On Tuesday, June 2, the entire basketball community of Washington learned of the passing of Bullets legend Wes Unseld. In this piece, we take a look back at his career.
BEFORE THE BULLETS
Wes Unseld was born in Louisville, Kentucky on March 14, 1946. He became big star on the hardwood locally, first at Seneca High School where he won back-to-back state championships in his junior and senior year in 1963 and 1964. He attended college at the University of Louisville, first averaging 35.8 points and 23.6 rebounds on the freshman team over 14 games.
As a sophomore, he lettered and averaged 20.6 points per game and grabbed 18.9 rebounds per game over his next three years. He led the Missouri Valley Conference in rebounding all three years. He earned NCAA All-American honors in 1967 and 68 and led his school to appearances in the NCAA tournament those two years. After college, the Bullets drafted Unseld as the second overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft.
ON THE BULLETS
Unseld helped the Bullets instantly. Coming off a last-place Eastern Conference finish, Unseld led the way as a rookie to a 57-25 record and a division crown, taking home both the Rookie of the Year award and MVP thanks to averaging 18.2 rebounds per game. He was the second player in NBA history to win both awards in the same year, joining Wilt Chamberlain. Additionally, Unseld was bestowed NBA All-Rookie First Team honors and Sporting News MVP.
Unseld was known for his defense averaging double-digit rebounds per game in all but one of his 13 seasons in the association. He led the NBA in rebounds in 1974-75 with 14.8 boards per game. The next season saw an uptick in his offense as he led the league with a .561 field goal percentage. Unseld represented the Bullets in the NBA All-Star Game five times and took the Bullets to four NBA Finals.
In 1978 the Bullets took home the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the franchise’s first and so far only NBA title as they defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games. Unseld was named Finals MVP.
The Wizards team website describes Unseld with the following:
“As a player, Wes Unseld seemed to have been chiseled from a block of granite, with a stoic demeanor and an iron resolve to win. A 6-7 bull of a center, he forged his reputation on relentless rebounding, bone-jarring picks, and laser-beam outlet passes. He did all the unspectacular things that led to glamorous victories.”
AFTER THE BULLETS
Unseld retired following the 1980-81 season, ultimately finishing his career with a double-double with 10.8 points and 14.0 rebounds per game in 984 games, all with the Bullets.
After Unseld retired, he worked in the Bullets front office serving as the team’s vice president for six years before he was named head coach in 1988. He retired at the conclusion of the 1994 season finishing with an overall record of 202-345. Unseld was named the team’s general manager in 1996.
The team retired his number shortly after and Unseld was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988 and was named on of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all time in 1996.
You can find Unseld’s number hanging in the rafters of Capital One Arena alongside the likes of Earl Monroe, Elvin Hayes, Gus Johnson Jr., and most-recently Phil Chenier. Two seasons ago, the Wizards welcomed back members of the 1978 Bullets championship team in an unforgettable weekend. Unseld was unable to attend but was still a part of the video tribute.
Unseld is survived by his wife Connie, who opened Unselds School in 1979 which is a co-ed private school in southwest Baltimore. Connie and their daughter Kimberly serve as teachers at the school, which has a daycare program, nursery school and a kindergarten to eighth-grade curriculum. Wes’ son, Wes Unseld Jr. is currently the assistant coach of the Denver Nuggets.
He may be gone but his legacy will forever live on as the current Wizards will look to one day replicate the same success of that 1978 Bullets team.