NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Wizards hope to win again through the values of Wes Unseld

How many superstars would cut their neighbor’s grass? Wes Unseld Sr. left behind unmatched values as his son coaches Washington.

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WASHINGTON — His knees, squeaky from all the weight he carried and minutes he played, begged for mercy. His arms and shoulders? They were weary and wore the scars from the long seasonal journey that was finally nearing the end.

And his hands? Those were his tools of the trade, and they were still healthy and firm, and Big Wes used those mitts as he went around the tense pre-game locker room, squeezing any fear or doubt out of his teammates, one by one, in the moment of truth.

“This is it!” he said to Bobby Dandridge, and then to Mitch Kupchak, Phil Chenier and Elvin Hayes, his grip tightening around their knuckles, nearly causing them to pop. “This is our time. This is our game. This is our championship. Just make your shots. I got the rebounds. I got the rim. You take care of the rest!”

Of course. Wes Unseld Sr. handled that, because it was in his blood, in his DNA. It was the very reason he was a pillar in the paint. It was the reason he was in the NBA, quite honestly, and now it was the reason he was 48 minutes from his first championship.

The work. Big Wes would take care of that.

And so: Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals began with an edge and finished with a flourish. The Washington Bullets were pushed to the limit by the Seattle SuperSonics, and with less than a minute remaining, the Bullets held a shaky two-point lead. The Sonics wisely fouled … Big Wes, who was shaky at the line, shooting just 55%.

His teammates wondered: You got the free throws, too?

Yes, both of them.

He got the championship, the first for the franchise. And also the NBA Finals MVP award despite averaging only nine points for the series, the lowest of any Finals MVP, because everyone knew Big Wes couldn’t be explained by numbers. As he said: “It’s not my job to look good. It’s my job to make other people look good.”

His selflessness and work ethic had another purpose: His daughter and son were young and impressionable then, especially Little Wes, who was often in the locker room and around the team, watching, learning, soaking in the example being set.

Big Wes wanted Little Wes to know then about the value of work and dedication and discipline, and what it earned, and how nothing would be given to you, not by outsiders and certainly not by insiders. Big Wes said, over and over: “I made my money. Better go make yours.”

This is why Little Wes, son of a celebrity, born into a cushy life with privileges, had grunt jobs even before he became a teenager. While his suburban friends frolicked on weekends, Little Wes cut the neighbor’s grass.

One of his regular clients was right next door, the Amato family, who returned once from a trip and noticed their grass was high and unkempt. They remembered Little Wes was away visiting relatives that week and so they prepared to do it themselves. But soon they were startled by a loud, distinctive hum in their backyard.

They gathered by the window, shocked at what they saw: A famous man — who played 13 years in the league, who was Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, who won a championship, who tossed elbows with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, who set screens that would shatter the teeth of the poor soul who never saw them coming — pushing a lawnmower back and forth and back again, making smooth, even lines across their lawn.

Because, you see, work had to be done and there was no task too small or unglamorous for Big Wes, once again creating the foundation and setting the example for Little Wes to take along in a life that, years later, made a curious turn.

Wes Unseld Sr. (right) holds his son and future NBA coach Wes Unseld Jr. (Photo via the Unseld family)

Big Wes was born and raised in Louisville, Ky., during the final stubborn years of segregation. His father repaired farm machinery. His brothers were all better athletes but not as devoted, so their athletic careers stalled while his soared. He led his high school to a pair of state championships and was in line to accept a scholarship to Kentucky, the national powerhouse across the way.

Problem was, Kentucky was all white. Big Wes was the first Black player recruited by Adolph Rupp, the legendary coach. With the potential of adding Big Wes to a group of “runts” that included a scrappy forward named Pat Riley, a string of national championships would surely follow. The Civil Rights leaders in Louisville, a city that proudly produced another gifted young athlete at the time — some boxer named Cassius Clay — wanted Big Wes to become a symbol of the ‘60s. Big Wes had other ideas.

He told his mother he thought Kentucky’s interest was for show. Anyway, he lacked the composure of Jackie Robinson and said he’d probably “set Civil Rights back 20 years” had he gone to Lexington. He added that “if someone isn’t nice, well, I believe in talking to them in a language that they will understand. If a man spits on me, I’ll probably spit back.”

Besides, Big Wes wanted to stay close to his father, who was ailing, and signed with Louisville, giving the state another stellar program that prospered for decades after he left campus.

By then, Big Wes was factually big. His legs were sequoias, his shoulders massive, his hips strong enough to shove anyone away from the basket and into the stands if necessary. He only grew 6-feet-7 tall, undersized for centers, yet the circumference of the man who checked in at 245 or so pounds compensated for the height. You certainly could not go through Big Wes, and it took all evening to go around him.

Years later, as an adult, Big Wes cut such an intimidating figure, so massive with a stoic expression that caused strangers to pause before approaching with trepidation. And then, boom, Big Wes always fooled their sensibilities with a smile and a hearty laugh.

“He got a big kick out of scaring people every now and then,” said Chenier, a starting guard on the Bullets’ championship team. “Everyone is intimidated until he opens his mouth and you saw he had a kindness and gentleness to him that you could not imagine of someone that size.”

While at Louisville, Big Wes noticed a student having trouble adjusting to campus life. Her name was Connie, just a freshman, who needed guidance.

“So he just organized everything,” she recalled. “He went to the bookstore and got everything. I didn’t know where to park my car. He said I could park in front of his dorm, and he put a can on the parking spot so nobody would take it. And I was like, ‘Who is this person?’

“He was always asking if I studied hard enough for my classes, he read all of my papers, he knew I had a B in one class and I asked him how he knew, and he said, ‘I went down there and saw your grade.’ Meanwhile, he was this famous athlete, but no one took notes for him, nobody helped him, nobody assisted him. He did all his own work and made straight As. He didn’t cut corners academically.”

Big Wes was already laying the scholastic ground rules for his future son and daughter, which he had with Connie, who became his wife for life. Together, they opened a private school in an underserved section of hardscrabble Baltimore not long after Big Wes won the NBA title, and it still operates today. They wanted to give the kids in that neighborhood a better chance, too. She serves as principal and their daughter Kim teaches there.

Wes Unseld started a small private school in West Baltimore in 1978. (Photo via Shaun Powell)

Kim is a marvel: She has been blind almost 12 years, partly due to a horseback accident, yet speaks eloquently with such cadence and confidence and lust for life that keeps her students — and her two trusty dogs — always on alert.

“Dad would go over our school calendars when my brother and I were young,” she said. “He automatically knew when the parent-teacher conferences were and even with his busy schedule he’d make time to be there. He made sure we did what was needed. My father had a formidable presence in life lessons that went beyond basketball.”

Big Wes wrote checks for the family private school, helped expand it, was a constant presence after retiring from the league, pushed a broom when necessary and often reminded a careless student to “tuck in that shirt young man” on occasion and always with a grin. The students mainly knew him as “Mr. Wes” until they learned to Google.

He was a lot less gentle on the court. Unseld gave away four, five, sometimes six inches to the other center and therefore needed a combination of fire and smarts and aggression to compete. And that was only part of the challenge.

He played in the Golden Age of big men. At various stages, and almost on a nightly basis, he saw, among, others: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Lanier, Nate Thurmond, Bill Walton, Bob McAdoo, Willis Reed, Dave Cowens, Walt Bellamy, Abdul-Jabbar — all Hall of Famers, all players who either had a size or quickness advantage.

Also: The year before Big Wes was drafted by the 1968-69 Bullets, then based in Baltimore, the team finished dead last in the division, winning 36 times. In his rookie season, the club suddenly won 57 games, then the biggest leap in NBA history, and he was the only significant addition.

He averaged 15 rebounds over his first eight seasons and carried his team to the NBA Finals four times, heady stuff for a player who endured multiple knee procedures that caused chronic pain and then, decades later, stole his ability to walk.

“He learned to utilize his leverage and ability to read the ball, tell where it was coming and how to position yourself,” Chenier said. “He was the best at positioning himself before the shot went up. He’d already boxed his man out. Wes nullified their size by leaning on them, keeping them off balance and now he was in position to get rebounds.”

His rebounds triggered fast breaks, all made possible by his trademark full-length outlet pass, where the ball was heaved with such two-handed force that the receiver didn’t need a dribble to reach the rim. His interior defense bailed out teammates. His picks freed them and allowed them to score above their average.

“He never had a problem with that role and he never complained,” Chenier said. “He could do the little things that would pick up the confidence of everyone else.”

He didn’t accept less from himself or those around him. Years later, when Big Wes became Washington’s coach, the team’s star, Bernard King, refused to take part in a drill and when Big Wes took exception, King turned sassy. In a flash, Big Wes rumbled toward King, according to witnesses. It took half the team to restrain Big Wes … and spare King from losing a body part.

“Wes is an old-school guy and if he had something to tell you, he’d tell you to your face, and he didn’t pull any punches, no matter if you were the 12th man or the star,” said Darrell Walker, who played under Big Wes. “After we were losing a tough game once, I remember him going off on everybody in the locker room and then he tore into me. And I’m looking at him like, hey, I’m the only guy playing well. After everybody left he grabbed me and said, ‘Walker, you’re playing your butt off but I had to get you, too, to send a message.’”

In his fourth season, Big Wes took a liking to a rookie named Stan Love; they connected over music and culture, often ate meals together and took visits to Baltimore Children’s Hospital, at Big Wes’ insistence.

Once there, Big Wes turned himself into Mt. Wes, dropping to the floor on all fours, allowing sick and disabled kids to jump and crawl on him. Love wasn’t sure who enjoyed it more.

“I was taken aback,” Love recalled recently. “He’d take along gifts and blankets and he really engaged with them. It kind of shook me up to see this. Every few weeks he’s taking me there again, and he’d do the same thing, and the kids loved it and became fond of him. To me it was really moving and nobody knew about it. We went unannounced.”

This stuck with Love, who later gave his newborn son Kevin the middle name Wesley (although Big Wes’ spelling is “Westley”) and made Big Wes his godfather. This gesture was unique in a few ways. Love was only teammates with Big Wes for two seasons and rarely reconnected once Love left the team. Not to mention, Love’s brother and cousins were The Beach Boys (rock band) and so he gravitated among bigger celebrities than Big Wes.

Love had no idea Kevin Love would even play basketball let alone become an All-Star and NBA champion.

Therefore, why choose Big Wes?

“My mind kept going back to those hospital visits,” Stan Love explained. “That was the main thing that made me name Kevin after him. It was his philanthropic ways and the graciousness he showed with those kids. He was just an all-around wonderful human being, and I wanted that for my son. It just so happened that Kevin also inherited the outlet pass.”

Big Wes coached the Bullets and mostly hated the experience. He did so because, after retiring as a player, he felt an obligation to the only franchise he ever worked for, and the need to inspire Little Wes, who was born into the game.

“My son was a ball boy and he’d go to practice with his dad,” Connie Unseld said. “He was always around his dad. That’s why his DNA is so positive, it’s in his blood. He accepted the game by being around the game.

“He always dissected the game. He would notice certain skills and abilities of players and he would always ask his dad why don’t you play so-and-so, and his dad would say, ‘Boy, shut up.’ He was always intrigued with the skills of certain people. He would wonder the value of doing the 6-minute mile, and ask why do you have to do this and that, always questioning everything.”

Little Wes played at Johns Hopkins, served as one of the team captains, was beloved by everyone in the program, was known for his wisdom and was an undersized center, which means, the apple didn’t fall far.

Big Wes noticed how the game grabbed his son and wouldn’t let go, and that Little Wes wanted a life in basketball while his Hopkins teammates became doctors and scientists. As general manager of the newly named Wizards, Big Wes threw Little Wes a bone — an entry-level scouting position, followed by the lowest assistant coaching position on staff, where he stayed six years. After that, Little Wes was on his own.

Through their first 10 games, the Wizards (7-3) are off to an impressive start under Wes Unseld Jr.

From there: One season with Golden State as an assistant coach where he helped the early careers of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, then to Orlando for a few years and then Denver, where he served six years under Michael Malone and helped groom Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray as the Nuggets prospered.

A few head-coaching interviews came and went without success. Did Little Wes have enough experience? That seems like an odd accusation as his entire life has revolved around pro basketball. Even more, he learned at the lap of a father named to the 50th and 75th Anniversary teams, a father hell-bent on setting the table and instilling the goods for his son.

A father who never lived to see the finished product, succumbing to a series of health issues at age 74 on June 2, 2020 … one year before Little Wes was named coach of the Wizards.

And so, what would Wes Unseld Sr. say right now? To see Wes Unseld Jr. on the bench, directing the only franchise the father ever knew, standing beneath the retired jersey hanging honorably in the Capital One Arena ceiling, and carrying That Name here in This Town?

“He would be so proud knowing his son is coaching the franchise that he brought the only title to and where he was an all-time staple,” Darrell Walker said. “If he learned anything from his father, he’s going to be very successful. He did his time and now they brought him home.”

And this, from Connie Unseld: “He would be thrilled and yet I think he would also ask, ‘What are you doing? You know how hard it was for me, why are you trying to be in that position?’ Well, coaching wasn’t in his father’s blood, not like playing. With Little Wes, this is his love. That’s the difference.”

There aren’t many other differences. The teachings of Big Wes took care of that. In the first game of the 2021-22 season, after the Raptors trimmed a large deficit to four, Chenier noticed how the neophyte head coach barely blinked, never tensed. The Wizards won in a rout, and Little Wes had to board the team plane in soaked clothes after a celebratory dousing, and the club is off to a respectable start.

“His father’s locker was next to mine,” Chenier said, “and every time something went wrong in a game and I had my head down, he was calm. I see that in Little Wes, the demeanor exuding confidence and getting things back to order when they unravel. He’s very patient with people, as his father was.”

There are no more words passing from father to son, the lessons have already been taught, and all the advice given. The only connection that still breathes between Big and Little Wes is the NBA franchise that conveniently links them both, that wants the son to take them where the father led them in 1978.

“The last time I saw him was on his deathbed,” the son said. “It was a tough moment. I remember how he always went out of his way to be there for me for those organic, unscripted moments. And for me to have the opportunity to be in that hospital room on that day, I could tell he was happy for that. He knew we would be there for him.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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