SNIDER: Wes Unseld was a man's man

Rick Snider
June 02, 2020 - 11:43 am
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Wes Unseld was the cornerstone of the Washington Bullets' great teams of the 1970s. One championship, four finals appearances and 12 straight playoffs – the franchise hasn't been a real contender since his 1981 retirement.
 
Unseld died on Tuesday after a lengthy illness. He was a fighter to the end. A man who collided with titans of the game wasn't exiting life easily. It spoke to his grit.
 
Along with Elvin Hayes, Kevin Grevey, Phil Chenier, Bobby Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard, Washington owned the NBA in the '70s, though the 1978 championship was a stunning upset. Washington was a basketball town and the Bullets and Redskins equally shared the market thanks to Unseld.
 
Unseld could throw a rebound the length of the court to a teammate on the fastbreak for quick points before the center's feet returned to the floor. He was a tower of strength. Unseld only averaged 10.8 points over 13 seasons, but his 14 rebounds were the true value. He even averaged a staggering 3.9 assists per game, unheard of by a center.
 
Unseld was an impact player from day one when debuting as the No. 2 overall pick in 1968 by the Baltimore Bullets, with eight points and 22 rebounds. He took a last-place team the previous year to 57-25 while averaging 18.2 rebounds. He won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards.
 
Unseld retired in 1981. The man of bone-jarring picks was later named to the Hall of Fame and one of the NBA's 50 greatest players.
 
That's the Wes I choose to remember. Not the one in retirement who, after six seasons in the front office, coached from 1988-94. Like many great players, Unseld couldn't teach his personal style of play. The Bullets were 202-345 (.369 percent) under Unseld. If you thought Ted Leonsis kept general manager Ernie Grunfeld too long, past owner Abe Pollin loved Unseld like a son. It took a 24-58 season to make a change.
 
Unseld's scowl on the court made him seem like a scary figure. He was anything but that. Covering the team in 1991-92 for the Washington Times, I saw someone who was tough but caring. Oh, he would wing a ball out of nowhere at a reporter's head at practice and laughed as we ducked. Unseld was just having fun in a rough way that back then was permissible.
 
Once during practice, a player leaping for a rebound had his legs taken out and landed horizontally on the court. It was the only time I've seen a pro athlete crying in pain. I mean, major sobs. Unseld came over, picked the guy up and said, "Stop crying, you big baby." I worried the guy had broken his back or something and shouldn't be touched, but Unseld was right. The player wasn't really hurt.
 
Who knows if there would be a Washington Wizards today without Unseld. They might have faded away in Baltimore. Without him, they've certainly faded as contender.
 
Rest in Peace, Wes. You gained everything you could out of life.

Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @Snide_Remarks

Related: Bullets great Wes Unseld dead at 74