There were 147 graduating seniors in the all-boy, Austin Prep 1958 graduating class. Dave DeBusschere was class president - it had not been a contest, and even I had voted for the big sports guy.
Dave was a gentleman. He was 6 feet 6, at a time when that meant very big, but he was bigger than that - he was a gentle man. As a child he lived on the block behind our own, but I really knew him for only the four years we shared at Austin.
His campaign credentials included the fact that he had been largely responsible for putting our neat new school on the map, starting the year before, when he had led the basketball team to the first of two state championships. This was a very big deal for us - almost as exciting as Latin or rhetoric. Dave and the enthusiasm generated by a star team had been been able to make this sissy-boy a basketball fan for a few years. Except for a couple of months which followed a horrible auto accident on the way to a game, I never missed a contest, home or away. I even found myself crouching regularly at the edge of the floor with my little Praktiflex, snapping the action for the school paper.
Dave's gone now. "Austin Catholic Preparatory School" (the formal name) had disappeared just about as prematurely, a few decades ago. Perhaps the institution was a victim of its times, but not before it had launched its favorite son to be loved and admired in his time. The school seems to have left almost no trace it ever existed, other than in the memories of its boys (and later, girls too?) - and in the evidence of their works. Some of the boys became men like Dave.
The NYTimes remembered him this morning, most eloquently in Ira Berkow's, "A Big Player Who Did All the Little Things." This is an excerpt from the jock-y part:
Burly, rock-jawed, his thighs so muscular they seemed cast in marble, he could be a force in what the players called "the butcher shop," the rebounding area under the basket where welts sprouted and blood spilled and, as Kipling might have said, you had to be a man, my son.
Or he sank shots from so far out the basketballs seemed to be launched from Section 310 in Madison Square Garden. And if a defender dared try nuzzling up to him, DeBusschere drove around him with grace and power and surprising alacrity, given that he was 6 feet 6 inches and 235 pounds.
On defense, he had the amazing ability to make his man disappear. As Donnie May, a teammate, said in the 1970 book on the Knicks, "Miracle on 33rd Street," by Phil Berger: "Guys like DeBusschere, for six, seven, eight minutes of a game, you don't even see the man he's guarding. He cuts him off from the ball, takes him right out of the game."
DeBusschere off the court possessed a sense of humor, a sense of balance, a solid sense of himself. I remember a night in the locker room before a game when he was talking with several teammates, discussing "homer" referees who called, he said, "these terrible charging fouls." DeBusschere, wearing only a jock strap, impersonated a referee calling a charging foul - slapping his right hand behind his neck and pointing with his left hand and skipping across the floor. Everyone was laughing.
Wish I'd been there.