Of the 72 seasons the New York Knicks have suited up to play basketball, only twice has the team reached the pinnacle, and a late December trade for Dave DeBusschere — which went down half a century ago this week — is often credited with being the move that pushed the ‘Bockers over the hump and into the promised land.
As December was nearing its end in 1968, the Knicks were nothing to scoff at. They sat at 18-17 and were coming off back-to-back playoff appearances after having previously undergone a seven-year hiatus from the postseason. The team was led by the likes of Willis Reed, Walt Bellamy, Walt “Clyde” Frazier and two Dicks (Barnett and Van Arsdale), but despite the impressive collection of talent, they had failed to bring a title to the Big Apple. It had been more than two decades since the birth of the NBA in 1946, and Knicks fans were getting antsy. The Boston Celtics had already won 10 titles by that point, and the Los Angeles Lakers had won five. Enough was enough.
On December 19th, 1968, then-Knicks general manager Eddie Donovan made a big splash, trading Bellamy — one of the team’s top scorers averaging 15.2 points and 11 rebounds per game on the season— along with lefty point guard Howie Komives. In return, the Knicks received DeBusschere.
A three-time All-Star prior to joining the Knicks, DeBusschere was known as a defensive demon and for his career was a 16ish points and 11ish rebounds a game guy, so his stats certainly filled the void that was being left by Bellamy’s departure. The trade paid dividends, both immediate and long-term. In the first game after the trade, DeBusschere was the Knicks leading scorer and finished with 21 points, 15 rebounds and 6 assists in a blowout of the Detroit Pistons. The Knicks didn’t lose until their ninth game with Debusschere on the squad, and they went 14-1 in the first 15 games after the trade.
The New York Times obituary on Debusschere, from May 2003 (he died at age 62 from a heart attack while in New York City, Rest in Peace!), describes how the trade freed the Knicks up to be their best selves.
From the NYT: “When the Knicks had Bellamy at center, they were forced to use Reed at forward, where his strengths were sometimes minimized by playing away from the basket. When Bellamy departed, Reed became a force at center, dominating on defense as well as on offense, and teaming with DeBusschere, a natural forward at a solid 6 feet 6 inches, to give the team a powerful physical presence in the frontcourt.”
The Knicks finished that season 54-28, or 11 more wins than the previous year. They swept the Baltimore Bullets in the first round of the playoffs, with DeBusschere averaging just over 21 points per contest.
The defending champion Celtics turned out to be too much for the new-look Knicks, beating them in six games. However, unlike the more recent Carmelo Anthony trade, which at first looked promising but then turned into years of frustration and playoff-less basketball, the second round loss was just the beginning of a crazily successful run the Knicks would have with DeBusschere on the team.
Between 1969 and 1974, the Knicks actually won more games than any other NBA team, per the New York Times obituary, and during the DeBusschere era they also won two championships, in 1970 and 1973. Today, more than 50 years later, those two finals victories stand as the only times the Knicks have ever been the last team standing in the NBA.
In total, DeBusschere played 12 seasons in the NBA, making the All-Star team eight times and being named to the all-NBA defensive team six times. His number, 22, is one of eight player numbers the Knicks have retired (the ninth retired number hanging in the rafters at Madison Square Garden is 613, for the number of regular season wins Red Holzman had as head coach). DeBusschere was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1996, and in 1983 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
He went on to become the general manager for the Knicks, and is the guy who selected Patrick Ewing with the first overall draft pick in 1985, so needless to say, DeBusschere did a lot of good for the franchise.
Looking back now, the DeBusschere deal stands as proof that sometimes it’s worth it to make a major trade, while also representing evidence that trades are better when they leave you with some decent players and don’t completely deplete your entire roster in the name of getting one big star. Hopefully this look back at the DeBusschere deal will help drive that lesson home to the current Knicks front office.