Derrick Rose will replace Bullets legend and Hall of Famer Wes Unseld as the youngest MVP in NBA history this afternoon when the Chicago Bulls third-year point guard accepts the honor at a news conference in suburban Chicago. In his third season, the 22-year-old Rose helped lead the Bulls to the league’s best record and became just the seventh player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, 7.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds in a season.
Unseld turned 23 only nine days before he won the award in 1968-69, after leading the Baltimore Bullets to their first winning season in franchise history and inspiring a 21-game improvement as a rookie. When contacted by phone on Tuesday, Unseld said he wasn’t aware that he had previously held the title as youngest MVP.
“I never gave that any thought,” Unseld said.
After the Bullets selected him second overall behind Elvin Hayes in the 1968 NBA draft, Unseld went on to average 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds and he and Wilt Chamberlain remain the only players to win rookie of the year and MVP in the same season. He won the award during a season in which he shared first-team all-NBA honors with future Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Billy Cunningham and Earl Monroe and Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to the NBA title over Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.
Unseld said he found out that he won while he was home in Kentucky fishing a few weeks after the Bullets were swept by the New York Knicks in the conference semifinals, as he averaged 18.8 points and 18.5 rebounds. He returned from his fishing trip and his father told him that the Bullets had called and left a message for him to call back.
“I called them and they said, ‘You won most valuable player.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ They said, ‘Okay.’ And that was it,” Unseld said. “I was surprised, but again, it wasn’t something you thought about. The award was not like it is today. It wasn’t a big media thing.”
While reflecting on his honor, Unseld gave credit to his teammates. “I was lucky to be surrounded by a bunch of very talented players, who at the time, didn’t know how talented they were,” Unseld said. “You start talking about Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson and most people don’t know how talented Jack Marin was, or Kevin Loughery. And then some of the other guys on that team, Ray Scott, Leroy Ellis. It was an easy fit for me to come in and try to be a part of it.”
The undersized but sturdy Unseld said he learned from veterans such as Bob Ferry, who later went on to serve as Bullets general manager but gave him an early lesson in physical play. Ferry “used to teach me things that guys would never have a chance to learn. Because you don’t have players around anymore. I’m going to bust your lip. I said, ‘No. This old guy ain’t going to bust my lip.’ Here I am, 21, 22 years old, strong. He going to tell he’s going to bust my lip and in about 10 seconds, I had a busted lip. It wasn’t like he went out and hit me. He just showed me how to get it done. From then, everything he said I listened to and tried to pick up on.”
Unseld said he hasn’t watched Rose play much this season, but has seen enough to see that “he’s obviously a wonderfully talented young man. He knows how to get things done. I’m happy for this young man, because obviously, he deserves it.”