I have been blessed with many gifts because of what I do for a living. Talking to Wes Unseld was one of those gifts, one I treasure more than ever with the news of the passing of the great big man.
Unseld, 74, was Washington sports royalty, one of the iconic figures for a generation of fans who grew up in the area in the 1970s. His strong, wide body dominated the place where basketball, when it was a sport for men, used to be played — in the paint.
He came to Washington from Baltimore with the Bullets in 1973, already established as one of the game’s premier stars. He was drafted out of Louisville in 1968 and was one of only two NBA players — the other being Wilt Chamberlain — to win the NBA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season, averaging 18.2 rebounds per game that season and leading the Bullets from last place to a 57-25 season and a division title.
Unseld would help lead the franchise to four NBA finals — three of them in Washington, including the 1978 NBA championship, when he was named the finals MVP. Over a 13-year career, he averaged 10.8 points per game, 14 rebounds and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988.
My gift from Unseld came shortly after he was hired to coach the Bullets. He would be coaching against an old nemesis, one of my heroes growing up as a young boy, former New York Knicks great and Hall of Famer Willis Reed. I was doing a story for Sport magazine about the two former opponents now finding themselves rivals as coaches.
Though I grew up a Knicks fan, I always had tremendous respect for Unseld, whose Bullets’ teams had some legendary playoff battles with Reed and the Knicks. When they faced each other in the 1970s Eastern Conference semifinals, Unseld, with his team down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, had 34 rebounds in a 127-113 win over the Knicks, who had just 30 team rebounds. Two games later, with the series tied at 2-2, Reed came back at Unseld and had 36 points and 36 rebounds in a 101-80 New York victory in a series the Knicks would win in seven games and go on to win the NBA championship.
Unseld was never able to replicate his success as a player off the court, either as a coach (202-345 over seven seasons) or as a front office executive for 13 years with the organization. He was never able to find in others what he demanded from himself.
He called it intensity.
“Competitiveness is not something you can teach,” Unseld told me. “There are some people who have it and some who don’t. Intensity, I think you can demand that on the court, otherwise you are not put on the court. I think that is the only way you can look at it.”
Unseld and Reed were intensity to the max.
“We would step on the court and beat the hell out of each other, but we did it clean, hard and fair,” Unseld told me of those battles. “We didn’t ask for any favor and didn’t expect any … over the years, that just developed into a mutual respect for each other.”
Respect — the story of Wes Unseld whether you rooted for him or against him, whether he was your teammate or your opponent.
How much respect? When Unseld was inducted into the Hall of Fame, it was Reed who introduced him.
“There are people you meet along the way that you admire and respect as a human being, and that’s where we are,” Reed told me in describing his relationship with Unseld. “You come away from playing with certain impressions of people, and my impression of Wes was that he was always a gentleman, that he was truly an unselfish player and would do whatever he could to help his team be successful. Those are the things you admire about a guy.
“He’s a big man with a big heart, a big person in terms of how he handled himself,” Reed said. “You just don’t find enough people who are like that.”
No, you don’t. And now there is one less among us — a big man.
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