Sheppard was calling to offer Unseld the Wizards’ coaching job. Unseld, who had interviewed repeatedly for other top vacancies, didn’t want to get ahead of himself. But when Sheppard extended the offer, Unseld’s elation was followed by thoughts of family and his basketball journey, which had come full circle to where he was born into the game.
“It was a surreal feeling, almost a feeling of disbelief,” Unseld said Monday when he was introduced at Capital One Arena as the 25th coach in franchise history. “At times you felt like you were close, so you never want to jump ahead of yourself until you actually got that call. So it’s always that internal battle of being excited but not too excited. … It’s like you’re frozen there for a minute, trying to absorb it.
“You’re like, ‘Wow, okay.’ But for a brief moment, there’s that sense of relief, of joy, excitement and a little bit of trepidation. I’ll be honest. This is new. So it’s a new life for me. It’s a new experience, and it’s one that I’m going to grasp and really take hold of.”
Unseld sat inside the building where his father’s No. 41 hangs from the rafters. He was flanked by Sheppard and owner Ted Leonsis, and he was returning to an organization that gave him his first NBA opportunity as a scout in 1997.
Unseld replaces Scott Brooks, the 55-year-old with 12 seasons of head coaching experience, including three playoff appearances in five seasons in Washington. Unseld, a Catonsville native and the son of late Hall of Famer Wes Unseld Sr., becomes a first-time head coach at 45.
Leonsis was adamant that this was not a legacy hire.
“This is a very, very demanding job,” Leonsis said. “And sometimes when you’re head coach, and a second- and third-time head coach, I don’t think you work as hard. You rely on your assistant coaches. And what I found with the interviews, and especially in talking with Wes, how they do the game-planning — they know the players. They know the tendencies. And they have to work really, really hard to prepare for each and every game.
“I looked at our team and there were times when I thought we lost games that we shouldn’t have. … I just think having a work ethic and a demanding style will be a really, really good point of differentiation for us.”
Sheppard pointed to a detailed and diverse search that included current and former head coaches, former players, people associated with the WNBA and other current assistants. The priority was defensive improvement; the Wizards finished last in points per game allowed last season, and Unseld was the de facto defensive coordinator in Denver over the past five years.
The organization also was attracted to his attention to detail and track record of working with young players, from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson with the Warriors, to Tobias Harris in Orlando, to MVP Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray with the Nuggets.
Unseld is a hoops lifer, a gym rat who has worked with a variety of basketball minds, absorbing knowledge from all of them. Now he gets his first chance to run a team from the big chair.
“The most important thing is you have to be authentic,” Unseld said. “I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Those relationships will develop organically. When that happens, it allows you to get through some of those tough, tough stretches. As we all know, through an 82-game season, there’s going to be some tough stretches. And that’s just the nature of the league, nature of the business.
“But you just have to be yourself. You have to find your own voice, be comfortable in your own skin and coach the way you feel fits your roster and your team.”
Unseld downplayed the importance of schematics and X’s and O’s, saying that’s the easy part that will take care of itself. He has already talked with Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal and said both have a desire to be coached harder. Coaches can draw up smart schemes, but none of it matters unless everyone is on the same page and acknowledges the effort required. Sheppard said one of the most notable parts of the process was the way players who have worked with Unseld reached out on his behalf.
“Jokic was begging him not to leave Denver,” Sheppard said.
Monday was a homecoming with smiles all around and Unseld’s mother, sister, wife, son and daughter in attendance. But honeymoons end quickly in the NBA. The organization is on its fifth full-time coach since the start of the 2008-09 season, and it hasn’t reached the conference finals since Unseld Sr. was on the roster in 1979.
“I know my dad’s up there smiling down,” Unseld said. “He’s probably chuckling, thinking, ‘You moron, I told you not to do this.’ So I know he’s extremely proud.”