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Friday, April 14, 2006

Classic Confrontation: Dave DeBusschere versus Gus Johnson

We are currently in a Golden Age of power forwards—the NBA landscape is patrolled by an incredibly diverse and skilled group of "fours," including 2002 and 2003 MVP Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, a strong MVP candidate this season. They have led the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks respectively to the top of the Western Conference and seem destined to engage in an exciting playoff series in May. Three decades ago, power forwards Dave DeBusschere and Gus Johnson squared off in some of the NBA’s most memorable postseason battles. On three occasions the winner of the series between DeBusschere’s New York Knicks and Johnson’s Baltimore Bullets ultimately advanced to the NBA Finals.

Johnson, one of the game’s first great dunkers, was breaking backboards long before Darryl Dawkins arrived from Lovetron with rhyming names for his slams. Johnson’s moves were so sweet that he earned the nickname "Honeycomb." His game was flamboyant and he oozed confidence. When teammate Walt Bellamy cracked Johnson’s tooth with an elbow during practice, he got an artificial tooth with a star imbedded in it: "A star for a star," Johnson said, adding, "It fits my character."

Johnson was so good that he made the All-NBA Second Team in 1965-66 despite playing in only 41 games due to injury. He played all over the court on offense and on defense, which perhaps contributed to his frequent injuries and occasional inconsistency. He once declared, "Nobody appreciates what I have to do. Maybe I would be more consistent if I wasn’t asked to so much. I’m fighting guards or centers on one end of the court and forwards on the other. I’ve never had the chance to concentrate on my offense. Just once, I’d like to play on a team with a big man and a good forward so I could see how really tough I am. I believe I’m the best. I mean that. I can do so many things others can’t do. Maybe too many things. I’ve been asked to do so much as long as I’ve been playing ball."

DeBusschere also played multiple positions, spending time in the backcourt in his early years with the Detroit Pistons and matching up with centers from time to time as well. The Pistons appointed DeBusschere player-coach in 1964, making him at 24 the youngest coach in pro basketball history. DeBusschere earned three All-Star selections and made two playoff appearances during his first six seasons with Detroit. He was a very good player but hardly seemed to be on the path toward basketball immortality. That all changed on December 19, 1968, when the Knicks acquired DeBusschere from Detroit for Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives. Hall of Fame Knicks Coach Red Holzman later noted, "DeBusschere was our Holy Grail." After DeBusschere’s arrival in New York, Willis Reed shifted from power forward to center, Bill Bradley moved from guard to forward and Walt Frazier began logging heavy minutes at guard. Holzman explained his value this way: "Dave DeBusschere is the complete basketball player. Sometimes he’ll score only four or six points in 40 minutes. People say to me: 'How come you play him so long?' I say because he does a whale of a job rebounding for us, a whale of a job on defense for us. If he can get the rebounds and play good defense, we got the other guys on this team who can shoot."

DeBusschere described his defensive philosophy thusly: "I try to set up a triangle with me, my opponent and Willis (Reed). I want to force my opponent to go where Willis is, if he goes anywhere." He also noted, "Speed and mobility are much more important than height in rebounding."

Johnson was plagued by bad knees for much of his career, which made his productivity all the more remarkable. In game six of the 1970 playoff showdown with DeBusschere and the Knicks he scored 31 points, including 15 in the third quarter. His knees were so bad during that series that he couldn’t play in game one: his left knee was filled with fluid and his right knee would require postseason surgery. Just days before that playoff series he had powered the Bullets into the postseason by producing 19 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Knicks beat the Bullets in seven games despite Johnson averaging a double-double, including a team high 18.4 ppg. New York went on to win its first NBA championship that season, capped off by Willis Reed’s memorable return to action for game seven versus the Los Angeles Lakers.

Baltimore and Johnson avenged this loss in 1971, beating the Knicks 93-91 in New York in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bullets were not able to capitalize by winning a championship, losing to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Oscar Robertson Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals. New York returned to the NBA Finals in 1972 after outlasting the Bullets 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals but the 69-13 Wilt Chamberlain/Jerry West/Gail Goodrich Lakers beat the Knicks in the NBA Finals.

In three playoff series, DeBusschere held a 10-9 advantage against Johnson in playoff games (Johnson did not play in the Knicks’ four game sweep in 1969 or in game one in 1970). After the Knicks’ triumph in 1970, DeBusschere said, "Gus is the difference between the Bullets this year and last year, when we beat them four straight." Holzman once observed, "People came to see the Knicks play the Bullets and left talking about the mini-war between DeBusschere and Johnson."

Two-time All-Star and five-time All-Defensive Team member Paul Silas played against DeBusschere and Johnson. He says, "The game was so different then in that it was Gus against Dave and you didn’t have the defenses that you have today--the help side and all that kind of thing, guards coming back helping. So, they had to go against each other and battle each other. It was just a war. That’s all you could say. Each guy wanted to prove to the other that he was superior. Gus probably had more natural talent in that he could jump higher, maybe run faster, that kind of thing. But Dave had the savvy, he had the know-how and he always had the toughness. Dave’s game was a little different in that he was more of a long range shooter. Gus was a mid range shooter that could get to the hoop (and) power inside, but not really a post up guy where you would post him up and he would go to the hoop--more of a fade-away jump shooter. Each one of them in their own way was great for his club and it was just a great rivalry."

"Gus was tough for me because he was quicker. He could get around me and he just knew that he could take me. There’s always one guy who just knows that every time you get on him that he can take you. That’s what disgusted me about Gus," Silas adds, laughing good naturedly. "Every time I stepped on the court against him he would kind of lick his chops. But I would get my licks in and he was tough. He wasn’t to be messed with. I always thought that Gus was sort of a mean guy, but he really wasn’t. Off the court he was just a mellow kind of guy--just a good person. Dave, we just had terrific battles when I was with the Celtics. I remember one time we were battling so hard and we just wrestled each other down. He looked at me and I looked at him and we said, 'Boy, we’re battling like hell, aren’t we?' It was just a respect that we had for another that we showed. It was good. It was a good rivalry."

DeBusschere retired after the 1973-74 season. He became General Manager of the New York Nets in the ABA before serving as ABA Commissioner. In 1982 he returned to the Knicks for a four year stint as General Manager, a period highlighted by the emergence of Bernard King as a superstar before King’s devastating knee injury and by winning the rights to draft Patrick Ewing in the NBA’s first Draft Lottery. DeBusschere was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1983 and selected to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List in 1996. He passed away on May 14, 2003 at the age of 62.

Johnson’s knee injuries seemed to have brought his career to an end in December 1972 when the Phoenix Suns waived him but two weeks later the Indiana Pacers, defending ABA champions, signed him. Johnson played sparingly during the regular season and even less during the playoffs, but he had an impact in the ABA Finals as the Pacers successfully defended their title. Mel Daniels, two-time ABA MVP with the Pacers, explains the crucial role that Johnson played on the Indiana Pacers’ 1972-73 ABA championship team: "He was older. He came in and he helped with our overall understanding of the game--what it took to win. The experience that he brought was invaluable. He blew out his knees, but he was a magnificent basketball player--heck of a rebounder. He wasn’t a great offensive ball player, but he knew his limitations--he was the Charles Oakley of his day, or better."

Johnson’s veteran savvy and tremendous physical strength came in handy during the ABA Finals when Daniels was forced to the bench with foul trouble. Johnson came into the game and matched up against Artis Gilmore, the Kentucky Colonels’ great young center. Daniels recalls, "He came in and did a great job. He was strong. He wasn’t as big as Artis so he would get underneath him and really frustrate Artis. He didn’t have any leverage to roll off of him. Gus did a great job. He rebounded well." Pacers’ Coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard was not at all surprised by Johnson’s performance. Leonard says, "I drafted Gus out of Idaho in the second round when I was with Baltimore and he became one of the great defensive players ever. He gave us a lift--just Gus’ personality--and in that seventh game in Kentucky Mel Daniels got into foul trouble and Gus didn’t have the knees and everything, but I put him in there and let him take Artis…Gus could get up and play people. If Dave were still alive—I’ve known Dave DeBusschere for a long, long time--and if Dave were still alive he would tell you that Gus Johnson was one of the toughest defenders that he played against. Those matchups are legendary."

Leonard explains how Johnson held his own against the younger and bigger Gilmore for those key moments: “This is how strong he was in his upper body. He pushed Artis--by the time Artis got the ball in what should have been the low post, Gus had walked him right out of there, walked him right out 15 feet out on the floor. He rode Artis all the way out of there and played quite a few minutes. I’ve still got a picture, a big blowup that I had in the restaurant of Gus with the net--you know, we cut down the net--he had the net around his neck and we had our arms around each other.”

Johnson never won an NBA championship but Leonard proudly notes, “But he got a ring. The only he ring he ever got.” Johnson passed away on April 29, 1987. He was only 48 years old.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:34 PM

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