SI Vault
Tom C. Brody
March 01, 1965
Tall, handsome Dave DeBusschere is the best basketball player on the Detroit Pistons. He is also the coach of the Pistons and a likely starting pitcher on the best staff in baseball—all this at age 24
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March 01, 1965

A Young Man With Three Heads

Tall, handsome Dave DeBusschere is the best basketball player on the Detroit Pistons. He is also the coach of the Pistons and a likely starting pitcher on the best staff in baseball—all this at age 24

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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.

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.

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