He remains a mystery to the average fan, a 6-foot-7center who somehow survived and flourished for more than a decade among the giants, although few seem to know why.
There are some maxims behind Unseld's technique: Always believe the game is tied, no matter what the scoreboard says; think about your apponent before every game; approach each contest with the same even emotion.
It is in the trenches of pro basketball that Wes Unseld has carried out a bit of sports immortality. His is a game of picks and screens and blocking out and helping on defence and positioning-the little, unspectacular things that lead to glamorous victories.
He is, a Bullet Coach Dick Motta so aptly puts it, "the hub of the wheel." He is a vanishing breed, one of the last out of the Bill Russell mold who gives up points and individual glory for the sake of the team.
To recognise what Unseld does for the Bullets and to see why his presence invariably gives them an edge no other current pro team can match, it is necessary to look into the pits and past the high scorers, shotblockers and fancy dunkers.
But few choose to take their eyes off the ball and concentrate on the warfare in the low post. So Unseld remains only a partially appreciated treasure.
How is greatness measured? If by individual satatitics and splashy personality, Unseld might have difficulty making it to the anteroom of the hall of fame. But if success-winning- is the cretorion, he deserves a post among the elite.
Just consider what this unpretentious, uncontroversial, undemanding man has done since joining the Bullets, who were near the bottom of the league before his rookie his year.
During his 11 seasons, the club has made the playoffs without fail, compiled one of the two best overall winning records in basketball, reached the finals of the NBA playoffs three times, captured a title and registered the regular season mark thrice.
During the 1970s, no franchise in pro basketball has won more games than the Bullets. In that time, the club has undergone a total roster turnover, save for one player: Unseld.
And only Russell, cornerstone of the Celtic dynasty, registered more career victories at center with one team than has Unseld.
Those are the accomplishments of a rare individual. But when the great centers who have played the game are named, Unseld is mentioned long after Russell, Chamberlain, Mikan and Abdul-Jabbar.
For all of his success, his individual honors have been few. He was selected rookie of the year and most valuable player in the same season and MVP of the final playoff round last year. But he hasn't been in an All-Star game in four years and he has made the official all-league team just once.
He remains a mystery to the average fan, a 6-foot-7 center who somehow has survived and flourished for more than a decade among the giants, although few seem to know why. Perhaps if his skills were more obvious his status would be different. But except for those cannonlike bullet passes, he lacks the flair of Russell's shot-blocking, Chamberlain'stuffs or Abdul-jabbar's sky hooks. And no one had ever kept track of successful outlet passes.
"I just approached this like you would any job," he said. "If I wanted to be paid well, I had to concentrate on what I did best and hope my employers rewarded me. They have." He is the highest-paid Bullet today, earning $350,000 a year.
There has been a slight crack in the Unseld mystique since the Bullets won their first NBA title last season. As they begin their quest for another one this week, it is appropriate to open the door wider and seek reasons for his amazing success.
First, there are the technical rxplanations, General Manager Bob Ferry, who scouted Unseld in college, then recommend that the Bullets draft him and has since played with him and watched him from the first day of his rookie training camp, says there are certain things "Wes does better than anyone who has ever played the game."
No 6-7 center, says Ferry, has ever rebounded as well as he has." Nor has any center had "better hands, both in traffic and in the air. He's so strong that he just needs to touch the ball and it's his." Nor has any center had a better, more accurate outlet pass, nor has one "helped out as well on picks and screens. We call it showing yourself on defense. He can help out and still stay with his man."
Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff marvels at Unseld's "quickness to the ball. You may not think he is quick but he is. He can get from here to there and grab the ball faster than anyone. He senses where things are and adjusts accordingly.
"He has mastered the center position. It's a science to him. He has the art of rebounding down so well he gives a brilliant lecture on it,"
He is a highly intelligent player who, Ferry believes, "is always a step ahead of everyone. He has great anticipation and imagination. That's why he is a great passer. He can see something develop and he gets the pass there at the right time. He just makes everyone look better."
Perhaps only Chamberlain was stronger than is Unseld among basketball players. His immense body-the Bullet press guide says Unseld weighs 245 pounds, but he refuses to get on a scale, so no one is quite sure of his size - is a solid mass of bulgingthight, anvil arms and expansive chest.
No one has ever picked a fight with him.
"They don't want to find out how strong I really am," said Unseld, cracking a slight, mysterious grin. He worked during summers to develop his physical gifts by tossing around sheets of steel at a mill.
Opponents may jump higher and may be quicker-although he is surprisingly nimble-footed-but if Unseld has position under the boards, no one leaps over him. He blocks out so well-"trying to get around him is like going around a house," said New Orleans' Rich Kelly-that sometimes rebounds fall to the floor in front of him and he can casually reach down and pick up the ball as if no one else was on the court.
His outlet pass is thrown as far and so accurately the Bullets can start their break at midcourt, farther out than most foes.
"He eliminates one pass on the break," said Bickerstaff. "That translates into a lot of ponts during the season for us,"
Unseld's screens take their toll on those who must decide whether it is worth their physical well-being to crash into a human wall.
"One game, I shut down Mike Riordan for a half," said Chicago Bull forward Ollie Johnson. "The second half he went crazy. He just kept running me off Unseld screens. I couldn't do a thing about it."
These collisions hurt Unseld, too, but despite cracked ribs and torn cartilage, he keeps setting picks. "If we want to run our offense right, I have to." he said. "I may not like it but again, it's my job, so I do it."
Never judge Unseld, Ferry says, on his individual performances. "He can't stop Abdul-Jabbar one on one, but he doesn't need to. Judge him on how the team performs.
"He makes it easy to build around him. He has the abilities-rebounding, defensw, passing-that are hard to find. Getting people who can score is easy. It's harder to build around an offensive center.
"He never tries anything he can't do. He's amazing that way. It's really a perfect marriage. We don't ask him to do what he can't do and he doesn't try to do what he can't."
Unseld has held these theories before and he smiles as the laundry list is read to him. He has another explanation: determination.
"I know that night out the guy I play against will have more physical ability," he said. "But I feel like if I go out against a guy and play him 40 or 48 minutes a game whatever, toe to toe, head to head, he is going to get tired or beat up for two to three minutes.
"That will be enough to make sure he doesn't win the game for his team. If he is supposed to score 30, he'll only score 26. I'll put so much pressure on him, he will have to break."
The pressure is applied in many ways, through blocking out, through tight defense, through bumping, through forcing an opponent "to do what he doesn't do best while eliminating what he does best."
"People judge me on what I sore," he said, "and that is the worst way to judge me. I am not supposed to score. I am supposed to do everything else. But if I score five points and we lose. I've had a bad game."
There are some maxims behind Unseld's technique: Always believe the game is tied, no matter what the scoreboard says; think about your opponent brfore every game; approach each contest with the same even emotion.
"I know it looks like I don't get excited," he said, "but I can. I just decided a long time ago that if you got sky high for 60 percent of the games, you would be down for 40 percent. That's not good. So if I stay even for everyone, I'd be more consistent."
The lack of emotion has become an unseld trademark.
He is a giant, stoic statue on the court, breaking his silence only to protest a referee's call. He strives to regard basketball as a job, not a pleasure; otherwise, his consistency would falter.
This image has affected his public acceptance.
No other Bullet is recognized as much as Unseld, who is constantly showered with attention when he walks through airports or goes into restaurants. But no one slaps him on the back, either. He is regarded with a mixture of respect and puzzlement as he hides behind his inflexible mask.
During his senior year at the University of Louisville, he played the part of God in a French-speaking play. The lady who staged the production said it was type casting.
Although he would be embarrassed by her statement, just as he remains embarrassed and uncomfortable to this day when asked for his autograph, he does seem almost too good to be true.
There may not be a nicer, more sincere, more trustworthy person in sports than Unseld. That is the basis of his approach to life. He is fiercely private and independent and protective of his individuality, but he is neither arrogant nor selfish.
He refuses to criticize his teammates openly, even when subjected to unflair blasts. He would prefer never to be in the spotlight of public scrutiny, earning the nickname "No News" from some reporters.
His friends say, however, that behind that unruffled exterior lurks the life of of the party. He has a quick humor and isn't adverse to a fling around the dance floor when the spirit moves him.
His escape from pressure is his family.
His wife, Connie, is delightful and bubbly and is as talkative as her husband is silent. Unseld consistently takes red-eye flights after road games just to arrive home a few hours early to see his wife and his two children.
Investments and wise money management have made him financially independent. But Unseld frets that, at age 33, he may ge getting too old to start in profession. So he wonders if he should retire before it is too late-but to do what?
"Maybe I'd get my master's degree and teach or maybe I'd go into real estate," he said. "There are a lot of options. Maybe I'm not good for anything; I don't know that for sure."
There are always his hobbies, fishing and photography. Fishing relaxes him; photography satisfies his inquisitive nature almost as much as his insatiable appetite for books.
"I made mu first camera when I was in ninth grade." he said. "Now Ihave$10,000 or $15,000 invested in equipment, including a dark room and colour equipment. When I go on trips I look like one of those comic strip tourists."
Teammates joke that Unseld is a smi-expert on just any topic.
In his drive to confine basketball to a certain part of his lifem, he fills his time by engulfing in literature and picking up bits of knowledge about everything from airplanes to the Civil War.
If teammates or the press have not always recognized Unseld's contributions, management has. He is a particular favorite of owner Abe Pollin, who has rewarded him with that lucrative salary and a unique relationship. Unseld is his own agent and the two bargain with a handshake first, a signature later.
Pollin has reason to give hin special treatment.
When unseld was a senior in college, the team's hierarchy was divided over whether to draft him or a taller, seemingly more legitimate center. When Unseld finally was chosen, the resulting schism led Pollin to buy out his partners.
There should not have been doubt in anyone's mind that Unseld would be a successful pro. He had never failed to be winner throughout his sports career.
He played on a two-time state champion high school team in Louisvillie and his University of Louisvillie clubs put that college on the basketball map. Yet, until the ninth grade, he considered the sport "something sisies played."
"Then my brother made high school All-America and had things written up about him and I decided it was pretty nice," he said. "I had played basketball once, in fifth or sixth grade, and I didn't like it. But once I took it up again, it became my life."
When he first came to the Bullets, he played forward until, about 20 games into his rookie season, he was moved to center, where he helped the team improve from a 36-46 record the previous year to 57-25, best in the league.
"Leroy Ellis was the center but he was upset before a game at Atlanta about his comp tickets or something," said Unseld. "So he wouldn't play. They moved me to center and that's where I've been ever since.
"He says he doesn't remember how many points or rebounds he got that first game. Probably not very many, he says with a laugh. But he does remember onr thing.
"We won," he said. "I'll never forget that."