He was the rock for the franchise — one of just two players in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain being the other — to win Rookie of the Year and league Most Valuable Player the same season. Wes Unseld won his two in 1968, and for most of the next three decades that followed, he did everything the Washington Bullets asked — play center in D.C. for 13 years, coach the team for seven, run it as general manager for seven more.
He had his biggest successes by far, though, as a player, a human wall who eviscerated those who were caught off guard when they ran into one of his teeth-chattering picks and screens. He was named one of the 50 greatest players of all time in 1996, which followed his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame selection in 1988.
He had a very close relationship with the Bullets’ owner, the late Abe Pollin, and a contentious one at times with his fellow Hall of Fame teammate, Elvin Hayes. But the two big men were the foundation upon which the Washington franchise became one of the league’s best in the 1970s, making four Finals in nine seasons. They won just once in four tries, but that breakthrough, in 1978, marked the height of Unseld’s career as a player.
That group celebrated the 40th anniversary of that championship, in seven games against the Seattle SuperSonics, this past weekend in Washington. Unseld, now 72, didn’t attend, having been slowed by health problems in the last few years. But he was as feisty as ever on the telephone.
Members of the ‘78 championship team arrive for our #Bullets40 celebration! #DCFamily pic.twitter.com/ByMQsIWypn
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) March 25, 2018
His NBA time now is spent watching his son, Wes, Jr., an assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets, and the occasional Wizards game. But the old man is special to me. He was the coach when I first started covering the NBA, in 1988, as the beat guy for The Washington Post, and for five years, while covering five bad teams (their best mark during that stretch was 40-42) he never, ever lied, not once — about his team, about himself, about anything. It was such a disappointment to learn that everyone in the NBA wasn’t that way.
Me: You made four Finals in the ‘70s, but you only won the one title in 1978. Your team was clearly good enough to win more. How tough was it to finally break through, even with a good team?
Wes Unseld: That part is true. You’ve got to have a good team, and you’ve got to have a lot of luck. The situations have got to be when you go into it, you don’t have injuries. Back then, you couldn’t replace people. You couldn’t go out and find a person — not as good as the person who got hurt, but even somebody who was comparable to be able to help you. You can do that pretty much today up to a certain time period. And then the fact that there was probably more equal opportunities for other teams to be around at that time. So it was difficult, and it was luck. Everything had to play into it.
Me: You’ve said in ’78 that the biggest thing that broke right for you is that the team got healthy just before the playoffs started.
WU: That’s exactly what I was talking about. Everyone was talking about our record at the time (44-38 in the regular season, the lowest for any team that went on to win the championship). Hell, I don’t think we ever had that starting five on the floor for any period of time that whole season. Bobby (Dandridge) was out. Elvin had injuries. I don’t know if I was out. We just never could get everyone on the court at the same time. And once we did, right before the end of the season, eight or 10 games before the end of the season, we started to get things back together. We knew if we could stay injury-free, we could scare people. I didn’t know if we could beat some of those teams, but we could scare the hell out of them.
Me: You got the 76ers in the conference finals, and they’d been the favorites all season in the East. So what did you think was important to beating them?
WU: I don’t know what I was thinking was the key. I don’t think they had anybody who could stop Elvin. Our problem was, did we have anybody who could stop J (Julius Erving)? But we felt we could compete with them, because Bobby could play him as well as anybody in the league, and he had a tough time playing Bobby. Who was the center at the time? Caldwell Jones. Caldwell was good. He did a lot of good things for that team. The matchups would be critical, and we could match up with them.
Me: What got you over the hump in that series?
WU: We knew we could play with them and we could win. My problem was I got hurt. I twisted my ankle really bad, and that’s why I’m in a cast now … it was just one of those things where we knew we could beat them, all things being equal.
I wasn’t running anywhere. I was walking. I was as tired as I’ve ever been in my life … I also remember walking off the court, and [coach Dick] Motta runs over to me and says ‘pick me up.’ I remember saying ‘you’ve gotta be out of your mind. I can’t pick me up.’ “
Wes Unseld, on how he felt after winning Game 7 of the 1978 Finals
Me: Did you think as those playoffs went on, I might not get too many more shots at this?
WU: I guarantee you that was my sense, and at one point I told the guys, as far as I’m concerned, this is my last shot at this thing. I made no bones about it. I felt if we didn’t do it this time I wasn’t going to get it done.
Me: Did the sweeps in ’71 and ’75 weigh on you?
WU: Sure. It did. Because I’d been there before and it sort of slipped away, and I recalled we could have had it if things had gone right and we’d played a little better. But you’ve got to give the other teams credit, too. But I remember talking to (guard) Larry Wright, and I told Larry you’ve only going to get so many shots, and then somebody upstairs is going to say all right, you had it, it’s time to move to somebody else.
Me: That year, Portland was the defending champion and had been the prohibitive favorite to come out of the West again before Bill Walton went down. So what did you know about Seattle?
WU: I don’t remember. I’m sure they didn’t think we were going to be there, either. CBS didn’t think so. They thought it would be Philly.
Me: The Finals with Seattle were back and forth. What was it like playing in them?
WU: All I could think of going through it was this was my last shot. That was the only thing that I remember about The Finals. And the person I expressed it to — probably wore the man out — was Frank Herzog (the radio play-by-play man). I’m sure Frank got tired as hell of me. We had dinner together, would hang out together. That was the only thing I think I thought about. I wasn’t down about the things that I’d accomplished, but I just wanted to get over the hump that time.
Me: So in Game 7, there were two big plays — your sixth man Charles Johnson hitting a halfcourt shot at the end of the third quarter, and Mitch Kupchak’s big three-point play with 1:30 left off a loose ball when you were just up by four. But it was 101-99 with 12 seconds left when the Sonics fouled you in the backcourt to put you on the line. So I could ask you what you were thinking when you went to the line —
WU: I was thinking I didn’t want to be there.
Me: Is that right?
WU: Yeah. Put somebody up there who could make ‘em.
Me: So great players get spooked then too, huh?
WU: Well, if great players tell the truth.
Me: So how did you calm your nerves?
WU: I don’t know. All I remember telling myself was ‘okay, when miss this one, you’re going to have to go back downcourt and you’re going to have to get a rebound or block a shot. Do something.’ That’s basically what I told myself. But I made one, and then I think (Bullets coach Dick) Motta called a timeout. And I’ve told him over the years, I said ‘what the hell you start coaching now for?’ Freezing me. I made it and he called time out. Make me think about it some more.
Me: But you made the last one, too.
WU: Yeah, I made it. It was not something I was wishing for.
Me: So you’re up four and then Dennis Johnson (who went 0 for 14 from the floor in that game) missed, and you got the last rebound.
WU: Yeah, I got it, and then I made my shovel pass up to Bobby.
Me: So was that ‘I see Bobby open down the floor’ or ‘get this ball out of my hands?’
WU: Get the ball out of my hands before they foul me again … get it away from me. In that time they could foul you off the ball. And I figured he could score before they fouled me. Then I ran for someplace to hide so they couldn’t foul me.
Me: So he goes in for the breakaway dunk, and the game ends, and you’re champions. What do you recall as you were running off the floor?
WU: I wasn’t running anywhere. I was walking. I was as tired as I’ve ever been in my life. I remember walking off the court and somebody grabbed and said ‘no, you have to go this way.’ I remember thinking ‘everybody else went that way; why do I have to go this way?’ ‘Well, Mr. Pollin wants you to come this way.’ We went up to another little room and that’s when they had the trophy ceremony or something. I also remember walking off the court, and Motta runs over to me and says ‘pick me up.’ I remember saying ‘you’ve gotta be out of your mind. I can’t pick me up.’
Me: A lot of people in D.C. still remember that picture of you and Abe after the game. I know how close you were with him. I would imagine that you were probably happier for him than for yourself.
WU: Absolutely. I didn’t say what I wanted to say. I felt, you deserve this more than anybody. You not only went through the anguish of it, but, hell, you lost all the money. We still got paid. I really wanted to say something to him, and nothing came out. So I just gave him a hug. Most expensive hug he’s ever had.
Me: Have you kept in touch with the guys from that team?
WU: Pretty much. Elvin and I have gotten along, in all honesty, better now than we ever did when we played together. I’m very proud of our relationship. Dandridge, I see and talk to all the time. Phil (Chenier, who had his No. 45 jersey retired last Friday), of course, I see and talk to all the time. Kevin Grevey. Mitch, I haven’t talked to since I got out of the game. But I was glad to see all of those guys do well at some point.
Me: The 70s was the most democratic era in NBA history — seven teams won titles in those 10 years. But there was no truly dominant team. Do you feel like people remember that era?
WU: Oh, see, I refuse to get into stuff like that. I had a bunch of guys, my era guys, that got pissed off when they were telling me something about the kid here with the Wizards now, John Wall. That type of stuff doesn’t bother me. I’ve had people tell me ‘somebody else deserved to be there more than you.’ That’s fine. I never put me there. I don’t give into that. I can never get into stuff like that. It just depends on when you play. I see guys now and they’re talking about how they’re scoring 30 points, 40 points. And I say ‘yeah, but you would have done it without any hands, ‘cause I’d have knocked them off.’
TWEET OF THE WEEK
— 76ers guard and former Duke star J.J. Redick (@JJRedick), Sunday, 8:07 p.m., to his Philly teammate and Kansas attendee Joel Embiid. Perhaps the two gentlemen had a difference of opinion as to which of Duke or Kansas would win Sunday’s regional final for a trip to the Final Four, and wagered a beverage of some kind. The Jayhawks won in overtime.
THEY SAID IT
“People talk about development or being able to see guys for next year. If you can’t be organized when somebody’s on the floor, one, you can’t evaluate them, and two, they’re hurting the ability of the other guys to play … younger players have to be able to play in a way on the floor where the team can function. Because otherwise you can say you’re evaluate them, but you’re screwing the other four guys up and you can’t evaluate them.”
— Hornets coach Steve Clifford, to ESPN.com, on the fallacy of teams saying they’re “evaluating” young players late in the season, rather than just copping to the fact that they’re tanking.
“When he said that, I’m sure everybody saw it, but nobody took offense. Everybody was like, ‘Well, maybe he has a point.’ ”
— Damian Lillard, to NBC Sports Northwest’s Jason Quick, on one of the turning points of the Portland Trail Blazers’ season — when Maurice Harkless publicly criticized the team’s offense for being too dependent on Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
“Nobody wants to play the Spurs in the first round. Nobody wants to play the Spurs, period. That’s what it is. They’re still the same team. The San Antonio Spurs are still the Spurs. They still play the right way. They’re still capable of beating any team on any given night, regardless of who they throw out there.”
— Golden State Warriors guard Shaun Livingston, to the San Francisco Chronicle, knowing all too well that no matter the record or forecast now, Zombie Spurs are always just around the corner, behind the next tree, ready to resume assimilating you into the collective.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here andfollow him on Twitter.
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