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When I was neighbors with Wes Unseld and his family | COMMENTARY

Wes Unseld, the NBA Hall of Famer who recently died, was more than just a basketball player, but also a well-respected community advocate.
Wes Unseld, the NBA Hall of Famer who recently died, was more than just a basketball player, but also a well-respected community advocate. (SWAGGER / Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

I have read several obituaries about Wes Unseld, the Hall of Fame NBA player who recently died. Most of what I’ve read about him, I already knew: his humble beginnings, the bone crushing picks, the superhuman strength, the amazing outlet passes that seemed to defy gravity, his selfless charity work, his post-retirement work at the Unseld School run by his wife, Connie, and daughter, Kim. His gruff exterior that masked a huge heart, his kindness to strangers. All of these descriptions ring true for the man my kids called Mr. Wes. But even with all of those accolades, there was so much more to him.

In 1986, we moved to a home in Catonsville and discovered that our backyard abutted the Unseld’s backyard. Almost immediately, we became lifelong friends. Wes had retired from playing by then, but his kids were still in school and he was working in the team’s front office. I had a 4-year-old daughter and one on the way.

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He and his family took my kids under their collective wing, welcoming them to their home to watch movies, play with the dogs, eat treats, shoot hoops. Wes’ son, who is now an assistant NBA coach but whom we affectionately referred to as “Little Wes” in the neighborhood, mowed our yard when he was a teenager, not because they needed the money but because Connie and Wes knew the value of a strong work ethic.

One week, as the grass grew, Little Wes was visiting family in Kentucky and could not mow. When our family returned from an outing, Mr. Wes was hard at work mowing. A young boy who was visiting a neighbor stopped by our yard to ask for his autograph. Mr. Wes graciously paused to sign and then continued mowing. We were dumbfounded. He did not have to do this.

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But for Mr. Wes, a commitment was a commitment, and if Little Wes was out of town and the grass needed mowing, by gosh, the job was going to get done by an Unseld. I already knew that Wes Unseld did not have the kind of ego you would expect from someone with his accomplishments and notoriety, but this small act of mowing our yard spoke volumes.

One day in my older daughter’s kindergarten class, the teacher asked the students if they knew anyone famous. My daughter eagerly raised her hand and was thrilled to say that she knew Mr. Wes Unseld. The teacher asked, “How do you know Wes Unseld?” She replied, “He lives in our back yard!” How we all laughed at that, especially Mr. Wes. My girls adored Mr. Wes and my younger daughter proudly wore #41 on her sports uniforms throughout high school and college.

Wes’ humility, talent and neighborly ways, while admirable, paled in comparison to his love for his family. I watched this former All-American display a devotion to family that was truly a joy to behold. Our kitchen windows faced each other’s and countless times I saw him hauling in groceries, pulling vegetables from his garden, washing dishes, cooking meals, hugging his kids.

Above all else, he wanted to take care of his family. Not just financially but in the purest nurturing way. Connie, Kim and Little Wes were his heart and soul. Connie’s dad lived with them back then, and Wes always made Grandpa feel like a special part of the family. I learned so much from Wes about unconditional love for family and about making time for what mattered most, even when time was scarce.

Oprah Winfrey always says, “This is what I know for sure.” Well, I know for sure that Wes, a big bear of a man with a mountain of talent, had a boundless love for his family that made an impression on all who knew him. We will miss you, Mr. Wes, but we will remember all that you taught us by the way you lived your life.

Annette Amato (amato@amatolegalsearch.com) is a legal recruiter who lives in Ellicott City.

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