At 6-foot-7, Wes Unseld was an undersized center in an era when big men like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell ruled.
But the giants who lined up against the Washington Bullets legend soon learned that what Unseld gave up in height, he more than made up for with toughness, grit and heart.
“People always ask me, ‘How tough was it to play against Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain?’” former Knicks great Willis Reed once said. “But they didn’t really understand when you played against Wes Unseld, he abused your body.”
Unseld, a Hall of Famer and one of the NBA’s “50 Greatest,” died Tuesday after a series of health issues and a battle with pneumonia, his family announced. He was 74.
His death marks the loss of a basketball icon, especially in Washington, where Unseld led the Wizards franchise — then known as the Bullets — to its only NBA title.
Drafted second overall in 1968 when the franchise was in Baltimore, Unseld joined Chamberlain as one of just two players in league history to be named the top rookie and most valuable player in the same year.
The Bullets improved by 21 wins after adding Unseld and made the postseason for the first time. It was the start of a run that included 12 straight playoffs and four finals appearances with Unseld.
The highlight of Unseld’s career was Game 7 of the 1978 Finals, when the five-time All-Star helped clinch his only title with a win over the Seattle SuperSonics. By then, Unseld’s knees had all but broken down, but the then-32-year-old still was named Finals MVP.
Unseld wasn’t a prolific scorer, averaging 10.4 points over 13 seasons, but he was a force on the glass, grabbing 14 rebounds per game and leading the league in 1974-75. Unseld’s smooth two-handed outlet pass set up Washington’s offense on fastbreaks.
And he had a well-earned reputation for setting bruising, devastating screens, using his 245-pound build to stop a defender cold to free up teammates.
Bullets teammate Phil Chenier remembered one night against Milwaukee when
Unseld laid out guard Brian Winters in the backcourt with a pick. Winters was still on the ground by the time the Bullets had run their play and ran back for the next possession.
“Right at that point of impact, I heard this, ‘Oomph!’ and then this plop,” the longtime member of the Wizards’ broadcast team said. “Brian was sitting looking like, ‘I don’t know what just hit me.’”
“To run into a pick that Wes set,” former Pacers guard Billy Knight once said, “is like running into a brick wall.”
After he retired from playing in 1981, Unseld remained with the franchise in a variety of roles. From 1987 to 1994, Unseld was the team’s coach — posting a 202-345 record with one playoff appearance. He eventually moved back to the front office, and then-owner Abe Pollin named him general manager from 1996 to 2003.
Unseld couldn’t replicate as a coach or as an executive the success he experienced as a player. His teams were short on talent and lacked the work ethic that sustained Unseld’s career.
But the losses didn’t change Unseld, say those who knew him.
Born in Louisville in 1946, Unseld was known as a reserved man who cared deeply about the people in his life.
He and his wife, Connie, opened a private elementary school in Baltimore in 1978, and it is one of the few fully accredited black-owned schools in Maryland.
Former Wizards public relations director Matt Williams said Unseld took people under his wing, mentored those he worked with and offered valuable advice on life.
Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly wrote Unseld was “one of the kindest people I’ve ever met” and noted Unseld gave him his first job as an intern.
Former Wizards play-by-play man Steve Buckhantz added Unseld was a “big mountainous man who was just a wonderful human being.
“When you think about the Bullets, to me, the first person you think about is Wes Unseld,” Buckhantz said.
Unseld is one of just five players to have his jersey (No. 41) retired by the franchise (Earl Monroe, Elvin Hayes, Gus Johnson and Chenier). In the team record books, he ranks first in games played (984), first in rebounds (13,769), first in minutes (35,832), second in assists (3,822) and fifth in points (10,624).
Unseld is survived by his wife Connie, his two children Kim and Wes. Jr and two grandchildren. Wes Jr. is now an assistant coach with the Nuggets.
“He was the rock of our family — an extremely devoted patriarch who reveled in being with his wife, children, friends and teammates,” Unseld’s 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.”
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