long. We’d move the ball, pass and screen away, pick and roll, run the inside out and outside in, and flash to the high post and hit the cutter or shoot the turnaround. We’d box out on rebounds, talk on defense, sag to the middle, cut off the passing lanes, close off baseline, and on the off chance that the young guys would set a pick, jump out so the other guy could fight over the top or we’d switch off.

We all just knew how to do this stuff and the young guys, for all their athleticism and superior all around skills, just couldn’t compete. They could run and jump and shoot, but they didn’t seem to know how to play the game as it was meant to be played: as five guys working together as a team.

At times like those, time stood still. We were the ’70 or ’73 Knicks, or maybe the late ‘80s Celtics. The no-look passes would start. Someone would hit a couple of twos (we played ones and twos), and all of a sudden another game was won and done. We’d walk off together to get some water, sometimes chattering, sometimes not, while the next bunch shot foul shots to see who might try to unseat the old guys. We’d creak and groan our way back on the court and pick right up where we left off. Like playground incarnations of Dave DeBusschere, we employed guile and treachery, fundamentals and execution, and we beat skill and athleticism nearly every time in the process. At times like those, it felt good to be “old.”

Distant Memories

Although I was more an academic than an athlete, it was basketball that defined my high school years. Because of a decision my parents made about my schooling, I grew up standing out in ways that I never expected to. In the classroom, I was part of a plurality. On the basketball court, I was in the distinct minority. Given the tenor of the times, I was more than occasionally aware of the differences. There were times I was scared.

Basketball was a game that in some ways isolated me from my white friends but gained me acceptance with another group of people that I would never have come to know. My younger sister and brother made their own places in high school, but both basked, at least a little, in the glow that I had created.

I was part of a championship team at a time and place when basketball players were the Princes of the city, or at least Princes of the school I went to. I was somebody and everyone in the school, black, white, and brown, knew who I was—even if I privately felt unpopular, unsuccessful, and unconfident, all for reasons that today seem foolish.

In a way, basketball also helped define my relationship with my father. He planted the seed through his love of New York sports teams. And even though it was more my game than his, I found myself constantly trying to prove something to him, constantly trying to measure up to some standard that seemed to lurk just out of view.

While my father never placed any athletic expectations on me, I think I felt them just the same, just like I did academically where things seemed to come much more easily. If it wasn’t my dad specifically, it was surely a genetically coded Father/Son, King/Prince archetypal transaction reaching down through the ages, badgering me to keep seeking an approval I so desperately wanted, and realized later that I already had. And then one day I beat him. And then one day I was a father placing expectations on my son and the circle had once again closed.

I don’t play basketball anymore. We have a hoop at our house and I have a son, but one day, I just stopped playing. Maybe I had nothing left to prove. Maybe my knees just got tired. Maybe basketball had finally taught me the lessons I needed to learn.

I have also long since grown bored with watching either professional or collegiate basketball. I’m not sure I can even articulate why, but at this point, I only watch during the playoffs, and even then, not very much. The level of athleticism and showmanship is sometimes spectacular if not unbelievable, but the game as a whole has lost its appeal. It’s just not the same as watching the Knicks of yore. Too much something, or maybe not enough of something else, I can’t tell which anymore.

I’m sure my memory has considerably polished what really happened at different points in my basketball past, but like my memories of watching the Knicks of thirty years ago, I’ll just hang onto them just the way they are. The bouncing ball brought father and son together to yell at the TV. It forged the crucible in which the son finally bested the father and tasted something of adulthood. It helped mold a fragile adolescent sensibility into something resembling self-confidence. It helped carve a place in a social structure that wasn’t my own but became part of who I am. It provided fleeting moments of godlike immortality when years later, the aging Kings vanquished the not yet ready Princes out there on the summer blacktop.

All of that coming of age and dealing with mortality would have happened anyway. In my case, the vehicle turned out to be basketball. And it all started in a crazy sort of way with Dave DeBusschere and the Knicks. I can’t say I’ll miss Dave DeBusschere because I never knew him and haven’t thought about him for at least twenty years. But I am grateful for the journey he helped set in motion. God bless you Dave.