Basketball great Wes Unseld flew off to his great reward today at the age of 74, having endured several years of poor health before his passing. The NBA Hall of Famer was one of only two players (Wilt Chamberlain being the other) to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season. He spent his entire playing career (1968-1981) with the Baltimore-Capital-Washington Bullets (now the Wizards), playing more games for the team than any other player, and capping his career with the franchise’s only NBA title in 1978. Unseld then spent his entire post-playing career as an executive and coach with the Bullets, making him, more than anybody else, the life-long face and soul of the franchise.
I started following Unseld avidly in 1973. We lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time, chasing my father’s Marine Corps career up and down the East Coast. The Bullets had just moved from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland, playing their first season as the Capital Bullets before adopting Washington as their home city in name, if not geography. Unseld and Elvin “The Big E” Hayes were the heart of the Bullets’ great 1970s teams, with Hayes racking up the points and Unseld owning the paint and dishing out lightning-strike assists like nobody’s business. He was solid and strong, routinely holding taller players at bay and regularly featuring at or near the top of the league’s rebounding leader board. Formidable, for sure.
I count the experience of watching the Bullets win the 1978 title in a thrilling seven-game series against the Seattle SuperSonics as one of the most memorable moments of my personal sports fan history. It’s right up there with watching Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in my lifetime (I was in my 40s when it happened), the Kansas City Royals winning the 1985 World Series through a nearly-laughable series of fluke calls and games, and the Washington Capitols finally getting past their nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins and winning their first (and also only) Stanley Cup a few seasons back. I can still rattle off most of the roster of the 1977-1978 Bullets without checking references, so invested was I in their activities and successes that season. We were living at Mitchel Field on Long Island at the time, so I was the only one celebrating much in my neighborhood when they won, but it still felt wonderful, and I still have great affection for the players who delivered that moment, Unseld (who won Finals MVP honors) first and foremost among them.
So I lift a virtual toast to the memory of Wes Unseld this morning and hope you’ll join me in remembering one of the greatest players of his game, an epic sporting presence who made everybody around him better than they were in his absence. It would be a much more fitting tribute if I could go out and set a hard pick on somebody in the paint today, but, you know, social distancing and suchlike as COVID-19 owns the lane right now, alas.