On and off the basketball court, Wes Unseld seemed larger than life. At 6-feet-6, the Baltimore Bullets center routinely dominated players who towered above him. And at the Unseld School, an educational center that his wife ran in West Baltimore, Unseld dwarfed the youngsters who gave him hugs and who called the man who mopped the floors and mowed the grass “Wessie.”
Unseld died Tuesday morning after what his family called “lengthy health battles, most recently with pneumonia.” He was 74. He was nicknamed “The Baby Bull” for his girth and grit in the lane, and “Wes Unselfish” for his team play.
“Wesley was a huge man in every sense of the word, except height,” Bullets teammate Fred Carter said. “Dignity, class, character, integrity — Wes had it all. Plus, he was a great player. He wasn’t a leaper; he played with his body and his mind. He was a helluva big fella who wasn’t a big fella.”
Born to Charles and Cornelia Unseld, Unseld grew up in Louisville as one of nine children, two of whom were adopted. His father played basketball for the Indianapolis Clowns, a predecessor to the Harlem Globetrotters, and took up boxing before working two jobs as a construction worker and an oilman.
A two-time, 245-pound All-American at Louisville, in his hometown, Unseld joined the woebegone Bullets in 1968, the second player picked in the NBA draft. That season, Baltimore improved by 21 games, surging from last place to first in the Eastern Division. Unseld averaged 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds and swept both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors, the second player ever to do so (Wilt Chamberlain was the first).
Told he’d won the MVP award, Unseld reacted with characteristic humility.
“It’s very nice, but I don’t know whether I deserve it or not,” he said.
“Individual awards weren’t his calling card,” said Bullets forward Ray Scott, who played with Unseld from 1968 to 1970. “He’d rather pass than score. Wes made us a smart team, a thinking team. He knew how to play his position, and we all learned how to play ours so he wasn’t left alone defensively.”
Unseld spent his whole career with the Bullets, during which he made the NBA All-Star team five times — four while in Baltimore before the club moved to Washington in 1973. Lifetime, he averaged 10.8 points and 14 rebounds a game while taking the Bullets to the playoffs in 12 of his 13 years. In 1977-78, they defeated the Seattle SuperSonics for the NBA title and Unseld, 32, was named MVP of the championship series. Ten years later, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Unseld received rings on both occasions, but rarely wore them.
“All I ever wanted to do was enough to make [the Bullets] want to keep me,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 2012. “My first day, they asked what jersey I wanted. I said, ‘In college, my number was 31.’ But [general manager] Buddy Jeannette said, ‘That’s Ray Scott’s number. Give him 41; he may not be here tomorrow.’
“I thought, ‘Holy s---.’ It made me want to knuckle down.”
His first three years, Unseld led the Bullets in field-goal percentage. He remains the franchise leader in rebounds (13,769) and assists (3,822). Toughest in the playoffs, he had 34 rebounds in a victory over the New York Knicks in the 1970 Eastern Division semifinals. One year later, his block of a Bill Bradley shot with three seconds remaining preserved a 93-91 win over the rival Knicks and sent the Bullets to the NBA finals for the first time, where they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Unseld’s strength was legend, Scott said:
“We’d fool around and wrestle in practice, and once Wes picked up LeRoy Ellis, a 6-11 center, and held him over his head. It’s a strong man’s game, but never in his career was there a player stronger on the court than Wes.
“We played in an era where the guy closest to the basket had the best shot and that was generally the center. So, on defense, Wes said, ‘If I can move this guy two feet out from his normal position, it’ll throw him off and I’ve won the battle.’ And night after night, guys like Chamberlain, Elvin Hayes and Nate Thurmond would take that jump shot from just a little bit farther than where they were comfortable.”
“I lost a great friend and teammate this morning who went home to Christ,” said Hayes, Unseld’s Bullets teammate for 10 seasons, in a statement Tuesday. “Know we all had great love for both you and your family always my friend.”
Unseld measured success not by size but strength of mind.
“Sure, I gave away inches [to opponents],” he told The Sun. “But a bigger factor was determination. If they were more determined, they’d win. But if I were more determined, they’d be hurting.”
Bullets guard Kevin Loughery called Unseld “a rebounding savant” and marveled at the power and precision of the outlet passes of one who suffered from chronic knee problems.
“His hand strength was unbelievable,” Loughery said. “His first day of practice, Wes bet me he could grab a rebound, turn, throw the ball the length of the court and hit the backboard before his feet hit the floor. ‘No way,’ I said. Boom, he did it.”
For nearly four years, Loughery and Earl Monroe would be recipients of those pinpoint heaves that hit them in stride and made the team a contender.
“I felt like [Hall of Fame wide receiver] Lynn Swann, on the end of those outlet passes,” Loughery said. “With Wes, my average went up by nearly seven points a game [to 22.6]. He did all of the intangibles that make you win — and he turned our franchise around.”
Gene Shue, who coached the Bullets during Unseld’s five years in Baltimore, called him “one of the league’s most amazing players ever. I never found another who was so totally unselfish. We had only three offensive plays for Wes and used to joke about it.”
But Shue (Towson Catholic and Maryland) said Unseld’s demeanor during games could be scary.
“In the huddle, I’d be talking while Wes’ eyes were locked on me with such intensity that I’d think, ‘Is this guy going to kill me?’ I knew he understood every word I said.”
“Wes was truly a gentle giant,” Bullets teammate Phil Chenier said in a statement Tuesday. “His scowl could be intimidating but really he was a kind, thoughtful and protective comrade. Wes is the epitome of a great teammate, team leader and friend.”
Unseld had a playful side too, Bullets forward Jack Marin said.
“He scared the hell out of [rookie center] George Johnson one night in Phoenix,” Marin said. “Wes bought a rubber snake, wrapped it in George’s uniform and stuffed it in his gym bag. When George pulled his jersey out ...”
While in Baltimore, Unseld took part in community affairs. He worked regularly with disabled children at James Kernan Hospital and spoke on the perils of drug abuse at Baltimore County schools.
In retirement, Unseld stayed with the Washington Bullets as vice president, then head coach (202-345) and, finally, general manager. He settled in Westminster and helped his wife, Connie, who in 1978 established The Unseld School for elementary students.
“I’m proudest of the fact that I had a career in Baltimore,” Unseld told The Sun in 2012. “I grew to love this city early on. Baltimore has its communities but I’ve always been able to go into each — whether Reisterstown, Little Italy or Turners Station — and get the same reception.”
Unseld’s death elicited responses from several sports figures on Twitter, including current Wizards star Bradley Beal, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas.
Besides his wife, Unseld is survived by his daughter Kimberly Unseld of Baltimore, his son Wes Jr., who is an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets, and two grandchildren. Information regarding services is pending. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to the Unselds’ School.
Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.