There was also never a more respected person or unselfish teammate, in any sport, than Unseld. Of course, Wes, a sworn enemy of hyperbole and almost allergic to praise, would insist such a distinction must be a million-way tie. Despite playing for years on torturously painful knees, was he really doing more than any other worker who perseveres, day after day, to do his or her job to the absolute best of his or her ability?
My favorite memory of Unseld, who died Tuesday at 74, also may be one of the favorite days of his life: the Bullets’ championship parade in June 1978. Each player rode in his own convertible on an 11-mile route from the old Capital Centre to the District Building. The Washington Post gave up trying to make any specific crowd estimate because the roads were lined the whole way — sometimes sparsely, sometimes 10 deep at intersections — as the caravan went through every demographic and economic slice of the city, from the poor to the White House.
My assignment, the most fun ever, was to follow Unseld and even ride, inconspicuously, in the back seat of his car.
No fan’s hand was neglected if he could reach it to shake or slap. Homemade signs were for pausing, reading and appreciating.
“Just look at this, Wes, please,” pleaded Patricia Hall, a fan. Her sign read: “Wes for President. CJ [Charles Johnson] for Secretary of State. E [Elvin Hayes] for Everything. Bobby D [Bob Dandridge] for Anything.”
“You got that just right,” Unseld said of superstar Hayes and the super-versatile Dandridge, who had outdueled Philadelphia’s Julius Erving in the Eastern Conference finals.
Like many in Washington, I watched Unseld’s whole professional arc, beginning with a trip to Baltimore Civic Center to see him as a Baltimore Bullets rookie. Was it truly possible that an enormous man, who averaged 18.2 rebounds that season, could leap, grab the ball, spin in midair and, before coming back down, fire a two-handed outlet pass that hit the opposite backboard on the fly? Yes, there was Wes.
Memories of Unseld are so distant to many that his rebounding prowess seems to come with an asterisk, as if he wouldn’t dominate, and sometimes terrorize, modern stars.
Of NBA players who debuted in 1964 or later, here is the career leader in rebounds per game: Wes Unseld, 13.99.
Here’s who set more effective and obliterating picks and screens: no one.
Here’s who had the most assists as a Bullet/Wizard until John Wall passed him in 2016: Unseld.
Unseld was so valuable to his teams in so many ways that he confounds analysis. But consider this: Over the final eight seasons of his career, when offensive rebounds were officially tracked, Unseld had more offensive rebounds than he had missed shots. That’s mind-bending.
Suddenly, Unseld’s 10.8-point career scoring average goes from “small” to “wow, free points” or more likely “negative-cost points.” Michael Jordan missed 10,677 more shots than he had offensive rebounds. Yes, different positions and roles. But it gets your attention.
Many times over the years, I talked to Unseld — as player, coach, general manager and any other role that owner Abe Pollin gave him — knowing that Unseld was the core identity of his franchise. It was always a pleasure because he was honest, sometimes bluntly so, and smart.
But his personal values — unselfishness, playing in pain, physical courage, a relentless seriousness — were also the standards he held for his players. Much as I admired him, I wondered if, at 40, I would have been mature enough, team-first enough, to work for him. At 21? Or 26? Ha!
“At the first meeting, I told them, ‘Now, my [butt] is on the line,’ ” Unseld told me after his first day as coach. “ ‘The next person being booed out of here will be me. And I’m not going to let that happen.’
“If, for whatever reasons, someone can’t or won’t do what we want done, we’ll get somebody in who will. You’ll see me jerk people out, even though it looks like they’re playing well, if they’re not conforming to our total concept of the game.”
Combine low-grade talent provided by Pollin and high demands from Unseld: The result was 202-345.
So let’s go lightly over those years after playing. Unseld never did or said a thing that required apology. He was just in an impossible job for an owner with whom he had an almost father-son relationship. The culture became exhausted and disillusioned. Jordan’s arrival couldn’t change it.
On the last day, let’s remember the best days: Forty-two years ago, because Unseld, the captain then, was so worthy of those moments.
The night of June 7, 1978, the clip file says I was reporting fan reaction from the Last Hurrah and perhaps several other Northwest Washington bars. (It’s a blur to me.) With 12 seconds left in Game 7 in Seattle, with Washington on the verge of its first title in a major sport in 36 years, the Bullets’ lead, once 11 points, was down to two.
Unseld stood at the foul line — not his favorite spot. Fans, some on their knees, pleaded, “Please, please, Wes, make one.”
Unseld drained two. The boom of the SuperSonics’ comeback was broken. And a title was coming to D.C.
On the flight back to Washington, Unseld asked The Post’s Paul Attner, “How do you insure the [championship] rings?”
You can buy a policy.
“That won’t do it,” Unseld said. “Insurance can’t ever replace the 10 years of memories that ring will hold. Nothing can.”
When parade day came, from my back-seat perch I kept looking from Unseld’s proud, Buddha-like face, with its quiet smiles of pleasure, to the cheering crowds waving to him — from hard hats to business suits.
The whole ride was like a slow-moving roller coaster that undulated up and down hills. Along Central Avenue and East Capitol Street, from horse-dotted countryside in Prince George’s County through crowded housing projects and the tree-lined streets of rowhouses on Capitol Hill, all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue, the same scene repeated. Each crowd broke into its own squeals and screams as the first red lights of the police escort came into view — the world’s longest small-town parade with fans in countless blocs from a handful to hundreds.
Unseld loved it all. At one point, a street vendor selling T-shirts with the team motto — “It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings” — yelled out, “Wes, what size?!”
What a straight line.
“About a medium-small,” Unseld called back.
RIP, Wes — always an extra, extra large.