These are dark days for the Bullets. They lose more often than they win. And often they lose outrageously; the other night in Atlanta they were down 30 points in the third quarter. This is all the more confounding and upsetting to their fans because just two years ago these men were the champions of all basketball.
But through these dark days, only Wes Unseld, the center, seems unbothered by talk that the team is on the slide. He is still pulling them up, still playing championship ball. Elvin Hayes is a great indivdual player, but Unseld continues to be a great team player. He played championship ball when he was surrounded by champions; now that he is surrounded by a mediocre team, he still plays championship ball. He plays on.
It is not easy to appreciate Unseld. Part of the reason he's underrated is that he is shorter than most centers. He looks squat, or fat. And squat never looks right in a game of leaping, jazzy, twirling grace.
On playgrounds from Washington to Brooklyn, when people look for great players they overlook thick, squat kids; they look for the tall, slim ones. The great ball player (the truly "bad" player) can catch a pass in mid-air and dunk the ball through the hoop before returning to earth. Good ball players have moves that spin defenders around, leaving them hypnotized. Average ball players can hang in the air, at the height of their jump shots, shoot the ball into the basket, and talk about your mother as they come down.
Unseld doesn't do any of that.
He rarely jumps, and when he does he seems barely to get off the ground. He isn't fast enough to keep up when players dash to the other end of the court. And he has no flashy, quick moves. While all-world players drop the ball in the hoop as they hover above it, Unseld is doing fundamentals : set a pick and roll to the basket for a layup.
His face never changes expression -- grim. During the introduction of players at the start of the game, he is introduced last, as the team captain.He does not run onto the court between the lines of cheerleaders like the other players. He barely gets out of his chair for a perfunctory bow.
He plays against the tallest, usually biggest, player on the other team -- and he does it with sore knees and swollen ankles. Yet game after game this shorter, slower man stops their razzle-dazzle.
A sample of vintage Unseld was on display during Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's most recent game against the Bullets. Jabbar, the Los Angeles Lakers' over-seven-foot-tall center, repeatedly stood on either side of the basket, waiting for the ball to come to him so he could easily put it in with a hook shot. The arena is full, 19,000 screaming, and the game is close, but Jabbar's shots are missing because he isn't standing near the basket. Unseld is constantly there, pushing Jabbar farther and farther away. Finally, Jabbar explodes at the referee, points at Unseld and complains about the strong-arm tactics.Jabbar gets a few fouls called on Unseld. But it's no use. If the game were still in progress, Unseld would have pushed Jabbar from Prince George's County to Fairfax by now.
After the game, a reporter asked Unseld if Jabbar is the best center he ever faced. "Nope," says Unseld, still grim after victory, no celebration for him. Then, with a touch of rancor, Unseld asks: "You ever think I might be the greatest center he ever faced?"
The answer for most people would be "no." The spectacular is expected from a great player. But Unseld is anti-spectacular. Most basketball stars are scorers. Unseld rarely scores. Most great players are innovators, doing the outlandish and different with the ball. Unseld plays his best basketball without the ball. He relies on a knowledge of position, of where his body should be. As a result, he rebounds at an amazing rate. And he stand like a rock in the way of high-flying, fancydan offensive players on their way to the basket. Often he brings them rudely back to earth.
No. Unseld is not spectacular. He is an ad for the work ethic, crew cuts and a strong belief in fundamentals.
His biggest break from the basketball tradition of extraordinary feats is that he rarely stuffs the ball through the hoop. Until about a week ago in Boston, Unseld had not pushed one through in four years. His selection of spectacular plays: a lay-up or taking a shot. His shots are line drives with no beautiful arch, no artisty -- and they usually go in. And when they do, the fans cheer them like the grandest and fanciest dunks.
But he doesn't shoot much. He is the team player. He knows the value of setting a pick and making a pass to a better shooter.
That's boring. But he does it every night, when the team needs it. He is the tough, quiet hero, the John Wayne of pro basketball. But unlike, Wayne, Unseld doesn't swagger or talk tough.
He just plays on.