This morning, the most significant person in Bullets/Wizards franchise history died. Wes Unseld was 74, and according to family members, had been suffering from health issues, including pneumonia. Unseld was not only a star player for 13 seasons, but also the team’s head coach from 1987-1994, and as general manager from 1996-2003.
The franchise’s only MVP is also the only player besides Wilt Chamberlain to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. The five-time All-Star is in the top 10 of every major offensive category in franchise history (except three-point shots), and has played the most games in franchise history.
Unseld played center despite being listed at 6’7″, making him one of the greatest undersized centers of all-time. A large body under the basket, Unseld was still able to beat his taller opponents to rebounds. According to ESPN, his 13,769 rebounds are the most by a player 6’8″ or shorter.
His outlet passes were also revered around the league. His ability to come down with a rebound, and instantly fling the ball to a streaking teammate created plenty of fast break points. In fact, his 3,822 assists are second-most in franchise history behind John Wall, whose position specifically calls for setting up teammates (unlike Unseld’s).
In 1978 alongside Elvin Hayes, Unseld led the Bullets to their first and only NBA championship. He also played in three other NBA Finals in the 1970s, but fell short all three times (’71, ’75, ’79). The Bullets/Wizards have not been to the Finals since that last appearance in ’79.
As one of the greatest players of the 1970s, Unseld was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988, and his jersey (No. 41) is one of five retired by the franchise. He was also named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time team, which listed the 50 greatest players in league history in 1996. From second overall pick, Rookie of the Year and MVP to Finals MVP to Hall of Famer, Unseld stuck with the Bullets throughout, achieving just about everything one could hope to in the NBA.
Unseld played long before I was born, so I was never able to truly appreciate his game in real time, but hearing stories and watching game clips online made me understand his greatness in an era often overshadowed by the Bird-Magic rivalry of the 1980s. The Bullets aren’t exactly a prominent franchise in league history, but that should not take away from Unseld’s legacy.
Aside from basketball, Unseld worked with his wife in creating Unselds School in Baltimore, where he would assist in anything, from office work to field maintenance, and even coaching basketball. A prime example of his selfless personality, Unseld was known as a great leader and friend both on and off the court.
Unseld will always be remembered as an all-time great player in the Baltimore-Washington area, but perhaps more importantly, as an incredible person who did so much to help improve the community. Rest in Peace, Wes Unseld.
(Cover Photo Credit: Getty Images)