This time, Wes Unseld was a conspicuous hero. For a decade now, he's been a hero no one ever saw; the NBA's most valuable invisible man. He left celebrity to others. They could sky-jam it and wear gold necklaces and be Dr. This and Dr. That. Like Edmund Hillary's Mt. Everest, Wes Unseld's majesty was born of simplicity. "He's just always there," Mitch Kupchak said.
Unseld was there Friday night when, with 12 seconds to play, he scored the basket that made this a season the Bullets will remember. The play was wonderfully typical of Unseld's work, for it required guile, strength, experience and perseverance. A man in hot pursuit of fame might have turned such a championship-winning basket into excuse for self-adoration. Unseld, with a small smile, said, "I just happened to be there."
Sure. As Charlie Johnson's long jumper went up, Unseld just happened to have a Philadelphia man locked against the baseline, out of reach of any rebound. Sure, Unseld just happened to grab the ball and hook it back at the rim with his left hand, the only shot available over a flying Julius Erving.
Sure, Unseld just happened to rebound his own missed shot before Eriving or anyone else could jump a second time. And Unseld, with a championship at stake in the last seconds, quickly against the board, letting it fall softly through the hoop to win.
Sure, he just happened to be there. And the Bullets just happen to be in the NBA championships for the third time in Unseld's 10 years with the team. He looks Kareem in the chest and Walton walks faster than he runs, but Unseld just happens to be as effective a center as the NBA has. What Unseld does, he does well, and what he does is precisely what his team needs most.
We mentioned Everest. Hillary climbed that hill, but he never went around West Unseld. The program says Unseld is 6-foot-7 and 245. The program lies. He's the J. Edgar Hoover Building in sneakers. One of the things Unseld does better than anyone else is stand still and let people try to make their way around him. Even with Michelin guides, no one has ever done it.
They call it setting picks. On offense , a guy stands there and defenders run into him. The idea is to free a teammate for a shot. Setting picks is no fun. Strong men running fast suddenly collide with the guy setting the pick. That can hurt. Left to their own choices, most NBA players would rather kiss Earl Strom than set a pick. They'd even kiss Norm Drucder.
Unseld sets a hundred picks a night. He's an oak tree. Defenders bounce off him, dazed fairly certain they'll never walk straight again. Survivors tell war stories about Unseld picks. "My shoulder, he took it off," said Mike Green of the San Antonio Spurs.
Unseld sets picks, plays relentless defense against men half a foot taller, passes well and gets more rebounds than any 6-foot-7 building in NBS history. He doesn't score, but who needs scoring when your forwards are Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge? He doesn't run on the break, but who needs runners when you have Larry Wright and Charles Johnson?
"And Wes is the patriarch of this team," said Coach Dick Motta. "He never panics. If I'm playing for the world championship, I want him on my side. I love him."
Unseld refuses to be part of prettying up his act. Motta may say his center has "the greatest hands in the NBA," and Johnson may call him "one Hayes may talk about how much Unseld cares about winning, and Kupchak may say, "He's the strongest player in the league." But Unseld wont't say any of that.
Although he admits with a sly smile that, "It pays well" (a reported $300,000 a year), Unseld says he does "the dirty junk." He calls himself "the junk man."
Because it is so difficult for the paying customer to appreciate the little things Unseld does so well - watch him take a quick half-step around a center, then put his massive hip against the man and suddenly shove the poor fellow aside, making it possible to grab another rebound without jumping - because Unseld works out of sight and won't congratulate himself in public interviews, his genuine heroics go largely unnoticed.
Not by Mitch Kupchak. A bright and eager second-year player with the Bullets, Kupchak is Unseld's backup. The kid admits to being puzzled by the old man; at the same time, he respects him immensely.
"Wes has been very helpful to me, " Kupchak said. "But at times, it seems like he doesn't really like basketball. And I don't know if that's a plus or minus. You wonder what he could do if he really liked it.
"That's the big question for me. Does he really love the game? There are a lot of things that say he doesn't. But he's always there. You throw him the ball, he catches it. He passes it. He gets rebounds below the rim. I don't know how he does it. I can jump a lot higher than him, but I can't perform the way he does.
"The way he uses his body is amazing. Rather than using his arms the way most strong guys do, he uses his hips. You'll see him in a crowd and all of a sudden you see a guy come flying out of the pack - and Wes has the ball.
"And, really, he's doing it on one leg. He's had three operations on that one knee. You wonder about him whether he likes to play, but it comes back to this: he's consistent, he always gives 100 percent, he seems to come up with big plays, he's always there.
"You can't depend on him to score or to run on the break, but he's always there. He'll get the loose ball. You can talk to him. He's a leader, he's asolidifying force. He's helped me a lot, both on and off the court."