Note: Wes Unseld died June 2, 2020 at the age of 74. The Washington Wizards shared a statement from his family. This story originally appeared on the cover of PressBox’s December 2016 issue.
Long ago, on wintry nights inside the place we used to call the Civic Center, Wes Unseld, in his Baltimore Bullets uniform, carved images that linger in the mind’s eye nearly half a century later.
There he was, heaving passes the length of the basketball court to the whirling, skittering Earl (the Pearl) Monroe, Kevin Loughery and Gus Johnson, who soared impossibly above the basket as Unseld — in his Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, award-winning season — led the Bullets from last place to first.
There he was, a granite 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, muscling rebounds from the likes of National Basketball Association greats Wilt Chamberlain and Willis Reed and leading those Bullets to four NBA Finals and, eventually, an NBA championship after the team moved to the Washington, D.C., area.
There he was, across 13 Hall of Fame seasons, the death-mask glower on his face ever unchanging, setting picks that could stop bulldozers and forging a career that inspired the NBA, 20 years ago, to name Unseld one of the top 50 players in league history. He retired in 1981.
And yet, all of this pales next to Unseld’s post-playing days.
He and his family have stayed in Baltimore and created a legacy unlike almost any other athlete’s in memory.
It’s called Unselds’ School. Located on South Hilton Street in an undernourished section of southwest Baltimore, Wes and his wife Connie established the coeducational private school in the closing years of Wes’ playing career — and they’re still at it, more than 35 years later, teaching and nurturing children from daycare and nursery age through middle school.
Connie, who once taught in the city’s public school system, is the principal. Their daughter Kim, 43, teaches there. And Wes, whose basketball earnings first got the school on its financial feet, shows up daily to help out.
If such devotion surprises anyone, take a few words from Jim Henneman, whose column graces PressBox. Henneman has known the Unselds for years, both as a sportswriter covering the Bullets for the now-departed Baltimore News-American and later as the public relations man for those Baltimore Bullets.
“When it comes to character,” Henneman has been saying for the past 47 years, “Wes Unseld’s the closest I’ve ever known to [former Orioles third baseman] Brooks Robinson.”
If you need an explanation for those words, then you haven’t been paying attention to the Baltimore sports world since the middle of the last century.
From A Glower To Glowing Guidance
Now 70, Unseld moves a little creakily, and the full Afro haircut he once had has turned grey and sparse. He spent most of last winter in the hospital with illnesses he’d prefer not to talk about, and the other day he was using metal crutches to help him walk through a few rooms at the school.
But his grip is iron-like; his words are upbeat, funny and self-effacing; his pride in this school is palpable and his memories of his basketball days are vivid.
However, there’s an immediate disconnect. For all of his off-court gentleness, in his playing days, there was never the slightest hint of an on-court smile — only that immovable glower.
“That was conscious,” Unseld said, chuckling softly. “Well, after a while, it wasn’t conscious, it was just there. Going back to high school ball, the game was serious business, and I never wanted anybody to know what I was thinking. So I wouldn’t smile and I’d always throw out the image to other players that, ‘I’m mad, and I’ll kick your butt.’
“Of course,” he said, laughing again, “if somebody’d puff up at me, I’d have probably passed out.”
But the game-time scowl turned into a welcoming embrace for the thousands of children who have come through his school. And the backbone of the place comes from the three people whose entire family history leads here.
Connie’s father was a school principal in Louisville, Ky., and so was her brother. She and Wes met when they attended the University of Louisville. After Connie spent a few years teaching in the Baltimore City public school system and their children, Wes Jr. and Kim, were born, Connie expressed dreams of starting her own school.
They opened it near the end of Wes’ playing career with just a couple of kids, including their own. The numbers quickly multiplied, generally with more than 100 children attending each year.
“The school’s like a small country town,” Kim said.
Through the years, since she graduated from Hood College, she’s taught literature, science and social studies here.
She’s taught with insight — and without sight.
Kim lost her vision seven years ago, “initially from a horseback riding incident that pretty much took care of a bad retina situation that I didn’t know I had.” That condition was diabetic retinopathy, in which abnormal blood cells increase in the retina, leading to scarring and cell loss.
But she has continued to teach and stress a philosophy about the school.
“Well, it’s a family business,” she said. “The family’s accountable for what goes on, which means we’re here every day. And it’s about trust. It’s about kids saying, ‘I really didn’t understand this, can you explain that?’ — where they feel comfortable that nobody’s snickering at them.”
Included are children from various economic backgrounds, what Kim calls “socioeconomic diversity.”
“The only thing that doesn’t look diverse is that we’re all of some color. And I say that because some people don’t call themselves African-Americans.” She pauses to consider her words for a moment.
“It’s kind of funny,” she said, “because I don’t know what they look like anyway. Being blind, I have that advantage.”
Support Yours And Help Others
It was Wes Unseld’s money that helped get the whole thing started, and his name was a drawing card. But it’s more than his name; his work here has been vital, too.
“I’ve always been involved,” he said, “but most of the time I just did lawns and painting and that type of thing. Then I actually retired and started doing administrative work.”
“But, from the start, you believed in the idea?” he’s asked.
“I believed in her,” he said, nodding toward his wife.
“And Wes has really contributed?” she’s asked.
“Oh, my,” said Connie, looking toward him tenderly.
“Oh, I want to hear this,” said Wes, laughing aloud.
“To be honest,” Connie said, “I couldn’t exist without Wes — the money behind the scenes, the inspiration. You know, he’s a very bright person. I lead with my heart, but he’s the grounded person.
“Now,” she said gently, glancing his way as though offering him a reminder, “think about what you did. When he was playing, he’d bring books back off the road. He’d always come home with books. He’d come off the road and open a suitcase, and he’d have tons of books.
“He started Kim off. By the time she was 2, she had 300 books in her bedroom. He’d read stories every night to her. And we find that Wes Jr. does that with his children.” (Wes Jr., a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, has been an assistant coach for several NBA teams.)
But Wes Unseld’s books were just the beginning.
“Sometimes,” said Connie, “I’d say, ‘You know, I’d like a sandbox for the school.’ And the next week, he’d be somewhere getting the wood for the sandbox. Or, ‘I’d like a bus or a van.’ He wouldn’t say, ‘I’ll get it.’ He just would.
“Or we’d take the [students] camping, and he’d come with us. He didn’t want us to be out by ourselves. And he’d cook brownies and make things for the children. And when the kids come here in the morning, he tells them, you know, ‘Tuck your shirt in; take your hat off.’ He’s a great stabilizer.”
“Well, I come in here in the morning,” Wes said, “and the expressions on their faces, they’re so happy. And you walk around, and you listen to them talk about their stuff, and it just lights up your face.”
The dedication also comes from Wes’ family history.
He grew up in “the sticks” near Louisville in a family of seven children where his grandfather “plowed up everything. Hell, he even plowed up the front yard. And so we had every vegetable you can name.”
The lesson was self-sufficiency, which passes through the family’s DNA.
Unseld’s father, Charles Unseld, worked for International Harvester. “He was an oiler,” Wes said. “He did construction. I bet you we built more houses than some of these big-time people around here. That’s what I did coming up. I laid brick. I laid block. Taking mud and mortar up a ladder, all that kind of stuff.
“And we had a family, lived nearby, and the parents died, and two of the boys went to an orphanage, which was all white. So there was some trouble with that.”
So the Unseld family took in the two boys, who stayed with them through all their adolescent years — bringing the total children in the house to nine. Now long grown, the two boys are still considered part of the Unseld family.
“And my parents weren’t educated people,” Wes said, “but they were determined that all of us were going to get an education, including Stevie and Larry, the two we took in.”
And so came another lesson, this time of reaching out to help others no matter the obstacles.
Early in Wes’ career with the Bullets, his father, back in Louisville, wanted to build a center to teach young African-American boys “how to lay brick, how to weld, all that kind of stuff. He got some people at Harvester to come in and teach them,” he said.
Wes sent some of his early basketball money to help get the place built. As work was completed, though, arsonists burned it down.
“So my dad rebuilt it. He got ticked off, and it cost me a whole lot more money,” said Wes, laughing ruefully, “but somebody wrote an article about it, and people — black and white people — started contributing money and time and helping out, and they built two or three different buildings for people to work and teach.”
Three Ways To The Top
The Unselds’ School has been serving children for nearly 40 years, long enough that second-generation children now attend.
“I have children of former students,” Kim said. “Parents will say to me, ‘What can I do about this child of mine?’ And I’ll say, ‘Uh, you did that when you were little …'”
She’s without sight, but seven years of blindness have left her with indelible vision.
“Well, there are days,” she said, sighing. “My folks will tell you. But I like what I’m doing. It’s just trying to find that happiness of doing it without seeing it. It was kind of chaotic at first, because you’re always second-guessing your ability to do what you don’t think [blind people] can do if you never lost your vision.”
But she holds onto life lessons first instilled when her father was playing professional basketball.
“The lesson for my brother and me was never, ‘Hey, dad’s a famous guy, so you’ve got it made,'” she said. “Our parents, from the beginning, instilled this notion that you’re going to be something because you’re going to work at it.”
Her father, listening intently, nods his head.
“Dad used to say there were three ways to get to the top of a tall tree,” Kim said, “You can make friends with a big bird, and if he’s big enough to get you there, he’ll take you. Meaning, a lot of these hustlers, people trying to get things the quick way.
“Or, second, you can sit on an acorn. Those are your dreamers. And I don’t know too many people who have met with success sitting on an acorn. Or, you can climb up that tree. And it’s not always a perfect climb, and you might not make it all the way, and there will be bumps along the way, but … “
“You remember that?” Wes Unseld said. His soft voice is full of wonder. Attention has been paid, important lessons learned.
“Yes,” Kim said. Her voice lilts almost musically, a daughter pleasing her father. “Yes, I do. It might not be the way we planned. This blindness sure wasn’t, but it’s part of the journey. And when you do get to that branch, that’s where you make your nest. Because you know you made it. And that’s very powerful, and both my brother and I have always taken that to heart.”
She says she never knew quite how famous her father was while he was playing, until “it became real fabulous to wear ballplayers’ jerseys. To my brother and me, it wasn’t a big thing, because when my dad was playing, they had to do their own laundry.”
Her father nods his head again, recalling a more modest time in pro sports.
“And that meant my brother and I had to take his uniform to the washer and put it in the dryer,” Kim said. “And then take it out and clean the lint thing. And then take it out and fold it. And later, when those kinds of jerseys were going for hundreds of dollars, my brother says, ‘Hey, do you realize what we did?’
“Talk about regrets. We made dad’s old jersey and stuff into tire rags. You know, to clean tires. We tore up everything, thinking it was cool. You know, ‘Dad isn’t going to need this stuff anymore.'”
Big-time sports were changing, and so was the money surrounding the games. Wes Unseld arrived when the salaries were moving from five figures to the low sixes. Now it’s all in the millions.
But he took whatever he had and put his money where it contributed to the world around him.
He left basketball fans indelible memories of one of the sport’s most exciting teams in history.
Remembering the fabulous Earl Monroe and his madcap, stutter-step drives to the basket, Unseld recalled, “There was nothing about Earl you didn’t like. And he not only put the ball in the hole any kind of way, but sometimes you’d find yourself standing there watching. That was the biggest problem with me, just standing there watching him do things. He could do things with his rickety body that you couldn’t believe. And I’m just standing there watching him, and the ball’s right there.”
And then there’s Gus Johnson, one of the first pros to play the game above the basket. “I’d see him do things I didn’t believe people could do,” Unseld said. “So intimidating, so strong.”
The memories come and go. For many athletes, life seems to shrivel up at the end of their playing days.
But, from the beginning, Wes Unseld embraced a larger world and a life beyond the basketball court. And his family has been there each step of the way.
Issue 228: December 2016