Monday, February 22, 2021


As part of a series celebrating Black History Month, NBC Sports Washington had a feature this month on former Washington Bullets/Wizards great Wes Unseld.

The report points out, and rightly so, that “not one person has had a greater impact on the Washington Wizards/Bullets franchise” than the late big man who passed away in June at the age of 74.

In fact, you could make the case that no athlete in recent memory has impacted a Washington team’s won-loss record more than Unseld did his. You have to go back to Sammy Baugh and the birth of the Washington Football Team to find another giant whose presence more dramatically changed the direction of a franchise.

Unseld’s legacy is at the heart of a controversy in his hometown of Louisville, where the college he helped put on the basketball map — the University of Louisville — is under fire from another alumnus.

Butch Beard is a former basketball star at Louisville who went on to play 10 years in the NBA. He also coached the New Jersey Nets as well as at Howard University and Morgan State. A former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky, he signed to play at Louisville one year after Unseld started there.

Beard has asked the school to remove his name and accomplishments from any existing or future mentions, citing what he sees as a lack of commitment to hiring black role models in the athletic department as well as the school’s lack of recognition of Unseld, according to reports. 

Beard questions why the school has not commissioned a statue to honor Unseld, a two-time All-American who led the school to a 60-22 record, as well as the NIT tournament in 1966 and the NCAA tournament in 1967 and 1968. Unseld also is credited with opening the door for young black athletes who had been wary of signing to play for Louisville.

Here in Washington, the Wizards have taken several steps to honor the accomplishments of Unseld, including a jersey patch with his number “41” (already retired by the organization) last season.

I’m not sure anything short of a statue would be enough, though, given Unseld’s legacy. The list of names of those who’ve had a comparable impact during their time in Washington is short indeed.    

Alex Ovechkin? He certainly changed hockey in this town. Helped make Capitals games the main event and brought the franchise a long-awaited Stanley Cup in 2018. But as difficult as it may be to believe, the Capitals existed before Ovechkin came from Russia — and they didn’t wallow in losing before he got here, either. Washington had 18 winning seasons and 19 playoff appearances in the 30 years before Ovechkin arrived and an Eastern Conference championship.

How about Stephen Strasburg? Maybe Ryan Zimmerman? Zimmerman’s early years with the Nationals were distinguished by a string of losing seasons, while Strasburg’s time has been interrupted by injuries.

Joe Gibbs is part of the discussion, of course. The Washington Football Team coach led the franchise to 10 winning seasons in his 12 years here, four NFC championships and three Super Bowl titles.

You’ll get no argument on Baugh. He helped put the Washington Football Team on the map when it moved from Boston in 1937. He led the franchise, at its most important time, to 10 winning seasons, five NFL title games and two NFL championships in his 16-year career. After Baugh retired? Two winning seasons in the next 16 years.

Which brings us back to Unseld.

The franchise began as the Chicago Packers in 1961 and moved to Baltimore two years later, becoming the Baltimore Bullets. They drafted Unseld with the second pick overall in 1968, and he would go on to win the NBA Most Valuable Player award and Rookie of the Year, leading the team to a 57-25 record and a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference. The year before, the Bullets were 36-46.

Before Unseld, the franchise had a 205-358 record. In the 13 years he was the big man of the organization — in Baltimore and in Washington after the team moved to Landover in 1973 — the Bullets/Wizards had a 618-448 record, four NBA Final appearances and one NBA championship in his 13 seasons.

After Unseld retired? Well, let’s just take the 13 years following his departure — a 388-615 record. What’s the point after that? Everyone knows the franchise has been, in its brief good moments, disappointing, and, for the most part, embarrassing since then.

Unseld was part of that losing when he worked in the front office and coached on the bench. But when he was on the court, no player since the days of Baugh had a greater impact on winning and losing than Wes Unseld. That should be immortalized.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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