- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

Mike Riordan got a call Wednesday at his Annapolis restaurant from a reporter.

“I was wondering if I could get a comment from you about the death of Dave DeBusschere,” the reporter asked.

Riordan wasn’t sure if he had heard him right. Then it sank in.

“I’ll have to call you back,” he said. “I can’t talk right now.”

He found it hard to believe that his former New York Knicks teammate was dead at 62. “I wasn’t ready for that,” he said. “He was such a big strong guy. When he played, he seemed invincible.”

Dave DeBusschere is one of those New York sports figures who was larger than life and will continue to be so. He seemed that way to Riordan because DeBusschere was his mentor when he broke in as a scrappy rookie on a veteran 1968 squad.

And he was larger than life for New York sports fans because he was Moses, leading them to the promised land.

DeBusschere was the difference between good and great for the Knicks’ championship teams of 1970 and 1973, and you can look it up. The Knicks had talent before DeBusschere arrived in a trade from the Detroit Pistons in 1968, but they found glory after he arrived.

“I grew up in New York and was a Knicks fan, and the franchise was kind of like the [Wizards] now, floundering for a couple of decades,” said Riordan, who was traded to the Baltimore Bullets in 1971 in the deal that sent Earl Monroe to the Knicks. “But [the Knicks] were on the verge of breaking through, and the DeBusschere trade made all of the pieces fit.

“There was an instant transformation of our chemistry,” Riordan said. “It was almost like he was born to that team. He did everything that the rest of the team was strong in, playing team defense and excellent passing.”

DeBusschere played five full seasons with the Knicks. He broke in with the Pistons and had already achieved some fame and status before he arrived in New York. He had been the Pistons’ player/coach at 24, the youngest coach in NBA history. And, before Bo and Deion, he was a two-sport athlete who pitched two years for the Chicago White Sox while playing for the Pistons.

After six-plus seasons with Detroit, he came to New York and will forever be linked to those great Knicks teams — and they were great, perhaps the greatest ever. This grinds basketball fans outside of New York, but no franchise since then — not the Larry Bird Celtics, the Showtime Lakers or the Jordan Bulls — played team basketball better than those DeBusschere teams.

Four of the 1970 starters — DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley — are in the Basketball Hall of Fame. And on the 1973 team, you can add two more Hall of Famers, Monroe and Jerry Lucas.

Reed was the heart of those teams. Everyone knows that. He is still the standard for court courage for his seventh-game entrance, coming back from an injured thigh and sinking the first two baskets. Frazier represented the steely nerves of those teams, and Bradley was the brains. DeBusschere? “He was the blood and guts of the team,” Riordan said. “He would grind it out defensively. And we were a team defense. It wasn’t strictly man for man. We put out a team defensive effort.”

Still, DeBusschere, at 6-foot-6 with a deadly baseline shot, was often matched up against some of the all-time bruisers in basketball. This was a time when there weren’t as many teams in the league as there are now, and that meant drawing a player like Bullets great Gus Johnson one night, 76ers forward Chet Walker the next and then Bill Bridges after that. And DeBusschere welcomed those tough assignments.

“The battles between him and Gus Johnson were epic,” Riordan said. “Back then, you played each other more times, and the matchups were more constant and would build up. They were alike — both strong rebounders and the backbone of their defenses.”

In his autobiography “The Open Man,” DeBusschere wrote about an exchange between him and Johnson in the court during warmups before the second half of Game6 of the 1970 Eastern Conference semifinals in Baltimore — a game the Knicks lost 96-87. DeBusschere had three fouls by the second quarter, and had to go to the bench. As they saw each other on the court before the second half, DeBusschere said, “Thanks for letting me get in foul trouble.”

Johnson, who had been cold in the first half, said, “There’s a lid on that hoop.”

“I wouldn’t know,” DeBusschere answered. “I wasn’t on the floor long enough.”

Johnson replied, “You and me, we just don’t have the strength left for shooting. We’re beating the hell out of each other.”

Dave DeBusschere, Gus Johnson — these guys were dinosaurs, roaming the courts in an era of tough guys, when the term “power” forward fit. Everyone talks about Reed and the Game7 victory against the Lakers in the 1970 NBA finals, but it was Game5 that won the championship for New York.

Reed went down with a severely injured thigh in the first quarter, and DeBusschere, along with backup forward Dave Stallworth, played the giant Wilt Chamberlain the rest of the night as the Knicks defeated Los Angeles 107-100 at the Garden. The Lakers won Game6, but the stage for Game7 was set in Game5.

“That was the turning point in the series,” Riordan said. “If we had lost that, we probably would have still lost Game6 in Los Angeles, and there wouldn’t have been a seventh game. He stepped in and pulled Chamberlain outside, where he didn’t want to go.”

Not long ago, Riordan noticed a couple of younger men, in their 20s, sitting at his bar watching Game7 of the 1970 finals on ESPN Classic. “They were talking about how good the passing was, and how everyone was moving around without the ball,” he said.

They were watching Dave DeBusschere. They were watching a classic basketball player.

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