Legends profile: Wes Unseld

Unseld captained the Baltimore and Washington Bullets to 4 NBA Finals appearances in the 1970s and to a championship in 1977-78.

Wes Unseld was the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year during the 1968-69 season.

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As a player, Wes Unseld seemed to have been chiseled from a block of granite, with a stoic demeanor and an iron resolve to win. A 6-foot-7 bull of a center, he forged his reputation on relentless rebounding, bone-jarring picks, and laser-beam outlet passes.

He did all the unspectacular things that led to glamorous victories. He was the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1968-69 and a five-time NBA All-Star who captained the Baltimore and Washington Bullets to four NBA Finals appearances in the 1970s and to a championship in 1977-78.

Unseld was intelligent on and off the court, and over the course of his career he came to personify the virtues of hard work, dedication, and courage. After retiring in 1981 he moved into a front office position with the Bullets, then coached the team for seven seasons in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps the most important figure in the history of the Bullets franchise, Unseld was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1996, he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1946, Unseld starred on a Seneca High School team that won two state championships. (Four players from the 1963 state tournament ended up in the NBA: Unseld, Clem Haskins, Greg Smith and Bobby Washington.) Unseld stayed in his hometown to attend the University of Louisville, where he averaged 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds during his varsity career while shooting .558 from the floor. Unseld was a consensus All-American as a senior in 1967-68.

Wes Unseld, a big man known for his defensive toughness and outlet passing, earned 5 All-Star nominations and led the Bullets to a title in 1978.

In the 1968 NBA Draft the Baltimore Bullets made Unseld the second overall pick, behind the San Diego Rockets’ selection of Elvin Hayes, who would become Unseld’s teammate in later years.

The Bullets had never had a winning season up to that point. With Unseld they would run off 10 winning campaigns and make 12 consecutive playoff appearances. He joined a rising team that included the previous season’s Rookie of the Year, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, as well as high-scoring guard Kevin Loughery and powerful forward Gus Johnson.

Unseld made an immediate impact on the 1968-69 Bullets, boosting them to a 57-25 record and first place in the Eastern Division — a 21-game improvement over the club’s sixth-place finish the previous year. He played in the NBA All-Star Game as a rookie and tallied 11 points and 8 rebounds in 14 minutes of action.

He finished the season averaging 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds (his 1,491 total rebounds were second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 1,712) and was named both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. Chamberlain is the only other player in NBA history to have won both awards in the same season, accomplishing that feat in 1959-60.

Unseld was a force in the 1969 playoffs, averaging 18.8 ppg and 18.5 rpg, but the Bullets’ dream season ended quickly as they were swept by the New York Knicks in the Eastern Division semifinals. Nevertheless, Baltimore’s turnaround was remarkable, and Gene Shue earned the NBA Coach of the Year Award.

In his second season, Unseld scored a career-best 16.2 ppg. His rebounding numbers remained impressive, and it became clear that he contributed in ways that didn’t show up in the box score. He set solid picks, grabbed rebounds, whipped outlet passes to trigger fast breaks, and consistently prevented opposing centers from establishing position in the lane. His 16.7 rebounds per game earned him second place in the league’s rebounding race again, this time to San Diego’s Hayes. The Bullets were solid in 1969-70, running up a 50-32 record and claiming third place in the Eastern Division.

In 1969, Wes Unseld won the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards.

The NBA realigned for the 1970-71 season, creating two conferences and four divisions. The Bullets were moved to the Central Division, where they ran off five consecutive division titles, although their record fluctuated wildly. (They were as bad as 38-44 in 1971-72 and as good as 60-22 in 1974-75.)

During those years, Unseld carved out his reputation in the paint. He ranked second in the league in rebounding in each of his first four seasons, slipped to fifth one year, had a down year due to injury, then claimed the rebounding title in 1974-75. He was an All-Star five times during that stretch, despite doing most of his work against players who were much taller, including 7-footers Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Unseld was listed at 6-foot-7, but after he retired, he admitted that he actually had been just a hair under 6-foot-6 all along. However, what Unseld lacked in height, he made up for with his powerful 245-pound frame and sheer determination.

“I know that night in and night out the guy I play against will have more physical ability,” he told the Washington Post. “But I feel like if I go out against a guy and play him 40 or 48 minutes a game or whatever, toe to toe, head to head, he is going to get tired or beat up or bored for two or three minutes. That will be enough to make sure he doesn’t win the game for his team.”

For all his might, Unseld also had great hands, both for grabbing a rebound and for delivering a pass. And, as former Bullets general manager Bob Ferry told the Washington Post, “He has great anticipation and imagination. He can see something develop, and he gets the pass there at the right time.” In addition, while he was not fast, he was very quick, an attribute that was made even more deceptive because of his massive body.

In 1970-71, the Bullets made their first trip to the NBA Finals, narrowly surviving seven-game playoff battles against the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks. Matched up against the Milwaukee Bucks and stars such as Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, Baltimore fell in four games.

After a sub-.500 campaign in 1971-72, the Bullets picked up superstar forward Hayes from the Houston Rockets for the following season. The high-scoring Hayes would provide a good counterpoint to Unseld over the next several years. During the early and mid-1970s, Hayes and Phil Chenier provided most of the Bullets’ scoring punch, leaving Unseld to do the blue-collar work underneath.

The Bullets defeated the SuperSonics in Game 7 to win the 1978 NBA title.

Before the start of the 1973-74 season K. C. Jones took over as head coach, and the franchise moved to Washington, playing for a year as the Capital Bullets. The normally sturdy Unseld missed 26 games due to surgery on his left knee, and he went at half speed in most of the games he played. His scoring average dipped to 5.9 ppg and his rebounding dropped to 9.2 rpg. However, Hayes rose to the occasion in Unseld’s absence, pulling down a league-leading 18.1 rpg.

The next year the club was renamed the Washington Bullets. Unseld bounced back and led the NBA with an average of 14.8 rpg, grabbing a season high 30 rebounds against the New Orleans Jazz. Washington won the Central Division title with a 60-22 record, the first and only 60-win season in franchise history.

In the playoffs the Bullets beat the Buffalo Braves in seven games, then dispatched the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics in six games to reach the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. The Bullets were favored, but the Warriors, led by Rick Barry, peaked in the postseason and swept the series in four games. The Bullets had reached the Finals twice in five years but had yet to win a game.

By then, Unseld’s stats were diminishing, but his value to the team was increasing. He still routinely occupied a top 10 spot on the league’s rebounding lists, and he excelled in other categories as well. In 1975-76, for example, he ranked third in the league with 13.3 rpg. But he also averaged 5.2 assists, which just missed the top 10, and led the NBA in field-goal percentage at .561. (He topped the Bullets in that category nine times in his 13 seasons.)

After consecutive 48-34 seasons in 1975-76 and 1976-77, Unseld’s greatest triumph came in 1977-78, when he led the Bullets to their only NBA championship. It was a true team effort. No Bullets player ranked in the NBA’s top 20 in scoring, but the club had six double-figure scorers, led by Hayes (19.7 ppg) and Bob Dandridge (19.3). For the season, Unseld scored 7.6 ppg (ninth on the team) and yanked down 11.9 rpg (10th in the NBA).

No one would have guessed from their regular-season efforts that the Bullets were destined for glory, as they finished with a modest 44-38 record, second in the Central Division. But in the playoffs Washington beat the Atlanta Hawks, the San Antonio Spurs and the Philadelphia 76ers to reach the NBA Finals.

Facing Seattle for the championship, the Bullets split the first two games with the SuperSonics, prompting Washington coach Dick Motta to utter a phrase that would become a sports cliché: “The opera isn’t over ’til the fat lady sings.” The teams battled to Game 7 before the Bullets prevailed, 105-99, to win the NBA championship. Unseld stepped up his playoff production to 9.4 ppg and 12.0 rpg and was named Finals MVP.

Off the court he became involved in elementary education. With Unseld’s financial backing his wife, Connie, a Baltimore schoolteacher, opened a private elementary school near the city, which served 175 children from preschool through the fifth grade. Besides financing the operation, Unseld occasionally drove the bus.

The next season Washington posted a 54-28 record and fought back into the NBA Finals, although it took a pair of seven-game series to get there. The Bullets faced the SuperSonics again, but Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens had his team ready, and the Sonics took the crown in five games.

Unseld made the 1980-81 season his last, finally succumbing to the aching knees that had plagued him for several years. He went out as he came in, leading the club in rebounding with 10.7 rpg.

During his 13-year NBA career, all with the Bullets, Unseld piled up many accomplishments. He ranked seventh on the league’s all-time rebounding list and was one of a handful of players to have tallied at least 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds for a career. He played 984 games for the Bullets, the most of any player in franchise history. His total of 13,769 boards (14.0 rpg) currently tops the franchise career list, and his 3,822 assists also is a Bullets record.

In 1981, on the heels of his retirement, Unseld was given an executive position in the Bullets organization. In 1988, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Former teammates and journalists pay tribute to center Wes Unseld.

After a few years in the front office as vice president, Unseld became the team’s head coach. About a third of the way through the 1987-88 season, with the team’s record at 8-19, Bullets owner Abe Pollin asked Unseld’s opinion of the team, and, as Unseld told Sports Illustrated, “I did not paint a rosy picture.” Pollin then offered him the job of head coach, replacing Kevin Loughery. Unseld guided the team to a 30-25 record the rest of the way, earning a tie for second place in the Atlantic Division and a playoff berth. The Bullets lost to the Detroit Pistons in the first round.

Coach Unseld didn’t have any players like himself, however, and the next year the club went 40-42 and missed the playoffs. The Bullets got worse for each of the next four seasons under Unseld, finally slipping to 22-60 in 1992-93. The team improved slightly to 24-58 in 1993-94, but following a season-ending 117-99 victory over the Charlotte Hornets, the coach stepped down. “I’m not going to say this is easy, but I did the best I could,” said Unseld in USA Today. He left with a 202-345 record.

To no one’s surprise, Unseld remained affiliated with the franchise. As he once told a reporter for Sports Illustrated, “I’m a Bullet. I’ve always been a Bullet, and I always will be.”

Unseld died on June 2, 2020 at the age of 74.