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DEBUSSCHERE IS A MAJOR PLAYER ON THE ALL-UNDERRATED TEAM

When Rafael Palmeiro became the 19th player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs, a debate was sparked.

In this day of sluggers, is Palmeiro Hall of Fame material?

Despite all his statistical superlatives, Palmeiro has never been the best player in baseball during his 18-year big-league career, the detractors argue.

This column began as an overview of players who have shared Palmeiro's malady -- that of being underappreciated. But when Dave DeBusschere died after suffering a heart attack at age 62 on Wednesday, it quickly occurred that he may have been the king of playing beneath the radar.

If NBA fantasy leagues had been in vogue back in the '60s and '70s, DeBusschere would have been regarded just as Palmeiro is today -- a solid player not often mentioned during arguments concerning the elite.

DeBusschere has received a few more accolades than Palmeiro. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983 and named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1997. (He's the third of that fabulous group to die; Pete Maravich died at 40 in 1988 and Wilt Chamberlain at 63 in 1999).

But DeBusschere never made the all-NBA first team and was selected a second-teamer only once (in 1968-69).

A 6-foot-6, 225-pound forward who was most famous for his defensive abilities and top-of-the-key jump shot, DeBusschere was traded to the New York Knicks from his hometown Detroit Pistons in 1969. He won a pair of championships with the Knicks, in 1970 and '73.

Fellow Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins once remarked that DeBusschere "took away my first, second, third and fourth offensive moves."

But when you think of the great Knicks teams from that era, DeBusschere probably is about the fifth or sixth option in your memory banks behind fellow Hall of Famers Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and Bill Bradley, as well as maybe Earl Monroe, perhaps even current Lakers coach Phil Jackson. Just like Alex Rodriguez is the first Ranger you think of, not Palmeiro. Ditto Cal Ripken Jr. when Palmeiro played for the Baltimore Orioles.

Long before there was Bo Jackson, Danny Ainge and Deion Sanders, DeBusschere was a two-sport standout. After college, he accepted a $75,000 signing bonus to play baseball and a $15,000 contract with the Pistons.

DeBusschere's professional sports career began as a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher for Indianapolis, then a Chicago White Sox farm club, where he went 25-9 and was protected ahead of Denny McLain -- the last man to win 30 games in a season -- in a draft of minor leaguers. DeBusschere spent two seasons in the big leagues with the White Sox, compiling a 3-4 record and 2.90 earned run average in 36 games, 10 as a starter.

He walked 23 and struck out eight as a hard-throwing but wild rookie in 1962, then turned that ratio around with 53 strikeouts and 34 walks in 1963, just months after having played a full season of basketball with the Pistons, who selected him first in the 1962 NBA draft as a territorial pick out of the University of Detroit (now Detroit Mercy).

The territorial draft, which the NBA employed through 1965, allowed teams to capitalize on the regional popularity of college stars. Ironically, the American Basketball Association, which DeBusschere later became commissioner of, used the same tack a decade later in its war to sign prospects away from the NBA.

DeBusschere led Detroit's Austin Catholic High School to the 1958 state championship, where he averaged 24.1 points as a senior, including 29.5 in the state tournament.

He was a three-time college All-American, leading Detroit to the 1960 and '61 National Invitation Tournament and to the NCAA Tournament in '62, averaging 23.7 points per game during his career. He still holds the school record for rebounds in a game (39 against Central Michigan on Jan. 30, 1960) and for rebounds in a season (540). He led the Titans to three NCAA Tournament appearances in baseball as well.

Though DeBusschere averaged 16.1 points during his 12-season NBA career, he never led his team in scoring. At 24 years old, he was the youngest head coach in NBA history as a player/coach in Detroit, just a year after he had missed all but 15 games because of a broken leg.

But DeBusschere's best stat work came as a rebounder. He averaged 11 during his career, 12 in 96 career playoff games, but cracked the NBA's top 10 just three times. He was eighth in 1965-66 and 1967-68 and 10th in 1966-67, all as a Piston.

"Big D" was traded to the Knicks on Dec. 19, 1968 for Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives. At the time, DeBusschere said, "As a coach I was very frustrated, losing all the time. And as a player all I could look backward on was six years of losing. When they announced the trade, I was happy to be coming to a winner." Team success soon followed.

Most everyone remembers when the Knicks won the 1970 NBA championship by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers, 113-99, in Game Seven at Madison Square Garden. Reed, who had missed the sixth game in L.A. with a serious knee injury, limped to court just minutes before the opening tipoff and provided his teammates a huge emotional boost just by being in the lineup.

Reed scored just four points that night. Lost in the legend is the fact Frazier had 36 points and 19 assists, Dick Barnett scored 21 points and DeBusschere, who was often called "the last piece of the Knicks' championship puzzle," had 18 points and 17 rebounds.

When the Knicks won the title in '73, DeBusschere had 33 points and 14 rebounds in the pivotal fourth game of a five-game series win over the Lakers in the finals.

One of his monster efforts in an All-Star Game is also all but forgotten. In the 1967 game, as a reserve with the West, DeBusschere shot 11 of 17 from the field, scored 22 points and grabbed six rebounds in 25 minutes. But game MVP Rick Barry stole the show with 36 points as the West won, 135-120.

DeBusschere was named to the NBA's all-defensive team the first six years the squad was selected (1969-74) and played in eight All-Star Games. But even though he was the top vote-getter on the all-defensive team four different times, the NBA didn't begin naming a defensive player of the year until 1983.

DeBusschere was hardly a Buffalo Braves killer, though he did have his moments. He went scoreless against the expansion Braves in his first meeting against them, Dec. 6, 1970 in Buffalo, and had just four points on 2-of-12 shooting in his last meeting against the Braves, on Feb. 21, 1974, in Toronto. But in between, he had 41 points (shooting 15 of 29 from the field and 11 of 13 from the foul line), plus 21 rebounds in a 113-108 Knicks win in Memorial Auditorium on Dec. 7, 1973.

But even if DeBusschere had never scored a point or grabbed a single rebound, he still would have made a huge contribution to the fantasy basketball world.

As general manager of the Knicks in 1985 (he also served a term in that position with the ABA's Nets), DeBusschere represented the team in the NBA's first draft lottery. The Knicks won that lottery and selected Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, who spent 15 years with the Knicks and went on to become the league's 13th-best career scorer with 24,815 points.
e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com

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