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."