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Heart Attack Kills Dave DeBusschere

Basketball Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere, at a Madison Square Garden news conference in 1997 (left), and as a Knicks forward playing against the Celtics in 1973.
AP
Dave DeBusschere's death shocked his old friends and teammates because he always seemed so indestructible, a rugged rebounder and the defensive conscience of two New York Knicks championship teams.

DeBusschere died of a heart attack Wednesday at NYU Downtown Hospital after collapsing on a Manhattan street. He was 62.

He was a distinctive personality who went from the court to the front office to the Hall of Fame, youngest coach in league history, commissioner of the rival ABA and the general manager who picked Patrick Ewing for the Knicks in the NBA's first draft lottery.

"As a player, coach, general manager, and ABA commissioner, Dave DeBusschere was a winner," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "He was a hard-nosed, blue-collar hero who gave all of his considerable energy to our game. Our game has lost an icon and the world has lost a good man."

If Walt Frazier was the flash and dash of those old Knicks and Willis Reed was the rock hard presence in the middle, then DeBusschere was final piece of the puzzle, the man who did the defensive dirty work.

"He had a profound impact on the landscape of professional basketball, both as a player and an executive," Reed said. "Dave was a great teammate as well as a great friend."

"Dave DeBusschere was a loyal friend, an unselfish teammate and a quality human being," said former U.S. senator Bill Bradley, his longtime roommate. "His strength, dedication and modesty lay at the core of our great Knick teams. He was like a brother to me."

Phil Jackson, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and DeBusschere's teammate with the New York Knicks, was shaken by the news and cut short a media session.

"Today was a day that was very sad for me from a personal standpoint, losing a friend and teammate that I played with for eight years, who I admired very much as basketball player and a person," said Jackson, who had an angioplasty heart procedure over the weekend.

Born in Detroit, Oct. 16, 1940, DeBusschere was a two-sport star at the University of Detroit, one of a handful of players to reach the major leagues in both basketball and baseball. His high school teams won city and state championships in both sports and in 1962, he signed a $75,000 bonus contract with the Chicago White Sox and was a territorial NBA draft choice by the Detroit Pistons

He pitched for two seasons for the White Sox, going 3-4 in 36 games. Former teammate Tom McCraw, now a coach with the Montreal Expos, remembered how DeBusschere embraced both baseball and basketball.

"He finally made the choice to go to the NBA, but he was a rare two-sport athlete," McCraw said. "To be able to do both of them at the major league level, I was in awe of that. I admired him and his dedication."

DeBusschere became a player-coach for the Pistons in 1964, at age 24 the youngest coach in NBA history. His teams went 79-143 before he was replaced late in the 1966-67 season by Donnis Butcher. In 1968, he was traded to the Knicks and immediately fit in on a team that would win the 1970 and 1973 championships.

"He was the difference in turning a team that was mediocre around," Frazier said. "He was the final piece of the puzzle."

Both times, the Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals and Lakers Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor remembered their old rival.

"The fans of New York were very privileged to have had the chance to applaud and celebrate his contribution to the Knicks' legacy in New York," said West, now president of the Memphis Grizzlies. "He will be missed by all of us who knew him so well."

"Dave DeBusschere was someone for whom I have always had the utmost respect, not only as a basketball player but as a great human being," said Baylor, now general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. "He possessed the highest levels of integrity and character and was a very classy guy."

DeBusschere was picked on six straight All-Defensive teams and when he retired in 1974, he became general manager of the ABA's New York Nets. A year later, he became commissioner of the ABA and was instrumental in the 1976 merger with the NBA.

DeBusschere went into private business in 1976, then returned to the NBA in May 1982, when he became general manager of the Knicks, a job he held until 1986. It was in that role that he won the first NBA draft lottery and picked Ewing as the No. 1 overall choice in June 1985.

DeBusschere was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983. In 1996, he was picked as one of the 50 greatest players in the league's first half-century.

He is survived by his wife, Geri, two sons and a daughter.

By Hal Bock