Wes Unseld is set to officially begin his tenure as head coach of the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, 16 months after his father, a Hall of Famer and the franchise’s most legendary figure, died of complications of pneumonia. It is bittersweet, the son arriving just after the father departs, the former coming home to helm the franchise the latter spent his career helping build.
Yet Unseld received no questions about his father that morning in front of the largest media contingent he had faced since his hiring in July.
Nothing about upholding his family legacy nor his full-circle career path, which began with a college internship with the Wizards that became a full-time job in 1997. To the lone query about bringing his team back to Baltimore, Unseld gave a quick smile.
“It was good. It’s always a great opportunity to get home. I give our guys a lot of credit: After a 1-hour 10-minute bus ride, we still got something out of it,” he said. “That’s kind of our thought process with anything and everything we do. … These are enjoyable things — you get an opportunity to reach out to the community, give back to some degree. But, again, it’s a workday.”
To those who have come to know Unseld over his past 24 years with Washington, the Golden State Warriors, the Orlando Magic and the Denver Nuggets, his sober answer is a perfect encapsulation of the man. He was born to an NBA great known for his dignity and humility off the court as much as his bruising play on it. He came of age surrounded by NBA stars and got an insider’s look at the hundreds of variables that make them shine. From both experiences he took one lesson: Greatness — or even baseline success — requires unrelenting preparation and hard work.
“He’s so meticulous, and that’s a very important word,” said Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard, who has known the 46-year-old Unseld for nearly two decades. “You can’t get through an entire season on feel.”
Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown saw Unseld’s attention to detail early on. As a Wizards assistant when Unseld was just starting out, Brown initially thought the youngster’s keen mind would make him a good scout.
“I knew he was special because his dad was freakin’ Mr. Washington, and if something spilled or something was messy, Wes would grab a broom and sweep it up, grab a towel and mop it up. There was no shame to his game,” Brown said. “He was as humble as a person as I’d ever been around who did not need to be like that. And it was not fake. I don’t have a daughter, but if I had six daughters, I’d tell them all to marry him.”
For his part, Unseld takes great pride in his father’s legacy and enjoys talking about it — in the right moments. He said the full meaning of his new job won’t hit him until his first home game, when he walks out beneath his father’s No. 41 jersey hanging in the rafters.
Until then, preparing for the season is all-consuming.
A people person first
Unseld may be unproven as a head coach, but he is not an unknown commodity.
He was touted upon his return to Washington as a defensive mastermind, the man credited with turning around the Nuggets’ defense who could do the same for the Wizards’ years-long streak of woeful defending.
But Unseld disputes such limitations — after all, when he was with the Wizards, he worked primarily on the other side of the ball. His fellow former assistant Phil Hubbard, who worked with Unseld for six years in Washington, remembers wading through the particulars of a modified Princeton offense for months alongside his young co-worker.
It was then that Hubbard learned Unseld’s superpower was neither offense nor defense. It was people.
“We were trying to sell the players on structure, a lot of structure,” Hubbard said. “I think some players don’t want that; they want free flowing, just go. But Wes understood that you need both — he understood that, Gilbert [Arenas]? He was a free flower. And Brendan Haywood probably needed the structure. And in that context of understanding the players and understanding their strengths and how you could make them successful, he got them to work on their weaknesses. He was real good at the developing side.”
Navigating the kaleidoscope of personalities on one of the more colorful rosters in the NBA at the time came naturally to Unseld.
He was both genial and serious, humble and pedigreed, smart but not snobby. Yet for all of his disparate attributes, he never came off as inauthentic. Antawn Jamison, a two-time all-star who played alongside Arenas and Haywood, balked the first time he learned he and Unseld were less than a year apart in age.
Jamison, now the Wizards’ senior director of pro personnel, assumed Unseld was older because he pushed the forward like a parent or mentor might.
To Jamison, Unseld was like a cheat sheet for players with his encyclopedic knowledge of opponents and endless, digestible tips for improving their games. “I’d do exactly what he’d tell me, and, lo and behold, I’d be in the right place. I’d have the right quick floater to beat Kevin Garnett,” Jamison said.
In those conversations, Jamison never felt talked down to.
“Just the attention to detail, the things that made me improve … that was the first time I thought I could actually be a leader, and Wes was a big part of that along with the rest of the coaching staff,” Jamison said. “I’d never had that support; I’d never had that confidence from a staff before — ‘You can deal with all of this.’ At that particular time, we had some characters on our team. He was my therapist. I’m like, ‘Wes, man, I can’t do this s---.’ He’d sit there and laugh with me. We’d talk it out. He was in the right place at the right time for me.”
To Connie Unseld, her son’s ability to connect with players is a quality all his own. Although Unseld is by virtue of his upbringing more accustomed to an NBA player’s obsessive nature and dedication to routine, his father was of a different generation than the stars he coaxes today.
Unseld’s scrupulous nature is where Connie sees her husband’s influence — indirectly. Unseld always has been a perfectionist; as a schoolboy he drove his father batty redoing assignments over and over if he discovered one small mistake.
But making a living in basketball with the last name Unseld — especially when you don’t have your dad’s height or talent — requires a different level of excellence.
“We always know that we have to do extraordinary things because expectations are extremely high,” Connie Unseld said of the inherent pressure of the surname that even she feels. “You already know that from the beginning, so you prepare and you’re really qualified — I mean, overly qualified. Not that I’m sounding like I’m bragging, but you just know that the expectation is you should know everything about basketball.”
Putting himself out there
In those early Wizards days, the regular cast of post-practice pickup players included Brown and Kevin Johnson, now the head trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers; video coordinator Jim Lynam Jr.; scout Tim Connelly, now the president of basketball operations in Denver; and Unseld.
The smack talk came mainly from Brown and Johnson, the elder contingent of the young staffers. Illegal screens were common. Unseld laughed off every slight and played through every foul.
“Steady,” Brown said. “Extremely steady.”
Fans and players can expect Unseld to remain even keeled on the sideline, in part because he is low-key by nature and in part because he has thought through the demeanor he would like to have as a head coach — and staying calm is part of his plan.
“I never want to overreact unnecessarily and then have to apologize later,” Unseld said. “I want to be composed because that’s not who I am; I’m not an emotional pendulum. But I think especially in this role, yeah, there are times you’re going to have to lose it to get guys’ attention. So some of it’s part of the job. But in general, that’s not my nature.”
But with his cool head comes a natural aversion to self-promotion and, for a long time in his career, a laissez-faire attitude toward rising through the NBA’s coaching ranks. During two college summers interning with the Wizards, Unseld spent two to three months in every single department, and his father initially tried to push him into a front-office job. He warned his son that coaching can drive a man crazy, but the younger Unseld had caught the bug.
He didn’t truly understand his father’s warnings until he became an assistant coach and saw co-workers consumed by the climb. Worries about his own career trajectory began creeping in — Will I ever get the call for the top job?
Unseld decided to let go of those thoughts 10 years ago, and he feels it made him a better assistant, focused solely on the task at hand. It wasn’t until two years ago that he finally decided to make the leap, taking up his wife, Evelyn, on her suggestion to get an agent after more than two decades in the league. Before then, he had trusted his contracts to a network of family friends and co-workers who happened to be attorneys.
He landed on Brian Elfus, who helped make Unseld a fixture on franchises’ lists of prospects whenever a coaching vacancy opened. He interviewed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls before getting far into the process with the Magic and the Wizards over the summer.
Connelly and Nuggets Coach Michael Malone made multiple calls from Denver advocating on Unseld’s behalf. By his second interview, most of the Wizards’ decision-makers were sold.
“I knew Wes, but even I was blown away,” Jamison said. “He was like a mad scientist with plays. You know you’re doing something right when the analytical guys are nodding their heads, impressed.”
Unseld also passed the test with franchise cornerstone Bradley Beal and star point guard Russell Westbrook, who was later traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. All that was left was for Sheppard to make the call.
Unseld happened to be visiting Connie with his wife and children, 8-year-old Layla and 6-year-old Westley, in Westminster, Md., when it came through. The kids were running around upstairs preparing for a family outing to get a treat Unseld had promised in exchange for spending so much time on the phone and Zoom over the previous few days.
He escaped to the laundry room to take Sheppard’s call.
“It was one of those feelings — like, relief. A sense of relief. I think there was the emotional component knowing I was coming home, being with my family, the legacy component, you know, my father had passed less than 13 months before. But I don’t really think that will set home until I go through some milestones like coaching my first game,” Unseld said. “When I finally got the call from Tommy, I just — I started processing all the stuff that you have to do. Not only as a head coach but a first-time head coach. There’s no handbook for any of this.”
Absent a written guide, Unseld did the only thing that made sense to him and started making his own checklists nearly right away. The 25th head coach of the Washington Wizards got to work.