Dave DeBusschere, among the greatest players in National Basketball Assn. history and a two-time league champion with the New York Knicks, died Wednesday of a heart attack. He was 62.
DeBusschere collapsed on a Manhattan street and died at New York University Downtown Hospital, the NBA said.
An all-around athlete, DeBusschere spent parts of two seasons as a major league pitcher with the Chicago White Sox before deciding to concentrate on basketball. He enjoyed his greatest success with the Knicks, helping them win NBA titles in 1970 and 1973 with his clutch scoring and tenacious defensive play.
Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983, DeBusschere was a six-time NBA all-defensive team selection, and in 1996 was named one of the 50 greatest players in league history by an NBA-sponsored blue ribbon panel.
“He was a great defensive player and a great person,” said Dick McGuire, a former Knick player who has worked for the club for 46 years. “He was very unselfish, he could handle the ball and he was a very good rebounder. You don’t see too many players like him today.”
Laker Coach Phil Jackson on Wednesday called DeBusschere, a former Knick teammate, “a friend ... that I admired very much as a basketball player and as a person.”
After retiring in 1974, DeBusschere became the last commissioner of the American Basketball Assn. and was instrumental in the 1976 merger of that league -- known for its red, white and blue basketballs -- with the NBA. He was general manager of the Knicks from 1982 to 1986, representing the club at the draft lottery in 1985, when New York won the top pick and selected center Patrick Ewing.
“He had a profound impact on the landscape of professional basketball, both as a player and an executive,” said Willis Reed, a former Knick center.
DeBusschere grew up in Detroit and led Austin High School to the Michigan state basketball championship before attending the University of Detroit, where he excelled in baseball and basketball.
Upon graduation from college, DeBusschere signed a $15,000-a-year contract with the Detroit Pistons of the NBA and received a $70,000 bonus for signing with the White Sox. He performed the rare feat of playing both professional basketball and baseball for two seasons.
Unhappy when the White Sox demoted him to the minor leagues, DeBusschere accepted an offer to serve as player-coach of the Pistons in 1964. He was 24 and the youngest coach in NBA history.
“It was an impossible job, trying to play and coach at the same time, especially when most of the players are older than you are,” DeBusschere said in 1969. “When I returned to the [playing] ranks ... I had no regrets. In fact, I was relieved.”
DeBusschere spent six seasons with the Pistons, two as player-coach, before being traded to the Knicks in exchange for center Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives in 1968. The trade marked the beginning of the Knicks’ rise from mediocrity.
In New York, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound forward teamed with fellow Hall of Fame players Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas.
“Dave DeBusschere was a loyal friend, an unselfish teammate and a quality human being,” Bradley, a former senator from New Jersey, said on hearing of DeBusschere’s death. “His strength, dedication and modesty lay at the core of our great Knick teams.”
A year after acquiring DeBusschere, the Knicks won their first NBA title, defeating the Lakers in the championship series.
Reporting for Sports Illustrated in 1970, Frank Deford wrote: “DeBusschere ... is the best all-purpose player on the floor ... the top overall performer.”
DeBusschere’s tape-recorded diary of the Knicks’ first championship season was edited into a book, “The Open Man,” alluding to then-Knick Coach Red Holzman’s basic instruction: “Look for the open man.”
After losing to the Lakers in the 1972 NBA finals, the Knicks last won the title in 1973 by defeating the Lakers.
DeBusschere retired after the 1973-74 season with career averages of 16.1 points and 11 rebounds in 12 seasons. He is among eight players to have their jerseys retired by the Knicks, who raised his No. 22 to the Madison Square Garden rafters in 1981.
“Dave was a blue-collar type of player who led by example with his tenacity on the court,” said Frazier, star guard on the Knicks’ best teams. “I will always remember him sitting in the corner of the locker room after the game, spent, because he always had given it all he had.”
In recent years, DeBusschere was vice president of corporate development for a New York real estate firm.
He is survived by his wife, Geri, and three children.
Times staff writer Tim Brown contributed to this report.