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Wes Unseld: Not just a great athlete but a great person | READER COMMENTARY

Washington Bullets head coach Wes Unseld announces to the fans that he has coached his last basketball game for the Bullets as Bullets owner Abe Pollin stands nearby after their game against the Charlotte Hornets in Landover, Md., Sunday April 24, 1994. (AP Photo/Ted Mathias)
Washington Bullets head coach Wes Unseld announces to the fans that he has coached his last basketball game for the Bullets as Bullets owner Abe Pollin stands nearby after their game against the Charlotte Hornets in Landover, Md., Sunday April 24, 1994. (AP Photo/Ted Mathias) (TED MATHIAS / Associated Press)

In the early 1970s, the Baltimore Orioles were still a World Series level baseball team. Often, their games became one-sided. Sometimes in the late innings when they were winning, 11-1 or thereabouts, the conversation among us in the press box at old Memorial Stadium strayed from the game at hand.

“Who is the best guy we’ve ever had play in Baltimore?” someone would ask in a way that required an answer. Quickly, the answer spoken by several people was Brooks Robinson. Nobody ever questioned that. We all knew Brooks was the best.

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“Who was the second best?” Someone would ask.

Wes Unseld was generally the answer. Nobody disagreed.

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Wes, the center for the NBA basketball Baltimore Bullets, had many of the same qualities as Brooks. Both men were nice to everyone all the time. Both were gentlemen. Both were sportsmen (“Wes Unseld, legendary center for Baltimore Bullets, dies at 74,” June 2).

I was sports editor and columnist at that time for The Baltimore Evening Sun. Occasionally, I went on the road with the Bullets as I had on the morning in New York when Wes Unseld did the most unselfish thing I ever saw a pro athlete do.

We were in the midst of the NBA playoff semi-finals with the New York Knicks. This was at around 8 o’clock in the morning. There would be a game that night in Madison Square Garden. The Bullets had traveled to New York the night before. The players were sleeping in, naturally — all but Unseld, dressed in a suit and tie, who stepped off the elevator and into the lobby.

The Bullets coach at the time was Gene Shue. He stiffened when he saw Wes dressed up and ready to go somewhere instead of being asleep upstairs.

“Wes, where are you going?” Gene asked.

“To the train station,” Wes said.

“Why?” Shue asked.

Unseld hesitated, then half mumbled, “I told a bunch of Morgan State students I’d give a talk there on this date.”

The coach then ordered Wes back upstairs and to bed.

“Only Wes would do that,” Shue said. “He probably told those kids two weeks ago, before the playoffs even started, he’d speak to them. This was no major speech he was going back for. He was going back to talk to ten or 15 kids.”

That, to me, was pure Wes Unseld, who died Monday at 74.* It exemplifies everything I know of him from the happy years when I covered him and the Baltimore Bullets.

By the way, the Bullets lost that game and the series that night when Unseld was ordered back to bed to rest. I’ve never forgotten his first words when he was interviewed on TV immediately after a crushing loss in which he had played his heart out. “First,” he said, “I want to congratulate the Knicks on their victory.”

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Pure Wes Unseld.

Bill Tanton, Baltimore

* This letter has been updated. An earlier version misstated Unseld’s age at his death.

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