If you’ve been following this column since the beginning of the year, I’ve written a few columns reminiscing about NBA Players and Executives who died recently. As the risk of sounding like a latter day Forrest Gump, I didn’t know everybody in the NBA in the 1980’s and 90’s, but the league was smaller then, growing from 18 to 22 teams during my first run in the NBA in 1974-79 and subsequently from 23 to 27 franchises my second time through in 1985-91. When the league was smaller, you saw the teams more often and got to know a lot of the personnel and the players.
One of the most distinctive players in the NBA, Wes Unseld was a true center at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, although that second number may have been somewhat underreported. Unseld is part of one of the most unique clubs in NBA history. Along with Wilt Chamberlain, they are the only two players to be named NBA Rookie of the Year and NBA MVP in the same year.
Unseld and the Baltimore Bullets (later the Washington Bullets and now the Washington Wizards) were in town for a game one day and during the morning player shoot-around, I walked through the arena and saw Unseld working on an outlet passing drill. He would throw the ball off the backboard on one end of the floor, and before he landed from grabbing the rebound, he threw the basketball on a line off the other backboard, which was 86 feet away. This isn’t fiction. I saw him do it in person. ESPN’s Major League Analyst Tim Kurkjian told a similar story on the Tony Kornheiser Podcast last week, having attended a basketball camp where Unseld was an instructor, and he was doing the same drill.
Unseld would score enough to keep the defense honest, but defensive rebounding, throwing outlet passes to start the running game, and setting picks for a cadre of really good shooters the Bullets had over the years, were his real strengths. After averaging 20.6 points per game and 18.9 rebounds per game for the University of Louisville over four years, Unseld was the second player selected in the 1968 NBA Draft. For his first five NBA seasons, Unseld had at least 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds each year, which was the mark of an effective big man in those days. As a point of reference, last season only two players Andre Drummond and Rudy Gobert attained those plateaus.
Unseld was the 1977-78 NBA Playoffs MVP when the Bullets won the title. He was also a five time All-Star and was voted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1988. Unseld was also voted on to the NBA 50th Anniversary Team, which honored the 50 best players in NBA history up to 1997.
Away from the court, while still an active player in 1979, Unseld and his wife Connie Unseld founded Unselds’ School in Baltimore, beating tennis great Andre Agassi to the same concept by more than two decades with the Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas in 2001, and Lebron James with his I Promise School opened in Akron, Ohio in 2018.
I got to know Unseld during the basketball season of 1982-83, after his playing days and before he started coaching the Bullets. I was working for the Metro Conference, which had among our member schools the University of Cincinnati and the Louisville Cardinals. We had Saturday and Monday television packages that we ran from our Conference Office in St. Louis. Oscar Robertson, a Cincinnati grad was our game analyst. Although the Big ‘O’ was a great player, among the game’s best, his television work for our broadcast package was poor, mainly because he didn’t take the time to learn the players’ names. At my suggestion, we exchanged Unseld for Robertson for the Monday night package. Unseld was professional, did the work and was a pleasure to deal with. One of my memories of that time was going to a movie theater to watch the newly released “Gandhi,” which Unseld and I loved. Our play-by-play announcer who went with us, slept through all but about 10 minutes of the Academy Award winning movie.
Unseld was personally very close to the late Abe Pollen, the Bullet’s Owner and worked for him as Bullets Head Coach for seven seasons, where he compiled a record of 202-345. He later served as the Bullets General Manager. One of the hardest things to do in the NBA is to turn around the fortunes of a team that is competitive but stuck in the middle of the draft where it is difficult to improve the team. That was Unseld’s fate as a coach and general manager. Unseld was a class act on and off the floor and he will be missed.