Wes Unseld was one of those magical figures for me. I am too young to have seen him play live, but for as long as I have loved sports, I have known his name. For as long as I have studied basketball, I have been mesmerized by his unique impact on the game. Grow up in Kentucky with a father from Louisville, and it’s impossible to think about basketball without having a deep appreciation for all that Unseld accomplished — and how he did it his own way.
So add his death to the depressing list of reasons that 2020 already is irredeemable. It’s hard to accept that Unseld, whose legend extends from Louisville to Baltimore to the District, exited with the United States in chaos, with the nation struggling amid a pandemic and rioting after another terrifying wave of police brutality. And his hometown has been hit particularly hard with tragedy as it mourns the senseless deaths of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee.
Now Louisville mourns Unseld, who is gone at 74 after a bout with pneumonia. So does his adopted home, where he arrived in 1968 and immediately helped turn the Bullets into a franchise that finally mattered.
Let’s talk about the numbers and the stories behind them. They are extraordinary and a little weird if you’re programmed to look at ball-dominant prolific scorers as the standard for excellence. At the University of Louisville, the former Seneca High superstar had the customary eye-popping stats for a center, averaging 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds.
But after the Bullets drafted him No. 2 overall in 1968, he had to adjust to life as an undersized NBA center. He was 6-foot-7 and weighed 245 pounds in a league in which Wilt Chamberlain, at 7-1, had just won three straight MVP awards. It was a league still owned by Bill Russell. It was a league in which Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy all stood taller than Unseld. Some of them were more athletic and versatile. That year, Elvin Hayes, who later would become Unseld’s teammate, was the No. 1 draft pick whose offensive game translated more clearly to the NBA style.
Hayes went on to average 28.4 points and 17.1 rebounds as a rookie. But Unseld led the Bullets, still fledgling and without a winning season in their history, to a 57-25 record. Unseld won rookie of the year and league MVP honors, a feat matched only by Chamberlain.
Oh, and his rookie stats announced the arrival of a different kind of NBA franchise player: 13.8 points, 18.2 rebounds.
That’s the lowest scoring average for an MVP in NBA history. And it’s a badge of honor, not a reason to minimize his achievement. Unseld wasn’t a scorer. As he aged and played through injuries, he wasn’t known for his athleticism, either. But he was everything else. He remains the greatest player in franchise history, and he did it by excelling at the things we label breathlessly as role-player responsibilities now.
He dominated the glass. He was one of the best passing big men the game has ever seen, from his signature outlets to his brilliant reads and vision in the half court. He set screens that should have come with warning labels. He didn’t block many shots, but he was an interior presence. His game was a remarkable combination of toughness, underrated skill, savvy and a steadfast commitment to the ideals of team play.
I love the back of Unseld’s card as much as I love Wilt’s preposterous numbers or Stephen Curry’s space-age shooting stats.
In 1978-79, Unseld had his only season in which he averaged more points than rebounds. He put up 10.9 points per game and grabbed 10.8 rebounds. Somebody should’ve joked he was being selfish that season. For his career, Unseld averaged 10.8 points and 14 rebounds. If you’re just cruising stats, you might look at Chamberlain’s 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds and not even care that Unseld existed. Don’t be so dismissive, though.
Consider the basketball paths of all Hall of Famers, and the route Unseld took is as fascinating as it gets. My top three of players who mastered the game without having to score: 1. Russell. 2. Unseld. 3. Dennis Rodman.
Unseld played 13 seasons, and the Bullets made the playoffs 12 times. He led the Bullets to the championship round four times and was the Finals MVP when they won it all in 1978. His stats for that series: 9.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists. He was Washington’s seventh-leading scorer.
In context, there was some dislike of Hayes that may have contributed to Unseld getting the nod. But in Game 7 of that series, Washington went to Seattle and won, and Unseld stepped up with Hayes burdened by foul trouble, finishing with 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists in the clincher. Hayes led both teams in scoring and rebounding during those Finals, but with a championship at stake, Unseld’s shape-shifting game left a lasting impression.
After his playing days, Unseld couldn’t come close to matching his success as a coach or an executive. But as a man of character, a mentor and a leader, his reputation only improved. He could be stern. He could be gentle. It was fitting that, near the end of his public life, he did chores at his wife’s elementary school in Baltimore and delighted in teaching the children proper manners.
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say I’ve spent my professional career shadowing Unseld, the star of many of Dad’s stories during my childhood. I moved to Orlando and started covering the NBA and met Unseld. I moved to Louisville and listened to more fabulous Unseld stories. I moved to Seattle and learned about the old SuperSonics’ respect for Unseld, whom they battled in back-to-back Finals. I moved to D.C., and he was everywhere.
Except in person. I couldn’t connect with Unseld over the past five years. I would try, but then let it go after the messages went unreturned. Now, of course, I wish I had tried harder.
But in some ways, not truly knowing Unseld enhances the affinity I have for him. He forever will be that stern-looking man rocking that odd flat Afro and somehow making it look wonderful. He forever will be those weird superstar stats that all added up to victory. He forever will be that rugged center, undersized by basketball standards, who actually stood as a towering presence in real life and the imagination.