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Wes Unseld measured up, turned Bullets around

Undersized center who overwhelmed on boards has stayed in area long after team left

By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

6:04 PM EDT, May 7, 2012

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Forty-four years later, what sticks in Wes Unseld's mind is a reception he got on his arrival in Baltimore as the Bullets' top pick in the 1968 NBA draft. Welcoming, it was not.

"I was watching TV in my room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, and this sportscaster, Charley Eckman, came on. He was screaming and hollering that the Bullets were idiots for drafting a slow, 6-foot-7 center from Louisville," Unseld recalled.

"Well, Charlie was wrong. I was 6-foot-6."

Then Unseld, the second player picked in the draft, stepped onto the basketball court and took the skeptics to task.

Has any rookie had such an impact? The only newcomer among the Bullets' starting five, Unseld led a team that had finished last in the Eastern Division the year before to first place in 1968-69. He swept both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors, a feat matched only by Wilt Chamberlain.

He grabbed 18.2 rebounds a game, outmuscling players 6 inches taller. He set monstrous picks and flung outlet passes with Bullet-like precision. Unseld scored, too — 13.8 points a game for a club that managed 21 more victories with him than it had without him.

His success, he said, was unexpected.

"All I wanted was to do enough to make the team want to keep me," he said.

Unseld starred with the Bullets for 13 seasons, five of them in Baltimore before the franchise went south. Statistically, they were his finest years — four of his five All-Star appearances were with Baltimore — though Unseld wouldn't win a championship until 1978, when Washington defeated the Seattle SuperSonics and he was voted MVP of the NBA Finals.

He later served as the team's head coach and general manager. Unseld was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1988, having garnered 10,624 points and 13,769 rebounds. Eight years later, he was named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.

His selection as one of The Baltimore Sun's Top 10 athletes in Maryland history is "flattering, humbling and a little embarrassing," he said. "To be up there with Brooks and Frank Robinson? And that other guy from Louisville,Johnny Unitas?

"Back in the early 1970s, he [Unitas] and I were both at Kernan Hospital, doing physical therapy. Then he took me outside and had me warm him up. He'd throw the football, and I'd try to catch it."

Good hands were one of Unseld's strengths. Doggedness was another.

"Sure, I gave away inches [to opponents]," he said. "But a bigger factor was determination. If they were more determined, they'd win — but if I were more determined, they'd be hurting."

If Bullets fans took to "The Baby Bull," he was smitten with Baltimore as well.

"I'd never seen a crab 'til I came here, but I fell in love with the Bay," he said. "Hell, I'd never seen lacrosse. I loved the game, but I couldn't believe they'd ever allow somebody like me [245 pounds] to run after people with a stick."

In retirement, he settled in Westminster. In 1979, he and his wife, Connie, opened a private grade school in West Baltimore, where Unseld, 66, mows the grass, mops floors and leads the kids to the gym to shoot baskets.

"I'm a country boy, but I grew to love this city early on," he said. "When I got here, [Bullets forward] Gus Johnson took me under his wing and led me to all of the juke joints on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he hung out. You could go to Little Italy or to Turners Station and get the same reception. The people here have never been the type that you feel you have to impress."

But impress them on the court, Unseld did.

"I had some of my best years in Baltimore," he said, "and I'm real proud of that."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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