It takes real ingenuity for a typesetter to squeeze David Albert DeBusschere into box scores. Usually it comes out D'Buss'e or DeBuss're or D'Bus'r, and the typesetters' problem seems to last all year. From mid-April until the end of September, DeBusschere (pronounced de-busher with the umph on the bush) is employed by the Chicago White Sox, or one of its subsidiaries, as a right-handed pitcher. Then, as soon as he turns in his baseball uniform, he rushes off to join the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association.
Competing professionally in the major leagues in two sports is rare though not unique. Gene Conley, for example, recently retired as baseball and basketball player. But Dave DeBusschere does more than just play in the two leagues. After two years of preparing him in the minors, the White Sox are thinking seriously of using DeBusschere as one of their starters and, when you consider that the Sox have the best pitching in baseball, that is high status indeed. In basketball, critics stopped using such guarded terms as "promising" right after DeBusschere's first professional game. If you look closely at the line of figures following his name in that box score, you will notice that he is nearly always one of his team's leading scorers, re-bounders and playmakers.
This fall the Pistons asked DeBusschere not only to hustle his 6 feet 6 inches and 235 pounds up and down the court but to take over the duties of coach as well. The people of Detroit could not have been more shocked if the Pistons had asked Baby Snooks to take over. True, the team had been considerably short of a smash hit for eight years, and in the last two seasons, under the austere leadership of Charlie Wolf, paying fans were seen about as often as whooping cranes. Winning games were even rarer. "I could have gotten more action selling confetti in the Detroit Institute of Arts," said one vendor, recalling the exposed rows of multicolored seats in Cobo Arena. Obviously something had to be done. But Dave DeBusschere—he had had exactly 106 games in the NBA and was 24 years old. Only one man, Roger Peckinpaugh, was younger when he took over the leadership of a major league team (the New York Yankees), and that was just for the last two weeks of the 1914 season. Even such boy wonders as Lou Boudreau and Bucky Harris were older when they were made managers—not much, but older nevertheless and, once their seasons ended, they could shoot ducks or sell insurance or just loaf. When DeBusschere gets through with his basketball duties this spring he will already be several weeks late for spring training, and the White Sox are not particularly happy about it. When he signed, it was agreed that he could play both sports, but now the Sox realize they have an exceptional property in DeBusschere and they wish he would forget basketball.
DeBusschere has no intention of doing that. He and the Pistons are thriving. Once grim-faced young men who plodded through games, they now freewheel down court with zest and a deft style. They already have won more games than they did all last season and, though it is a long shot, they have a chance to make the playoffs. Even if they do not, they have established themselves as one of the real spoilers in the league. As Philadelphia 76er Guard Larry Costello says: "When they shoot now, they pop. They never hesitate. They have no fears." For the first time there are large numbers of Detroiters who are willing to pay money to see the Pistons play. Attendance is up 70% and, for a change, the people who do come really care whether the Pistons win or lose.
March 1, 1965
Under Charlie Wolf the Pistons probably were the unhappiest team ever assembled. Wolf did not smoke or drink or swear or run around late at night and he was hell-bent on making sure no one else did either. Midseason practice sessions consisted of push-ups, sit-ups and lectures. "We had to raise our hand if we wanted to go to the bathroom," said one player. And during a game, one missed shot or bad pass meant a trip to the pines, as Piston Center Reggie Harding refers to bench time.
"I'd trade every one of you," Wolf once told his players in an effort to build up their confidence, "except you're so bad no one will have you." Such leadership brought the Pistons exactly two wins and nine of the most humiliating losses ever inflicted on an NBA team at the start of this season. Then, early in November, Pistons Owner Fred Zollner hired Don Wattrick as executive manager and told him: "Do what you want but let's get something rolling." Wattrick's first moves were to fly to Philadelphia where the Pistons were playing, fire Wolf and invite DeBusschere for breakfast. "What do you think of playing coaches?" Wattrick asked.
"They can do a job," said DeBusschere.
"What about yourself?" Wattrick asked.
DeBusschere's jaw fell into his buttered toast. But he pulled himself together, took a deep breath and said, "Sure."
Word of the coaching change filtered back slowly to Detroit because there was a newspaper strike. But once it arrived it flew over the back fences, up and down the assembly lines and into the pubs. If the Pistons did not interest the citizens of Detroit very much, Dave DeBusschere did. He was, after all, one of their own—a local high school and college star who inspired such enthusiasm that after he left the University of Detroit, a room in Shiple Hall was named the Dave DeBusschere Lounge. This is a tribute normally reserved for saintly alumni with large bank accounts.
Wattrick, of course, was aware of the appeal a popular home-town boy would have at the box office but, as a former coach himself, he also recognized that DeBusschere had certain qualities that have nothing to do with age. DeBusschere had them in high school and still did. Wherever he went as an athlete, in fact, DeBusschere just naturally and quietly took charge and, without even realizing it, the older players began happily following along. Cincinnati Coach Jack McMahon, for one, has been aware of DeBusschere's ability for some time. The Pistons had made the playoffs two years ago, in DeBusschere's rookie year, and were getting clobbered by the St. Louis Hawks. After their second loss in a row, several Pistons, including DeBusschere, joined McMahon at a local bistro. "Two more and we can all go home," McMahon recalls one of the players saying. "Man, am I ready to retire," said another. DeBusschere, meanwhile, sipped moodily at his beer, tried to squeeze the salt out of the salt shaker and said: "Jack, how the hell can we beat these s.o.b.s?"
"I wasn't about to tell him," says McMahon, who was out of basketball that year but still owed allegiance to his old Hawk teammates. "But that kid worrying about how to salvage a lost cause really impressed me."
If the attitude of the rest of the NBA was reserved because of DeBusschere's age, there was unrestrained joy among the Piston players. The announcement was made at practice, and every player immediately took turns dunking the ball in the basket. "Even I dunked it," said stocky Don Butcher, "and I haven't even touched the rim in five years." Immediately the Pistons started to win games—five of their next seven. That bit of early foot, however, can be attributed to fresh enthusiasm and, when it was over, the Pistons began struggling again. DeBusschere then had to face up to the hard facts of coaching in the NBA.
His first edict was to cut out calisthenics in practice. He introduced a note of levity into the heretofore grim procedure of traveling by pulling a harmonica from his pocket—after a losing game—and playing such favorites as Love Makes the World Go Round but, Baby, Money Greases the Wheels. He appointed Butcher and Ray Scott as his brain trust to keep track of substituting players when DeBusschere was on the floor. All this was fine, but DeBusschere was stuck with old problems. The year before, the Pistons had signed center Reggie Harding, a high school drop-out whose attitude was so casual that he slept through three practices and missed a flight to Baltimore for a game with the Bullets. "Reggie," said DeBusschere, "you sure haven't got your mind on basketball," and fined him $500. Harding had never played a game in college, but he is seven feet tall and possesses an abundance of undisciplined talent. He was also woefully out of shape. DeBusschere fixed that by running the big center until his eyes bulged. Eventually Harding began rushing to and fro on the court without so much as a puff.
Another early problem was Joe Caldwell, a quick 6-foot-5 jumping jack who returned from the Tokyo Olympics certain that he was the best thing that ever happened to the NBA. Whenever he got his hands on the ball he would shoot, and a final touch was the cultivation of a goatee of the Russell-Chamberlain type. "Take it off," DeBusschere snapped, "and if you don't start playing ball with the rest of us—it's the pines for you." Evidently Caldwell sensed that this young coach was not to be trifled with. Off came the goatee, and Caldwell began supplementing his shooting with some defense, rebounding and a willingness to set up picks for his teammates. He is now one of the best rookies in the league.
In other cases DeBusschere relied on tact. Eddie Miles, who came to the Pistons last year from Seattle University with the tag "Man with the Golden Arm," spent his first season without a chance to use that limb. In the rare instances when he did get into a game Miles would be taken out immediately upon missing a shot. Rod Thorn, who came to the Pistons from Baltimore this season, had the same problem. "Just play your game," DeBusschere told them. "If you miss, you miss." Thorn went out and scored 27 points the next game, and Miles has been scoring with consistency and running with abandon. He is now a prominent member of the starting lineup.
"DeBusschere is successful," Zollner told Pete Waldmeir of the Detroit News, "because he has a head like a grapefruit." When Waldmeir recovered his pencil and his aplomb, he asked the Pistons' owner to explain. "You see, it's like this," said Zollner, whacking his right temple. "You have to be able to pluck a piece out like this and have the rest stay together. Then you have to put that piece back [Zollner slapped at his right ear] and grab another piece from somewhere else." What Zollner was trying to say, presumably, is that Dave DeBusschere can play basketball or baseball or golf (which he does in the low 70s) or the harmonica or whatever the situation calls for and do it better than most anyone else.
While it is sometimes easy to find flaws in Zollner's logic, there is no disputing that DeBusschere is playing the best basketball of his life. As Baltimore Coach Buddy Jeannette says, "The big thing going for Coach Dave DeBusschere is that he's got Player Dave DeBusschere going for him."