Ran into Wes Unseld the other day. The Basketball Hall of Famer they called "The Baby Bull" was coming out of – where else? – a meat market near his home in Westminster.
Having turned 63 two weeks ago, he's still the big galoot who put the Baltimore Bullets on the map 40 years ago. His first season in the pros (1968-69), Unseld took the Bullets from worst-to-first while winning both Rookie-of-the-Year and MVP honors. Only one other basketball player, Wilt Chamberlain, has ever done that.
Oh, the fun we kids had that year in the Civic Center, scarfing cheap weiners and whooping with every rebound the 6-foot-6 Unseld grabbed against taller centers – and every fast break he started with those crisp outlet passes. How he managed to outmuscle the Chamberlains, Russells and Reeds of the league was a mystery.
What was the secret, Wes?
"I was country-strong," he said. "I didn't lift weights or work on some Nautilus machine. I grew up in Kentucky, carrying block and brick in construction work with my dad."
Nowadays, Unseld operates a private school in West Baltimore with his wife, Connie. There, the five-time NBA all-star does everything from typing memos to cutting the grass to teaching youngsters how to bake bread. The man once dubbed "Wes Unselfish" is still a team player.
On weekends, he said, "I dilly dally in photography and woodworking. Got a wood shop at the house."
What does Unseld make?
"My wife calls it 'expensive kindling,' " he said, then paused. "I think she's right."
He still follows the Washington Wizards (nee Bullets), the team he later coached and helped run, as well as the University of Louisville, his alma mater.
"Could I have played center today? Why not?" Unseld said. "The guys I played against – Chamberlain, (Kareem Abdul) Jabbar, (Nate) Thurmond – were taller than these guys they've got now. The difference is, basketball is more a game of specialty than in the past. Used to be that you had to do everything pretty well – dribble, shoot and play defense. Now, if you're just a great shooter, you're a star."
In Unseld's neighborhood, his house is the one with no hoop in the driveway. The old Bullet, who has had one ankle fused and both knees replaced, hasn't played pick-up ball in 20 years.
"The game was good to me," he said, "but it almost killed me, too."