Archive 75

Wes Unseld

By Shaun Powell·

Wes Unseld once said it wasn’t his job to look good, it was his job to make his teammates look good. That might be a strange declaration for a player considered one of the NBA’s 75 greatest ever, but it accurately describes Unseld’s approach to basketball. He was a dirty-worker in every sense, one who had a greater appetite for rebounds and pick-setting and outlet-passing than he did for scoring. And his body -- squatty and strong and gravity-challenged -- was so wide it took you a day to go around him.

Combine that with a fierce determination and there’s a reason Unseld made his teams look good. His  Bullets teams appeared in four NBA Finals, winning once, and Unseld left his opponents with many scars and bruises from those battles with him.

There’s usually a process when a player goes from college to the pros. There’s a bit of intimidation, some apprehension, all of it understandable because it’s big-boy basketball. And then there’s Wes Unseld, who went from college to winning Rookie of the Year and MVP the same season, matching Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to bypass the learning curve and press the accelerator to stardom. Just like that, Unseld was a man in a man’s game.

Unseld had a pair of physical tools that allowed him to overcome his lack of height -- his hands and his hips. The hands were strong enough to squeeze the air out of the basketball and gave him the grip needed to collect rebounds in traffic. And the hips enabled him to set picks that sent any unfortunate, unsuspecting victim to the dentist or the chiropractor. Unseld was a mountain of a man and proved immovable on many nights.

The Bullets became an overnight success shortly after Unseld arrived and completely flipped their fortunes, going from worst to first in his rookie season. A few years later, they confronted the defending champion Knicks and Willis Reed in the Eastern Conference Finals. It went the limit. And in a surprising twist at the very end, there was finally evidence that Wes Unseld could indeed jump in the air, and it was out of necessity.

Unseld was deprived of the height needed to meet most of the great centers eye-to-eye, so he had to resort to other tactics and devices to get his respect and give his teams a chance to win. Here in a telling interview, Unseld describes his plight and how, in a sense, he had to work harder and be smarter in order to survive and thrive.

One of Unseld’s best weapons was … an outlet pass? He didn’t invent the pass but he perfected it, to the point where it became his trademark. Unseld was fond of grabbing the rebound and, in a continuous motion, turning and firing a rocket downcourt to a teammate for an easy layup. In this edition of “Red On Roundball,” Unseld unlocks the secret to his success.

A highlight reel of Wes Unseld is unlike any you’ve ever seen. It’s because there are no flying dunks, no behind-the-back passes, no between-the-leg dribbles, no 3-pointers launched from the next area code. A Wes Unseld highlight video is about grinding, and flying elbows, and punishment in the paint. It works best with a pulsating soundtrack that’s heavy on brass and bass. There is glamour in the grunt work, and pure basketball fans will appreciate.

Wes Unseld was hard working and loyal, having played and worked for one franchise his entire professional career. He was beloved in the communities of Baltimore and Washington, where the Bullets were based. He was respected by teammates and peers. What do you give a man for that, besides a Hall of Fame spot and a place on the NBA’s 50th and 75th teams? You give him a night, in front of his fans, where he can explain what it all means.