"A tear jerker, wasn't it?" Kevin Grevey was saying. "It just showed us how strong a man Wes Unseld really is. Everybody in the place was crying -- except him."
Wes was close. On his night in Capital Centre, he volunteered as much public emotion as he ever has -- and when he talked about his father, Charles, gone nearly a year now, his voice quavered a bit when he said: "I know he's . . . smiling down, telling me to hurry and get through this."
Nobody in Capital Centre wanted it to end. When Unseld was introduced in the starting lineup for the 983rd -- and last -- time, the crowd applauded so long one of the officials wondered if the game ever would begin. The fans knew what they were doing, that watching Unseld squirm in the spotlight would be much better than the season-ending game against Cleveland.
And when master of ceremonies Frank Herzog tried to stop the ovation at the start of the halftime ceremonies, they wouldn't let him. On and on, they clapped and stomped. Abe Pollin and Mike Riordan, the commissioner of the NBA and the Fat Lady.
Peri Anest made it, and that was important. Somebody had to represent the thousands of people Unseld has toughed before and during his 13 NBA seasons, and Anest was ideal. They had become friends after Unseld, during a shopping trip, realized Anest could not afford the pair of sneakers he was looking at so intently.
Unseld gave him three pairs of his own, Anest being large enough to fit the size 15s, and also a chance at enough odd jobs around the house to earn the money to afford those special sneakers. Later, Unseld helped Anest get a football and wrestling scholarship to Salisbury State College.
The Bullets wanted the last shot of Unseld's career to be their first last night -- and the Cavalier's Bill Laimbeer at first refused to cooperate by playing honest defense.
"I denied him the ball the first time they tried to get it to him," the Cleveland center said. "Then when I realized how determined they were to get it to him, I backed off."
Unseld took a pass from Kevin Porter, wheeled on Laimbeer and made an eight-foot hook shot. It was so simple some of us wondered if Laimbeer had stopped playing defense altogether, allowed Unseld that final bit of glory, as some pitchers have fed legendary hitters a waist-high straight ball on their final at bat.
"He threw that left arm at me as he turned to shoot," Laimbeer said. "He stuck it in me, like he always does. I couldn't have gotten to the shot if I'd tried."
So Unseld went out in typical fashion -- and when the ceremonies, as dignified as his career, and the game ended he also was more open than usual. Somebody recalled the size of his four brothers as they walked to join him and the rest of the family at midcourt and wondered why the Bullets got the runt.
"George was an all-America at Kansas," Unseld said, "and he helped me more than anybody I've ever played against. He was 6-8. He lied about his height also."
That was a reference to the world being told Unseld was 6-7 or 6-8 his entire basketball life. In fact, he was 6-5 3/4.
"My feelings?" he said. "There've been so many. Every time I turn around there are more. I'm glad it's over with. But I've enjoyed it (the ovations here and at final games in other NBA arenas). It feels good when people who don't know you and who don't care about you -- or so you think -- appreciate you.
"I never thought anything like (the halftime ceremony) would happen. I'd always planned (to announce his retirement) just by not showing up for training camp some year. That's the way I wanted to do it."
He has a videotape of his winning free throws in the '78 NBA championship game but never has watched it.
"Why?" he said, smiling. "Because I thought the outcome might change." His face turned sober and he said: "I was willing to look one time, when my father was supposed to come up and look at it with me. But he never made it. The tape is in a special place.
"I've also worn the (championship) ring on just two occasions. One of them was tonight."
So many athletes who work to avoid the spotlight, as Unseld did, are the ones who deserves it most.
"What made him so special," said Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff, "was detrimental to his career. He shouldn't have been working as hard as he did in practice, but he did it to set an example. That hurt him in the later years of his career.
"And his two free throws" -- here Bickerstaff displayed his own championship ring -- "lets you wear the diamonds."
"I'm very sentimental," Unseld revealed near the end of his postgame press conference. The old softie. In truth, we knew it all along, in spite of his reluctance to be open with reporters. But nobody endures what he has for so many years without loving his work.
"For the sake of the team," he said, "I hope I'm not missed." He meant that he hoped Rick Mahorn and others would quickly get the team back into the playoffs. "I'm gonna miss them. I'll probably be emotional enough (at not being part of the team) for both of us."
Unseld undergoes knee surgery, again, Thursday.