Honor, Grace, and Wes Unseld

An era in Washington Bullets basketball has ended. Wes Unseld, the undersized center that history remembers, died at the age of 74. Unseld won Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same year. Only Wilt Chamberlain managed that. He was the number 2 pick of the Baltimore Bullets. He was a fierce rebounder, the ultimate team player and teammate with impeccable fundamentals. Someone once said Unseld could block out the sun with his wide body. He looked more football than basketball. Until he stepped on the court and annihilated opponents with his outlet pass. He won a title and was the Finals MVP in 1978. After his playing days were over he coached and was the Bullets/Wizards GM.

According to Unseld, what he did best was rebound. A career average of 14 boards a game, he often came in second to Chamberlain in season-ending rebounding stats though he was five inches shorter. He knew how to go out and get the ball.  He scored but he downplayed that part of his game as if it was one of those incidental basketball things. He took pride in his outlet pass which he perfected in high school in Kentucky, and he brought it with him to Louisville and the NBA. The thing about the outlet pass. It’s the ultimate team-first weapon because as Unseld pointed out in later years “you’re not going to get the ball back.”

Renowned racist Adolph Rupp wanted Unseld to be the first black player at Kentucky. He was the first black player Kentucky recruited and so of course there was the usual racial garbage heaved his way. The thought was if you make his life a holy hell he wouldn’t come to Kentucky and mess up their hallowed whiteness. Janice Martin, his sister-in-law, said chickens were left in his mailbox and he needed security during his senior year. Unseld’s mother asked Rupp would the university guarantee his safety. Racist Rupp said no. Wes Unseld’s Kentucky recruitment was over.

At Louisville, he played on the freshman team and averaged 35 points and 23 rebounds. Once he played on the varsity he averaged 21 ppg and 20 rebounds. In three years, he lost 22 games and won 60. During his senior year, at Georgetown, he dropped 45.

He didn’t disappoint in the NBA. A last-place team, the Bullets improved his rookie year by 21 games and only missed the playoffs once with Unseld in tow. It took the Bullets three tries before they won a title. They lost to the Bucks and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971 and Rick Barry and the Golden State Warriors in 1975.

The 1978 Bullets title is the only title in franchise history though the team has had more talented players since Unseld retired (Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, John Wall, Bradley Beal). However, they have never reached a conference final in the post-Unseld years.

Through the prism of time, Unseld’s career stats aren’t flashy. But basketball at the highest level is about production and the impact you make on your team in your era. Unseld recognized where he fit in. “I never played pretty. My contributions were in the things most people don’t notice. They weren’t high-scoring or dunking or behind the back passes.”

He wasn’t a mesmerizing offensive talent but he was noticed for his picks and his grabbing of rebounds that Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain did not get.  After his passing Abdul-Jabbar reflected “He was only like 6-7, 6-8, but you still couldn’t get rebounds over him because just denied (position) on the court. He was awesome in that sense.”

Wes Unseld scored 10,624  points over a 13-year career and was responsible for 13,769 rebounds. He was an All-Star 5 times and one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players. He led with humility even when talking about himself. “If I go out against a guy and play him 40 or 48 minutes a game, toe to toe, head to head,  he is going to get tired or beat up or bored for two or three minutes. That will be enough to make sure he doesn’t win the game for his team.”

The knee injury in 1974 changed the trajectory of his career but Unseld was still impactful- he led the NBA in rebounding in 1975 and fg percentage in 1976- and he was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1988. His teammates called him a Renaissance Man. The history major always had a book. His nature was cerebral and quiet. But on the court, he competed hard. He was relentless.

His moderate success when he coached the Bullets in 1987-88, replacing a fired Kevin Loughery, fit his profile. The team made the playoffs but that was as good it was going to get. He retired in 1994. He went upstairs and was the GM until 2003 but made some specious moves like Juwan Howards $100 million dollar contract, trading Chris Webber, and Ben Wallace.

Kevin Love is his godson and every time Love throws his outlet pass he is reminding us of a time before this time when men came to work, did their jobs, received average attention and weren’t thought of as Gods. They were men.

Teammate Phil Chenier still spoke of Unseld in the present tense as if Unseld’s death hadn’t settled in. He called him “truly a gentle giant. His scowl could be intimidating but really he was a kind, thoughtful, and protective comrade. Wes is the epitome of a great teammate, team leader, and friend.”

To know who Wes Unseld really was, what his life represented, who he influenced, and who he changed, how selfless he was, you just have to listen to his family. They called him their hero and they thanked everyone who loved him.

That would be too many people to count.