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Nothing Michael Jordan accomplished in a uniform is any more wondrous than what he’s done since signing on with the Wizards: He’s managed to emasculate Wes Unseld.
Nobody lost out as much as Unseld from Jordan’s arrival. Gar Heard, you say? Sure, Heard was treated like crap, never getting so much as a hello or goodbye call from his momentary boss. But Heard still stands to collect the balance of his $3.6 million contract for just three months of actual coaching, and he got out of here fast enough to save some self-respect. It’s unclear whether Jordan will leave Unseld—who for three decades has been the toughest of the tough guys on the local sports scene—with any pride when he gets around to firing the former Bullet great. Or, rather, when he gets somebody else to fire the former Bullet great. The contract leaks in the Washington Post are ridiculous. Unseld’s a goner.
Unseld should already be gone. The team hasn’t won a playoff game with him in the front office, and Unseld is, after all, the man who signed Juwan Howard to a $100 million deal and traded Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond, among other snafus. (A reader once suggested to me that the NBA should protect the Wizards by establishing another lottery in which only the winner would get the opportunity to work a trade with Unseld.) Besides, a quick firing would surely have been more humane than what he’s suffering through now.
Jordan publicly gelded Unseld as his first order of business. Minutes after his introduction as the Wizards’ president of basketball operations, in front of the biggest press conference in the history of D.C. sports, Jordan offered an unsolicited denial that Unseld would be “kicked to the curb.” The new kingpin didn’t, however, say why he would keep Unseld on board, other than to hint that the Hall of Famer could continue to run the Mystics.
Yes, the Mystics.
Unseld barely witnessed his own castration. The GM wasn’t invited to sit among the dignitaries on the dais at the press conference. And because he had shown up later than most to the press conference, which packed the Wizards’ practice gym, Unseld didn’t even get a seat in the gallery. He watched the goings-on from a spot along the rail of the handicapped ramp. His vantage point was so lousy that he had to lean forward just to see what was going on.
Majority owner Abe Pollin, who was sitting beside Jordan during the event, couldn’t have taken much pleasure in hearing the guy he for years had referred to as “my son” suddenly getting the Fredo Corleone treatment. Pollin, who signs even Jordan’s checks, hasn’t done anything to stop the madness, though.
Unseld’s putrid performance while in management has made most people forget his awesome contributions as a player. But surely Pollin must remember. Unseld’s 13-year playing career coincided with the franchise’s heyday. The Bullets hadn’t ever had a winning season before drafting Unseld out of Louisville with the second overall pick in the 1968 draft. But during Unseld’s first year, the team went 57-25, and he became only the second player in NBA history to be named both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season.
With the wide-bodied, 6-foot-7 Unseld banging the boards and setting the most brutal picks the game had ever seen, the team had 10 winning seasons and 12 straight playoff appearances. Four times in his career, the Bullets made it to the NBA finals. In the ’74-’75 season, Unseld led the league in rebounding (he had 30 boards in a single game against the then-New Orleans Jazz that year) as the Bullets went 60-22, in the only 60-win season the team would ever have.
Unseld hit the clinching foul shots at the end of game seven of the 1978 championship series against the Seattle SuperSonics—the only championship the Bullets would ever win—and was named playoff MVP.
After the ’80-’81 season, Unseld retired as the franchise’s leader in games played, rebounds, and even assists, and is still among the career leaders in essentially every other major statistical category. In 1988, he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996. That makes him and Jordan teammates, of a sort.
The team hasn’t done much since Unseld traded in his jersey for a suit and tie. He was named coach in the middle of the ’87-’88 season. The team never had a winning season or won a playoff series with him on the bench. When he resigned in 1994, his career coaching mark was 202-345.
None of the Bullets/Wizards’ subsequent coaches found a way to turn things around. Darrell Walker seems to have the right stuff to keep the streak of stiffs—Bickerstaff, Brovelli, Heard—going. He floundered in the CBA after posting a 40-91 coaching record in the NBA. But for the first time in a while, this debacle can’t be blamed on Unseld. Jordan has made it clear that he makes the decisions now. So he made the decision to stay far away from D.C. during Super Bowl weekend even after blowing the Rod Higgins deal, and he made the decision to get Unseld to carry out the hit on Heard. “I wanted to do it,” Jordan said, adding that this would be the last time he’d let Unseld do anything so momentous. Sheesh…
As Jordan’s introductory press conference broke up, those on the dais stayed in the practice gym to do TV interviews. Pollin went on and on about what a great day it was for the franchise. Unseld headed for the team’s dressing room, where the Wizards were preparing for that night’s game against the Dallas Mavericks. “Is this a great day, Wes?” I asked him in the hallway. Even before he turned away without a word, I felt bad just for asking.—Dave McKenna