Remembering Wes Unseld
On June 2, the Wizards announced that Bullets legend Wes Unseld passed away at the age of 74.
“He was the rock of our family – an extremely devoted patriarch who reveled in being with his wife, children, friends and teammates,” the Unseld family said in a statement. “He was our hero and loved playing and working around the game of basketball for the cities of Baltimore and Washington D.C., cities he proudly wore on his chest for so many years.”
Unseld is the most accomplished player in the history of the franchise – a Hall of Famer, a champion, an MVP and an All-Star. He played his entire 13-year career with the Bullets, totaling 984 games, 35,832 minutes and 13,769 total rebounds, all of which top the franchise record book. Unseld ranks second in franchise history in assists and fifth in points and led the franchise to four NBA Finals appearances and a title in 1977-78. Unseld’s number 41 jersey was retired in 1981 and is currently one of five jerseys hanging in the rafters at Capital One Arena.
On the court, Unseld was a force in the paint that shined in an era revered for its post play and a surplus of frontcourt talent. Unseld was dominant amongst his peers and was recognized as such when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988. Willis Reed, who played against both Unseld and the best big men of a generation prior – and is a Hall of Famer in his own right – introduced Unseld at his induction.
“People always ask me, ‘how tough was it to play against Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain?’ Reed said. “But they didn’t really understand that when you played against Wes Unseld, he abused your body every night. So I’m very happy to be here and stand and be comrades with him for one night.”
But for all the records, trophies, the accolades and respect from teammates and competitors that define his legacy on the court, Unseld’s legacy off the court is of equal magnitude. In 1978, Unseld and his wife, Connie, opened The Unselds’ School, a coed private school for kindergarten through eighth-grade students, as well as a daycare and nursery school, in southwest Baltimore. The school, for which Unseld worked occasionally as a bus driver, is one of the few fully-accredited, black-owned, non-church-affiliated elementary schools in Maryland. Over 40 years later, the school continues to serve as a place of learning and development in an underserved region of the city. Connie, a former teacher, serves as principal while their daughter, Kim, works as a teacher at the school.
“These kids are great,” Unseld said in a 2017 interview. “I’ve seen them grow up and now, once in a while, you’re out and you run into them. It’s good. What they do here with these kids…it is amazing. There is a lot of time, effort and resources you put into it, but when you get there and you see them and see what they do an what they become, it’s so worth it.”
“We all admired Wes as the pillar of this franchise for so long, but it was his work off the court that will truly leave an impactful legacy and live on through the many people he touched and influenced throughout his life of basketball and beyond,” said Chairman & CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment Ted Leonsis.
Fifty-two years ago, Unseld had just completed his college career at Louisville with his second AP All-American season –a consensus selection – and was drafted second overall by the Baltimore Bullets in the 1968 NBA Draft.
Unseld brought size, strength and character to a Bullets team trying to carve out an identity in an NBA run by big men. At Louisville, Unseld was a frontcourt force. He averaged 20.3 points per game over his three seasons and tallied year-by-year rebounding averages of 19.4, 19.0 and 18.3. During his college days, he measured 6’7” and weighed 245 pounds. He was a bruiser by every definition, but possessed a skillset that caught the eye of the NBA decision-makers.
To amass the numbers and accolades that Unseld did over the course of his 13-year NBA career, he had to start fast, and that’s just what he did.
Unseld’s rookie season is one of the best debut campaigns in the history of the league. He averaged 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds per game, becoming the fourth player in league history to hit those benchmarks in his rookie season. No player has done it since. That year, his 1,491 total rebounds trailed only Wilt Chamberlain. Unseld played in all 82 games during his rookie year and put up his best numbers as the season wound toward the playoffs. In a six-game stretch in mid-March of 1969, Unseld registered consecutive rebounding totals of 20, 26, 32, 20, 19 and 22, leading the Bullets to a 5-1 record. The Bullets team finished 57-25 and ranked first in the NBA’s Eastern Division. Unseld was recognized for his sizeable role in driving that season’s accomplishments. He became just the second player ever to win Rookie of the Year and Valuable Player in the same season, joining Chamberlain, who did so during the 1959-60 season. No player has accomplished the feat since.
The dominance Unseld displayed in his rookie season proved to be sustainable. In his first five seasons in the league, he averaged 14.0 points and 17.1 rebounds per game, earning four All-Star appearances. He ranked top-five in rebounding in each of his first seven seasons in the league.
As Unseld’s success continued, so did the Bullets’. The team finished first in its division in six of Unseld’s first seven years and made a pair of Finals appearances. During the 1974-75 season, the franchise’s second season in the D.C. area and the first as the “Washington Bullets,” the team tied the Celtics with a league-high 60 wins. Unseld was named to his fifth All-Star game after averaging 9.2 points, 4.1 assists and a league-high 14.8 rebounds per game, but the Bullets lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. Unseld had the respect of the league, the stats and the accolades, but he and the Bullets had yet to capture their elusive first championship.
That all changed in the 1977-78 season. After consecutive seasons ended in conference semifinal losses, Unseld and the Bullets again advanced to the NBA Finals in 1978, their third title appearance of the decade.
That year, Unseld averaged 7.6 points per game, ceding much of the scoring responsibility to Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge. Unseld, on the other hand, developed into a jack of all trades as his career progressed. While shooting at a lesser volume, he led the team with a 52.3% field goal percentage, trailed only Hayes in rebounds per game and ranked second on the team with 4.1 assists per game. He was an ironman, one of just three players on the team to appear in at least 80 games that season.
“Wes was the rock of the team,” said The Athletic’s David Aldridge. “He was a guy that did all the dirty work and allowed the other players to shine. People respected that. People understood what Wes was doing to help the team win.”
“There wasn’t anything Wes couldn’t do,” said teammate Kevin Grevey, who played with Unseld from 1975-81. “He was a beast around the basket. He had unbelievable hands, a great outlet pass, a terrific rebounder, but the one thing he had was that intangible – he was such a warrior. He was such a great leader and a great captain.”
Series wins over the Hawks, Spurs and Sixers led the Bullets to a Finals matchup with the Seattle Supersonics, where Unseld played some of his best basketball of the season. Over seven games, the Bullets and Sonics traded blows, neither winning consecutive games through the series’ first six matchups. Unseld started every game and played at least 38 minutes in all but two of them. He recorded double-digit rebounds in five consecutive games and at least four assists in all but two. After the Bullets evened the series at three with a 35-point win in Game 6, Unseld closed the deal in Game 7. In a team-high 45 minutes, Unseld scored 15 points and recorded team highs in rebounds (9) and assists (6) as Washington went on to win, 105-99.
Unseld and Bullets were NBA champions.
“That was vintage Wes Unseld – stepping up at the right time,” Hayes said.
Unseld, who averaged 9.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 38.6 minutes per game, was named Finals MVP.
On a 2017 episode of the Off The Bench podcast, Unseld reminisced on Washington’s title season and the fight they went through to accomplish what they did.
“We all got healthy,” Unseld said. “If you look at that season, you won’t find five straight games where Bobby [Dandridge], Elvin [Hayes], myself, Tommy [Henderson], Kevin [Grevey] that we all played together at the same time. And then about half a dozen games before we were in the playoffs, everybody was healthy. At that point right there, I think we knew there might be somebody who could beat us, but they had a full day’s work ahead of them.”
A year after capturing their first title, the Bullets repeated as Eastern Conference champions to set up a Finals rematch with Seattle. Unseld started every game of the series and averaged a double-double, but Washington fell, 4-1.
Unseld went on to play two more seasons and retired after the 1980-81 season.
Prior to his arrival, the franchise had never recorded a winning season. His 13 years with the Bullets included 12 consecutive playoff appearances, 10 winning seasons, four NBA Finals appearances and a championship – all of which are credited largely to his contributions on the court and his leadership off of it.
Unseld, however, didn’t go far after hanging up the sneakers. As soon as he retired, Unseld moved into a role in the Bullets’ front office which he held for six seasons. The team made the playoffs in five of those six seasons, including a berth in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1981-92.
Prior to the 1987-88 season, he moved back down to court-level when he took an assistant coaching role with the team. After the team started the season 8-19, the organization made a coaching change and promoted Unseld to interim head coach in January of 1988.
Ten years after leading the franchise to its first title, he was now holding the clipboard and calling the shots from the sideline. Unseld made an immediate impact. The team went 9-3 in his first 12 games and Unseld was named the NBA’s Coach of the Month for January, his first month on the job. In 55 games that season, Unseld’s Bullets went 30-25 and qualified for the postseason, where the team fell in five games to a Detroit Pistons team that went on to play in the Finals. Unseld went on to coach the Bullets for another six seasons, amassing a 202-345 record, after which he returned to a front office position in 1996, serving as General Manager until 2003, excluding a brief one-year stint as Michael Jordan took over the duties.
Unseld is the franchise’s most formative figure. Over 50 years after his playing career began, his name still sits atop many of the most significant columns of the team’s record book. He led what was the most successful decade-long run in team history and has the awards and honors to show for it – Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, Champion and Hall of Famer. Ask any teammate, colleague or friend to describe Unseld, though, and they’ll speak less of the momentous accomplishments of his basketball career and more of his character; more of the man, the citizen and the family member whose biggest impact came in the community that he called home for so long.
“Wes was truly a gentle giant,” said Phil Chenier. “His scowl could be intimidating but really he was a kind, thoughtful and protective comrade. Wes is the epitome of a great teammate, team leader and friend.”
“Wes Unseld – that’s character,” said ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. “His character infused a franchise for more than a decade.”
“Those of us who were fortunate enough to spend time with Wes knew him as a generous and thoughtful man whose strong will was matched only by his passion and drive for uplifting others,” said Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard.
“A great leader, a wonderful family person, incredibly bright, well-read,” Grevey said. “Just a wonderful, wonderful person to be around.”
Unseld is survived by his wife, Connie, daughter Kimberly, son Wes Jr., daughter-in-law Evelyn and grandchildren Layla and Wes.