Remembering Wes Unseld

When people ask me to name my favorite athlete of all time, I give two names: Wes Unseld and Sonny Jurgensen. If pressed, I go with Big Wes because he delivered a championship to Washington, D.C. and because of what he meant to the community off the court.

Unseld died today at the age of 74. The cause of death was “complications from pneumonia.”

You have to be really old to remember Unseld as a basketball superstar. In his senior year at Louisville, he averaged 23 points per game, with a .613 field goal percentage, and led Louisville to a number 2 ranking in both wire service polls. During his three year career, he averaged 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds.

In his first year in the NBA, Unseld was named the league’s most valuable player. The only other player to be both MVP and rookie of the year in the same season is Wilt Chamberlain.

That season, 1968-69, Unseld’s Baltimore Bullets increased their win total from 36 to a league-leading 57 and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They would make the playoffs in each of the next 11 seasons.

Two years later, the Bullets reached the NBA finals, losing to the Milwaukee Bucks and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This was the first of four NBA finals for the Bullets in the 1970s. They finally got over the hump and won the whole thing in 1978.

Unseld was at the heart of the biggest Bullets moments of the 70s. When we finally broke through and took down the mighty New York Knicks in 1971 to reach the finals, it was Wes who blocked New York’s final shot in Game 7 (by Bill Bradley, I think, or maybe Dave DeBusschere).

When the Bullets advanced to the finals in their championship year, overcoming Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers, it was Wes who blocked Phillie’s last ditch shot (by Lloyd “World Be” Free) in the final game of the series. Unseld wasn’t known as a shot blocker.

When the Bullets won the title by beating Seattle in a tense Game 7, it was Wes who clinched the game at the foul line.

Before the game, he had told his teammates, “I just want everyone to know I’ll be there for you today, no matter what it is, you don’t have to worry about anything.” But Unseld had struggled with free throw shooting all year. I imagine he was hoping that “there” wouldn’t be the free throw line and “it” wouldn’t be making foul shots with the game on the line. It was, though, and he delivered. Moments later, Unseld pulled down the rebound that ended the contest.

Four decades later, David Aldridge asked Unseld what he was thinking as he stepped to the foul line that night. “I was thinking I didn’t want to be there,” he said. So, asked Aldridge, great players get spooked, too? “Well, if great players tell the truth,” Unseld replied.

Unseld told the truth. According to Aldridge, Wes as “the most honest man I knew in 30 years of covering the league.”

By the mid-1970s, Unseld was just a star, not a superstar. Multiple surgeries to his knees had robbed him of his leaping ability and scoring prowess. His knees became so bad that he often skipped a week’s worth of practices, as well as pregame warmups, because he could tolerate the pain only for the time it took to play an actual game. According to the Washington Post, Unseld once suited up just minutes after having 200 cubic centimeters of fluid drained from his left knee.

But even with his scoring way down, Unseld remained a key player on offense thanks to his bone-crunching screens, his high-volume offensive rebounding, and his outlet passing.

Today, the outlet passing is what Unseld is best remembered for. It is unsurpassed in the history of the game. Kevin Love is the only recent player who provides a glimpse of what Unseld did in this regard. It’s no coincidence. Love’s father, Stan, was a teammate of Unseld. Kevin Love’s middle name is Wesley, and Unseld is his godfather.

Before his knees became such a problem, Unseld would sometimes start fast breaks with passes he threw off of rebounds while still in mid-jump. Later, he perfected the full court pinpoint pass from a standing position with the flick of his wrists — like a soccer throw in.

But let’s not forget those screens. NBA guards of his era haven’t. Doug Collins says they were the most brutal he ever encountered.

Unseld taught the art to Rick Mahorn, his backup for the Bullets. Mahorn later converted it to a dark art as one the Detroit Pistons’ most notorious “bad boys.” Unseld’s picks stopped players in the tracks, and sometimes put them on the floor, but they seemed to lack the full malice of Mahorn’s. The Detroit bad boy would put a little extra into his. Unseld, block of granite that he was, didn’t need to.

Bill Laimbeer was Mahorn’s partner in crime at Detroit. It happens that Laimbeer, then with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was the victim of Unseld’s last basket ever.

It came in the first quarter of Unseld’s farewell game. The idea was for Wes to play until he scored a bucket, and then leave to a standing ovation from the home town fans.

Early in the quarter, Unseld found himself wide open maybe eight feet from the basket. He hit a soft shot.

After the game, a sportswriter asked Laimbeer if he had let Unseld have that shot on Wes Unseld night. The future bad boy replied, “No, he just cleared me out with his forearm like he always does.”

You didn’t thrive as an NBA center at six feet, seven inches (as listed, he was actually less than fully 6-6) without knowing how to deploy some of the dark arts.

Later, as coach of the Bullets, Unseld warmed the heart of Michael Jordan by subduing Mahorn and Laimbeer when a fight broke out between the Washington and Detroit. As the Chicago Tribune reported in 1988:

Rick Mahorn. . .must have thought he was in a hockey game after Washington Bullets coach Wes Unseld pulled Mahorn`s shirt over his head in a fight last week.

That fight was the prime viewing in the Bulls` dressing room before Friday`s game as players stood around the television and hooted and cheered Unseld as he tossed Bill Laimbeer aside like a sack of potatoes and tied up Mahorn.

As I recall the incident, after Unseld threw Laimbeer aside, the Piston considered his options and elected not to reenter the fray.

Where does Unseld rank all time among NBA centers? For a long time, I clung to the view that he’s in the top ten. In recent years, I have reluctantly given up that position.

However, I’m delighted to see him ranked ninth on a list from five years ago by Bleacher Report. He’s just behind Patrick Ewing and Moses Malone, and just ahead of Dwight Howard and Bob Lanier. Bleacher Report calls Unseld “the king of non-glamorous production,” and cites this profile on NBA.com.

The profile describes Unseld as intelligent on and off the court. He certainly was. For decades, I enjoyed listening to Unseld’s observations about the world. I recall, for example, how moved he was by what he saw in Israel when his good friend, the Bullets’ owner Abe Pollin, took the team there for some exhibition games.

Unseld had a wicked sense of humor. He often clashed with the great Elvin Hayes when the two played together in Washington. When the Bullets lost, Hayes would complain that he couldn’t carry the scoring load alone (a shot at Unseld who by then was averaging less than 10 points a game). When they won, thanks to a clutch play by Unseld, Hayes would gush about his teammate.

It’s telling that when Hayes was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame, he asked Unseld to introduce him. Unseld said (as I remember it):

The Big E would outrun you, he would out jump you, and he would out muscle you. And if none of that worked, he would out talk you.

Unseld could also be self-deprecating with his humor. After his first game as Washington’s coach, he compared his first time out, during which he ran out of wisdom to offer the team, to the first time he was a substitute teacher at the school his wife ran. He said (again as I remember it):

I told the class the entire history of the world as I knew it, and then looked at the clock. We were only 20 minutes in.

Unseld’s NBA.com profile states that “over the course of his career he came to personify the virtues of hard work, dedication, and courage.” That’s the main reason why he’s my favorite athlete of them all.

I’ll give the final word to Mitch Kupchak, Unseld’s teammate during his later years:

The most amazing thing to me is how effective he was with those bad knees. Any time he stepped on the floor, whether it was for practice or a game, he was in pain. It wasn’t comfortable for him, but he saw it as part of his job. He knew his teammates were watching him and if he didn’t do it, they might not do it.

We always talk about leadership in sports, but you don’t designate yourself a leader. You just lead. That’s what Wes did.

RIP

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