Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Wes Unseld's successful NBA career does not involve his bullish durability or his amazing consistency, but rather how someone so large could get lost for so long within his own team's offense.
it is difficult to overlook a man with Unseld's imposing presence, but his Bullet teammates managed to pull off the feat rather nicely for the bulk of his 11 years in the league.
As a result, Unseld has a nice-guy, bad-shot reputation which he says is grossly unjustified.
"If you don't get the ball," he declares with a cold stare, "how can you score? Not even Jerry West could overcome that problem."
But like Atlantis rising from the ocean, the Bullets have uncovered their lost scoring continent this season. Unseld may not be ready to duel George Gervin, but opponents no longer can dare him to shoot by leaving him as uncovered as a dancer in a burlesque hall.
"I used to be a scoring terror," Unseld said with a wide grin while remembering his early years in the league when his average topped the 16-point mark. But he was gone the last five seasons scoring in single figures, including a low-water mark of 7.6 last year.
Now, despite a meager seven shots a game and the league's second highest assist total for a center, that average has climbed back to 10 points. In the wide-open NBA, that is hardly an eyeopening figure, but it is high enough to make Coach Dick Motta feel he has accomplished a Mission Impossible.
"I was bothered all last season by a question," said Motta, who came into the league as coach the same year Unseld came in as a player. "I remembered how he used to kill my Chicago teams with his scoring. I kept asking myself, 'Why can't he do that now?'"
So Motta refined a play in his offense to get Unseld the ball in the low post, told his teammates to look for him cutting down the middle against zones and, faster than you can say Wilt Chamberlain, the Bullet center rediscovered his scoring touch.
"Sometimes you have to wonder how he even scored 10 points a game in other years," said Motta. "Teams used to hide people on him. They'd get a guy in foul trouble and he'd move over to Unseld. Why not? He never got the ball.
If we get Wes more involved in the offense, it has to make us that much tougher. We are going to make defenses honest one way or anoher. The threat of Wes scoring is there now. And they have to remember that."
The threat of Unseld at both ends of the court looms as the one significant advance the Bullets have made this season toward becoming a more accomplished team when they begin playoff defense of their NBA title in April.
He is unlikely to run up huge scoring totals, but he has begun specializing in registering baskets when the game is close or when the rest of the Bullets are dragging and the club needs someone to generate some excitement.
Two games in the openint half of this season illustrate his new role.
The first was against New Orleans when he scored the winning basket in the final seconds off a fine feed from Bobby Dandridge. Jazz center Rich Kelley as he always had in the past, had left Unseld alone in these last crucial moments to double-team Dandridge. Unseld, as he always has done in the past, broke for the bakset. This year, however, he got the ball.
The second game was against Indiana on Tuesday. Second-year center James Edwards decided he could slough off Unseld, the normal defense against him, and help out against Dandridge and Elvin Hayes. So the Bullets kept feeding Unseld for wideopen layups and he wound up with 26 points, his highest total since the 1971-72 season.
Unseld, who prides himself on stoic acceptance of roles and duties no matter how painful, argues he probably could have averaged around 16 points during his entire career under different circumstances.
"I've been open this much since I can remember," he said. "The only thing that has changed is that we now have someone (Dandridge) who will get me the ball when I am open."
But he's maintained a stony silence about his lack of involvement "because I don't think it was worth making a big deal over it. I could have done a lot more scoring, but I never got the ball. I have been asked to do other things like pass and set picks and play defense. People look at scoring and determine stars from that. I happen to think there is more to basketball than points, but when I say it, it sounds like rationalization.
"No one is out further from the basket in our offense except maybe Tom Henderson. If I played in the low post all the time, I should be able to score. Who's going to be strong enough to keep me from going to the basket?
"This might not last, who knows? If I know I'm getting the ball, I work harder to get open, but that is only logical. I still get most of my points off offensive rebounds."
Yet the trend begun by the Dandridge-to-Unseld passes has rubbed off on the rest of the team until now it sometimes resembles a runaway rollercoaster. Even Hayes, who does not earn $325,000 a year to record assists, is dropping off the ball to Unseld with increasing frequency.
And the Bullets hardly can argue with Unseld's efficiency. His 58 percent field-goal accuracy places him among the top three in the league and he hardly ever unloads an unjustified attempt. Even his occasional "why not" 15-foot jumpers normally find their target despite their ugly linedrive trajectory.
"Wes is so much more offensive minded," said Motta. "His contributions are rubbing off. We are passing better as a team and, when we are playing well, we are getting the kind of balanced scoring a coach dreams about.
"His whole game seems to be lifted this season. He is moving better than he has in the last four or five years and he is rebounding with the desire of his younger days.
"I don't think anyone in the league rebounds with more efficiency than he does. He is a guy 32 years old with bad knees who regularly pulls down 14 or 15 rebounds in many games.
"But this guy is unique. He doesn't have to score a lot of points for him to be a success. And that's rare in this league."
But take away his rebounds and Unseld would care. Others get high on making textbook-perfect jump shots; Unseld is mellow after a night's work that includes a number of bodycrunching, man-to-man caroms, especially at the offensive end.
While most rebounders rely on spring, Unseld feasts on position and timing. Even if he doesn't get the ball when he is wide open under the basket, he still benefits from the freedom; it gives him a chance to stake out a wide rectangle of property to gather in misfired shots.
"One reason I've never complained about people turning their back on me on defense is because of rebounding," he said. "Right now, I can burn them two ways. I've always been able to slip to the basket and get rebounds, because no one was around to block me out. If they keep passing to me, I can score points too."
What probably makes Unseld's season so surprising is that many wondered about his motivation after winning that NBA title last June. The Bullets never really expected him to retire, but no one knew if he would be able to push himself hard anymore once he did return.
Motta laughs about that now.
"I'vd never seen Wes more content than he is now," he said. "He is enjoying himself. The pressure is off, he's won the title.
"And I know he'd never admit it, but scoring some more points has helped too. Wes has proved something. To a man with his pride, that means a lot." CAPTION: Picture, Wes Unseld, always known for rebounds, defense and solid picks, is returning to his earlier ways in the NBA by scoring more. By Margaret Thomas-The Washington Post