For New York Knick fans, April 1974 is the cruelest month of the cruelest year. The Knicks not only fell to their arch-rivals, the Celtics, in the final of the Eastern Conference playoffs, but also lost their top player, number 22, Dave DeBusschere.
In the summer of 1969, looking forward to his first full season with the Knicks, DeBusschere said he was "absolutely sick of watching the Celtics leap off the floor at the end of each championship series, their fists raised high in victory. I want to raise my fist. I want to be Number One."
The next year, with DeBusschere as catalyst, the Knicks took the National Basketball Association championship, and grabbed the honor again in 1973.
But on Wednesday night in DeBusschere's final professional basketball game, a nagging abdominal muscle pull hobbled the veteran starter. He played only 16 minutes and watched from the bench as his last chance to be Number One ticked off on the scorer's clock in the Boston Garden.
DeBusschere didn't enter the game until the second quarter, made just one shot in four attempts and collected only three rebounds. This from a man who, in the seventh game of the 1970 NBA finals, dashed the Lakers' championship hopes by banging in 18 points and ripping down 17 rebounds against the likes of Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.
Wednesday's game ended a brilliant career on a sad note, but recollection of his illustrious athletic feats should remove any of DeBusschere's remorse on retirement.
After garnering All-American basketball honors at the University of Detroit, DeBusschere was drafted as a pitcher by the Chicago White Sox in 1962. He spent his first year on Chicago's farm team in Savannah, winning 10 of 11 starts with an ERA of 2.49.
The White Sox gloated so over DeBusschere that they gave him a big bonus at the end of his rookie year and protected him while letting another young pitcher, Denny McLain, go to the Detroit Tigers.
At the end of 1964, DeBusschere left the Sox, saying, "I didn't want to stay in a business dumb enough to do that," and joined basketball's Detroit Pistons. At the age of 24, he became the youngest player-coach in the history of the NBA.
But DeBusschere had it rough with the Pistons. In his six full seasons there, Detroit never won even half its games. The players were ashamed of themselves, but were too tall to hide.
"When we went on a road trip," DeBusschere said in his book "The Open Man," I deliberately carried my travel bag--with Detroit Pistons on one side--so that the blank side showed."
Things changed radically for DeBusschere in 1968, when the Pistons traded him to the Knicks for Walt Bellamy. The Knicks were barely playing .500 basketball. They hadn't finished first or second in their division in ten years, and had never won the NBA championship.
In DeBusschere's first full season with the Knicks, the team compiled the best won-lost record in the NBA with a 60-22 record and went on to take the crown. In the five full years DeBusschere has been with the club, the Knicks have been to the Eastern Conference finals each year and have pocketed the NBA championship twice.
Surprisingly, sports writers have never selected DeBusschere for first-team All-NBA, but he has managed to win a spot on the All-Defensive NBA team every year since its conception in 1968.
Sports writers may not fully appreciate DeBusschere's talents, but his basketball peers revere him. Lakers' forward Bill Bridges once said: "There's not one guy in this league who gives the 100 per cent DeBusschere does, every night, every game of the season, at both ends of the court."
There are few words that could better praise the achievements of one of the greatest basketball players ever to have graced the game.