Wes Unseld and what might have been

In reading tributes to the late Wes Unseld, I learned that Adolph Rupp, the racist coach at the University of Kentucky, wanted to make Unseld the first black member of his team. Indeed, Rupp tried very hard to recruit Big Wes.

Unseld, an outstanding student on top of everything else, was recruited by top programs throughout the country. But he was a Kentucky native and quite interested in playing at UK for the legendary Rupp.

Unfortunately for Rupp, his recruitment of Unseld set off a racist backlash. Reportedly, Wes received death threats, including a dead chicken in the mail.

In response, Unseld declared, “I don’t want to be the first one.” He signed with Louisville. The rest is history.

That history includes the national championship game in 1966 between Kentucky and Texas Western. This is the legendary contest in which Texas Western, playing only blacks, defeated all-white Kentucky by a score of 72-65.

What if Unseld had signed with Kentucky? He was a sophomore that season, and averaged 19.9 points and 19.4 rebounds per game for Louisville.

Had Rupp signed him, Unseld would certainly have been the starting center for the Wildcats against Texas Western. (Rupp wasn’t stupid.) He would have been the best big man on the floor and, with all respect to Pat Riley and Louie Dampier, probably the best Kentucky player.

Unseld would have matched up against Dave “Big Daddy” Lattin, the Texas Western center. Lattin was a star and an intimidating presence. Without a doubt, he played a major role in Texas Western’s victory, with 16 points and 10 rebounds. It was Lattin’s dunk over Riley in his team’s second possession that set the tone for the game.

Lattin would not have intimated Unseld. Wes was easily the superior player. During the season, Lattin averaged roughly half of Unseld’s points and rebounds.

We can only guess who would have won a Kentucky-Texas Western contest that featured Unseld as Kentucky’s center. My guess is that Kentucky would have won. In all likelihood, Lattin would not have scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, not even close. In all likelihood, Unseld’s totals would have far exceeded the 7 points and 5 rebounds of Thad Jaracz, Kentucky’s center.

This much we know: If Texas Western had won the game, the victory would not have resonated as deeply as the actual game did because it would not have involved all-black players beating an all white team.

I’m glad Wes signed with Louisville.