CHICAGO — Derrick Rose was born in 1988, the year Wes Unseld was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, so there was no reason to expect that the Chicago Bulls’ all-star point guard would be familiar with the only player to win a league’s most valuable player award while representing the Bullets/Wizards franchise. On the day that he supplanted Unseld as the youngest player in NBA history to claim the most prestigious individual award, Rose could recall Unseld only from seeing someone wearing his throwback No. 41 jersey.
“The Bullets, right? Wasn’t he a big man or something like that?” Rose asked. “I never watched any of his games.”
But Rose has helped bring back some attention to Unseld, who turned 23 only nine days before he won the MVP award in 1968-69, after leading the Baltimore Bullets to their first winning season in franchise history and inspiring a 21-game improvement as a rookie. When contacted by phone on Tuesday — a few hours before Rose accepted the Maurice Podoloff Trophy at the tender age of 22 years, seven months — Unseld was neither excited nor disappointed that Rose bumped him by one spot.
“I’m not trying to be coy here with you, but it’s not something I think about, or ever thought about,” Unseld said. “I didn’t even know it myself.”
Rose, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 NBA draft, boldly announced his candidacy in training camp when he asked, “Why can’t I be the MVP of the league?” He earned the award — receiving 113 out of a possible 121 first-place votes — after propelling the Bulls (62-20) to the league’s best overall record and also inspiring a 21-game improvement, while averaging 25 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds in this third season. He joined Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history to average at least 25 points, 7.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds.
“It’s amazing. This is only my third year. I’m still learning things about the game, still making careless turnovers, things like that,” said Rose, the first player since Moses Malone to win the award in just his third season. “But to be MVP at 22 years old, it makes me want to push harder, work harder, stay in the gym longer. Those are the types of things that push me, especially having this award. I’m blessed to be in this position right now.”
After the Bullets selected him second overall behind Elvin Hayes in the 1968 NBA draft, Unseld went on to average 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds, and he and Wilt Chamberlain remain the only players to win rookie of the year and MVP in the same season. He said he found out about the award while he was home in Kentucky after he returned from a fishing trip. His father told him that the Bullets had called and left a message for him to call back.
“I called them and they said, ‘You won most valuable player.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ They said, ‘Okay.’ And that was it,” Unseld said. “I was surprised, but again, it wasn’t something you thought about. The award was not like it is today. It wasn’t a big media thing.”
While reflecting on his honor, Unseld gave credit to his teammates. “I was lucky to be surrounded by a bunch of very talented players, who at the time, didn’t know how talented they were,” Unseld said. “You start talking about Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson and most people don’t know how talented Jack Marin was, or Kevin Loughery. And then some of the other guys on that team, Ray Scott, Leroy Ellis. It was an easy fit for me to come in and try to be a part of it.”
Unseld said he hasn’t watched Rose play much this season, but has seen enough to see that “he’s obviously a wonderfully talented young man. He knows how to get things done. I’m happy for this young man, because obviously, he deserves it.”