Wes Unseld, a steady inside presence who battled larger centers Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Willis Reed, and Nate Thurmond in a Hall of Fame career, died on Tuesday. He was 74.
Unseld led the Bullets to four NBA Finals appearances, including a title in 1978.
The 6-foot-7 Unseld played his entire 13-season career with the Bullets. As a pro, he averaged 10.8 points and 14.0 rebounds a game.
Unseld, a five-time All-Star, commanded respect on the basketball court. He never backed down, always worked hard, and displayed a fierce competitive spirit.
Abdul-Jabbar spoke about his former rival on the “Rich Eisen Show” on Tuesday.
“He was like a big roadblock on the basketball court,” Abdul-Jabbar said of Unseld. “He was only like 6-7, 6-8, but you still couldn’t get rebounds over him because he just denied (position) on the court. (Unseld) was awesome in that sense.”
Indeed, the statistics and consistency only tell a part of the story. Wes Unseld’s impact on the court went far beyond buckets, rebounds, and other tangible numbers.
Just ask ex-teammate Phil Chenier.
“His scowl could be intimidating, but really he was a kind, thoughtful and protective comrade,” Chenier, who won a title alongside Unseld in ’78, was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.
“Wes is the epitome of a great teammate, team leader, and friend.”
Before arriving in Maryland as the Baltimore Bullets’ No. 2 pick in the 1967 NBA Draft, Wesley Sissel Unseld dominated at the University of Louisville, where he posted averages of 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds.
A vital contributor as a rookie
Wes Unseld wasted no time establishing himself as the cornerstone of the Bullets franchise.
As a rookie in the 1968-69 season, the Louisville native averaged 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds in 82 games.
He was named the NBA Rookie of the Year and league MVP. It was a unique feat that has happened only once before — and never replicated since Unseld’s freshman campaign.
The other? Wilt Chamberlain.
The Bullets finished with a 57-25 record, collecting 21 more victories than the season before.
As a result, the team’s dramatic turnaround — from worst in the Eastern Division to first overall — was a sign of things to come.
Bullets’ rise to prominence
It was the first of 12 straight playoff appearances for the Baltimore Bullets. (The franchise was later known as the Capital Bullets and Washington Bullets before changing its name to the Washington Wizards in 1997.)
Unseld was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988. He was enshrined at the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Upon his induction to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1988, Unseld reflected on how he played throughout his career.
“I never played pretty,” Unseld said. “I wasn’t flashy. My contributions were in the things most people don’t notice. They weren’t in high scoring or dunking or behind-the-back passes.”
The franchise retired Unseld’s No. 41 jersey. He also served as the Bullets coach (1987-94) and Bullets/Wizards GM in a lifelong association with the franchise.
When the NBA named its 50 Greatest Players in 1996, Unseld made the list.
Tributes to Wes Unseld
“Wes Unseld was one of the most consequential players of his era,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “His competitive drive and selfless approach made him a beloved teammate. … Wes also set the model of class, integrity, and professionalism for the entire NBA family during stints as a player, coach, and team executive with Washington and through his dedication to expanding educational opportunities for children.”
Wizard’s general manager Tommy Sheppard said, “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.
“His physical prowess, undeniable talent, and on-court demeanor may have struck fear in opponents throughout the NBA, but he will be remembered best as a mentor, leader, and friend.”
Reed, who helped the New York Knicks win two titles (1969-70 and 1972-73), said Wes Unseld was a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court.
“You always wanted to make sure you got a good night’s sleep before you played against him,” Reed told The New York Times. “He was most consciously a rebounder — he could shoot, but he didn’t emphasize that part of his game — and felt that if he did his job right, by getting the defensive rebound and making the quick outlet pass, they would score quickly.”
Chase Hughes, writing for Yahoo Sports, described Unseld this way: “As an NBA player, Unseld has a lasting reputation as the most notorious screen-setter in league history. At 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, he was built like a refrigerator and used his wide frame to set powerful picks.”
Arizona-based sportswriter Javier Morales posted a short tribute to Wes Unseld on his Facebook page.
“When we played pickup basketball when I was young, we tried to emulate Wes Unseld’s outlet passes,” Morales wrote. “He was a master of the outlet pass after a rebound. RIP Mr. Unseld.”