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In the mind’s eye, there is one lingering memory of Basketball Hall of Famer Wes Unseld above all else.
On defense and lurking near an opponent’s basket, he would snatch a rebound in mid-air and pull the ball over his head to launch a two-handed outlet pass to a fast-flying teammate streaking well past half court—all before his feet touched the ground.
Unseld was Sonny Jurgensen on a hardwood floor, throwing passes in mid-leap that hardly ever missed their intended target and almost always resulted in an easy, picture-perfect fast break layup at the other end of the court.
Unseld died on Tuesday, June 2, at age 74 from complications of pneumonia, according to the Washington Wizards, the franchise that drafted him in 1968 when the team was known as the Baltimore Bullets. Over 35 years, the organization employed him as a player, front office executive, broadcaster, coach, and general manager until he retired in 2003.
He was the second overall selection in the 1968 draft, one slot behind the first pick, Elvin Hayes, taken by the Houston Rockets that year. Hayes eventually joined the Bullets in a blockbuster trade that ultimately led to the team’s only NBA title, in 1978. Ironically, they didn’t much like each other off the court. (More on that later.)
Hayes was a scoring machine that year, but Unseld was the rock of that team, the true leader, not to mention the leading rebounder and assist man, as well. He was listed at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds on the roster, but everyone knew those numbers were an exaggeration—two inches taller than his true height of 6-foot-5, and 20 to 25 pounds lighter than his burly bulk of 265 pounds.
And yet, he played center and handled jump balls despite often giving up six or more inches to an opponent virtually every night. He also played on knees so sore he could barely get through a practice, let alone a 48-minute game.
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But that big, muscular body set arguably the most bone-jarring pick in the history of the NBA according to many foes who needed hours of soaking in an ice bath to soothe the pain from all the bumps and bruises Unseld inflicted.
“I don’t know of anybody who ever set a meaner screen,” former NBA guard and coach Doug Collins once said of him.
In 1978, I was assigned to help cover the Bullets during the playoffs in that championship run. Unseld clearly was the strong, silent type—a man who did most of his talking with his exploits on the basketball court. And that may have been the rub between Unseld and his far more flamboyant and loudmouthed teammate, Hayes, who truly reveled in his nickname as “The Big E.”
Hayes once accosted me at a luggage carrousel at National Airport when he thought I had not given him enough credit in a story I’d written on the previous night’s game. He went on and on about how many points he’d scored and blah, blah, blah, until Unseld happened by and told his teammate to shut up and get on the team bus.
The Big E often was all about The Big Me. Unseld was all about the team, and they were not friends. When Unseld was in the training room getting treatment or being taped, Hayes knew enough to stay outside in the locker room until Unseld was finished. Their lockers at the old Capital Centre were on opposite sides of the room, and for good reason.
And yet, that rocky relationship never seemed to get in the way of their team’s season-long success on the way to a championship against the Seattle SuperSonics. It also came toward the end of a 12-year run that started with Unseld’s being drafted and ended with 12 straight playoff appearances and that precious title. The franchise has never been close ever since.
“We always talk about leadership in sports,” Mitch Kupchak, a former teammate on that ’78 squad, once told the Washington Post. “But you don’t designate yourself a leader. You just lead. That’s what Wes did.”
Unseld finished his career as only one of two players (along with Wilt Chamberlain) to have been named the NBA Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in the same season. He remains the Wizards franchise’s all-time leading rebounder and had been No. 1 in assists until John Wall passed him in 2016. And of course, he surely must be the NBA’s all-time leader in length-of-court, two-handed outlet passes while still in mid-jump, a vision that still lingers even now, 42 years later.
Leonard Shapiro retired in 2011 after 41 years as a sports reporter, editor, and columnist at the Washington Post.