- Josh Elias | March 24th, 2020
“The pupil who is never required to do what he cannot do, never does what he can do.”
One thing that’s always intrigued me about sports is the dying phenomenon of the multi-sport athlete at the professional level.
While sports, in general, are beginning to largely ditch specialists in favor of utilitarians, the greatest form of a utilitarian (no, I’m obviously not talking about John Stuart Mill) is no longer a thing.
There used to be Bo Jackson, and Deion Sanders, and Brian Jordan.
Before them, there were the dual basketball/baseball careers of Danny Ainge and Dave DeBusschere.
Now what is there?
Chase Budinger‘s beach volleyball career?
“That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”
DeBusschere has to be my favorite of all multi-sport athletes though.
A Hall of Famer who spent his entire NBA career with the Pistons and the Knicks, DeBusschere was the rare player back in the 60s and 70s who could legitimately play all five positions.
He was asked to bring the ball up the floor often and act as a floor general when he was a Piston.
He was moved to primarily power forward in New York despite standing at just 6’6″, alongside their previous power forward, Willis Reed, at center, in a primitive version of small-ball.
His career began as a primary offensive weapon, capable of stretching the floor to a certain extent, and ended as one of the premier scrappy defensive specialists in all of basketball.
DeBusschere was such a coveted draft pick heading into his rookie season in the NBA that he was off the board before the draft even started.
See, from 1949-1965, the NBA employed what they called territorial picks – a system where a team could give up their first-round pick in exchange for the ability to automatically select a player who played for an NCAA team within 50 miles of their home arena.
DeBusschere, from the University of Detroit Mercy, was the Pistons’ choice. In fact, he was the first territorial pick they’d made in 14 years of having the option.
But despite the confidence they put in him, he didn’t fully return the favor.
Yes, he played for them, and he did so well enough to make All-Rookie First Team, but he preferred baseball, so he pitched as a closer for the White Sox as well. Between the two sports, he made $90,000/year as a rookie- a number that would be less than a minimum salary these days even with inflation, but at the time equaled that of Mickey Mantle.
His second year in the league, he broke his leg and missed all but the first 15 games of the NBA season, before returning to Chicago to pitch just in time for the baseball season to begin.
Pistons upper management was unhappy that he returned to baseball before basketball, and realized quickly the next season after a 2-9 start that they had the perfect opportunity to… well, bribe a 24-year-old with a head coaching job in order to get him to stop playing baseball.
“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
DeBusschere wasn’t a good coach.
Shocker, I know. Who could have possibly predicted that taking your best player, who just so happens to be a 24-year-old who’s favorite sport is baseball, and putting him in charge of a professional basketball organization wouldn’t work?
His time in charge of the Pistons lasted three years, during which he led them to an abysmal 79-143 record.
The playing staff did little to help his chances; co-star Terry Dischinger left the team for two years to join the Army and promising seven-foot starting center Reggie Harding saw his career quickly peter out thanks to gang affiliations and alleged hard drug trafficking that led to countless arrests and the first-ever occasion of the NBA’s league office suspending a player for a full season.
There are multiple accounts of him calling opposing front offices about trade talks in which he asked them who on his team they would want back in a trade and the answer he received was simply a curt and straightforward “You.”
By the middle of DeBusschere’s third and final season as coach, there were few bright spots in Detroit. The emerging star power of fellow future Hall of Famer Dave Bing was one of them.
Another was the promise shown by second-year power forward Ron Reed, who earned a decent chunk of starting appearances in the first half of the season among a depleted Detroit frontcourt.
Nothing could be straightforward for Dave DeBusschere’s coaching career though, so it should be no surprise that Reed came to him in February and told him that he was leaving the team to pursue a career in the MLB.
DeBusschere, who ultimately made the exact opposite decision just a couple years prior, empathized but asked him to stay until the end of the season since they were still in the playoff race, to which Reed initially agreed.
Reed then put up a 22-point, 14-rebound, five-assist performance against the Hawks and promptly left the team following the game.
A year later, Ron Reed was an MLB All-Star.
A few years later, the winning pitcher in the game in which Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth‘s home run record.
And not too long after that, a World Series Champion.
DeBusschere’s Pistons would finish the season winning just six of their last 19 games and they missed the playoffs. Three weeks after Reed left the team, he would resign and never coach again.
It seems oddly fitting, in a schadenfreudig way, that Ron Reed would spend the final season of his career as a closer for the Chicago White Sox. The job that, almost precisely two decades earlier, DeBusschere had given up.
“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.”
If you were to play baseball in LaPorte, Indiana, these days, there’s a good chance you’d be doing it at Ron Reed Field.
It makes sense – he’s one of only two players from the city (the other being Chris Bootcheck) to spend any significant time in the big leagues, and had easily the more successful career of the two.
But on another level, we are talking about a man who described his decision to switch to baseball as “I felt like I was one step too slow and three inches too short to make a 10-to-12-year career in professional basketball, so I decided to give baseball my best shot.”
That doesn’t sound to me like someone who wanted their legacy to be in baseball. Those are the words of someone who grew up in suburban Indiana with hoops dreams making the solemn realization that he had to settle for the mundane future of being a top-50 talent in the world at his secondary passion.
Reed had been drafted by the Kansas City Royals straight out of high school, but turned down their contract offer to play college basketball for Notre Dame. Basketball had been his first passion after all.
The passion that led Reed to an illustrious college career with the Fighting Irish had manifested in LaPorte, Indiana, playing for a coach named Carl McNulty, who had an… um, interesting NBA career in his own right.
After growing up in a small town of 18,000 people best known for having a carousel and a loose connection to a cartoon cat, McNulty spent two years starring for Purdue. He is credited with being a pioneer of tip-ins, and to this day, he holds Purdue’s single-game rebounding record with 27.
To make that more impressive for you, I feel it’s necessary to highlight the fact that he was the same height as and six pounds lighter than the longest-tenured active Purdue alum in the NBA, shooting guard E’Twaun Moore.
In over 750 basketball games between high school, college, and the NBA, Moore has only reached even half that number in one lone high school game where he pulled down 14 boards.
But being a 6’3″ rebounding-specialist center has its drawbacks.
In fact, I’m not sure there’s a single thing about it that isn’t a drawback.
Even the fact that he was drafted at all – 30th by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1952 – was seemingly a miracle. Nine of the 21 centers in the league the previous year had been at least a half-foot taller than him. Not a single one within an inch.
Not that it would matter anyway. Before the defending champs’ training camp had even started, McNulty had already begun serving a two-year term in the Navy.
When he came back, it was time to settle down and start a family he figured, so he couldn’t afford to try and climb up the minor league basketball circuit to get a shot at the NBA. He took a job coaching a small rural high school team called the Rochester Zebras.
Midway through the season, he got a call from Red Holzman. There was an open spot on the roster of the Milwaukee Hawks.
Next, I’ll give a day-by-day account of Carl McNulty’s full NBA career. Forgive my verbosity.
Day 1: He left Rochester and traveled to Rochester. The Hawks’ first game with him on the roster happened to be against the Royals. He didn’t play.
Day 2: They traveled by train back to Milwaukee for a home game the next day against the Pistons. He would get a chance to play NBA basketball for the first time. McNulty managed 14 minutes, mostly at shooting guard. He shot 1-6 and scored two points. They lost. Before the game he’d already made the decision to retire. After all, Coach Holzman allowed beer on the train. Can’t have that.
Asked to recount his playing career a few years back, McNulty remarked that he was never actually paid for his two days with the team.
“I never got paid! I never asked the Hawks what I’d be making, and they never mentioned it.”
And with that, his NBA career was over, having officially become the only NBA player with career earnings of $0.
He returned to high school coaching after that and is now regarded as the second-best basketball coach from Logansport, Indiana.
He couldn’t quite pass up Tony Hinkle, the former Butler Bulldogs head coach who made precisely one NCAA Tournament in 41 years and whose actual name was Paul – he went by Tony because his own college coach repeatedly mocked his love of spaghetti.
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