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 in PressBox’s December 2016 issue.
As scouting reports go, it was unequivocal, clear and concise.
“Wait until you meet this guy, you’re going to love everything about him,” said Bob Ferry, then the assistant coach/scout for the Baltimore Bullets, who would later become general manager after the team moved to Washington. Little did he, or I, know at the time just how profoundly those words would resonate with me.
It was April 3, 1968, shortly after the Bullets took center Wes Unseld with the second pick in the NBA Draft — their “consolation prize” after losing a coin flip with the Houston Rockets, who took forward/center Elvin Hayes, the consensus top player available. It was the second straight year the Bullets lost a coin flip. And as in the 1967 draft, they had to “settle” for second pick, which then was guard Earl Monroe, after the Detroit Pistons selected guard Jimmy Walker.
The report might have been passed off as “puff” for a team desperately trying to shed its loser image, but it didn’t take long to prove to be the best pick Ferry would ever make, as Unseld became only the second player in NBA history to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same year, a distinction he shares with center Wilt Chamberlain to this day. But as I found out during the next five years, the scouting report on the player paled in comparison to the one on the person.
When Unseld was drafted, the Bullets had three owners: Arnie Heft, Earl Foreman and Abe Pollin. As the contract negotiations were ongoing, Pollin informed me he was working on a deal to become sole owner — and if he was successful, he was going to hire me. The first part of that information, of course, became part of my coverage of the Bullets for the Baltimore News-American, but I wasn’t sure what to make of the second part’s possible personal involvement.
It didn’t take long to find out. Shortly after Unseld signed a four-year, $400,000 (total) contract, Pollin bought out Heft and Foreman and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, even though I was on a fast track for the “beat job” covering the Baltimore Orioles. To say it was a hectic couple of months is a gross understatement, as I juggled two jobs while keeping a promise to sports editor John Steadman to stay on board, at least until the Orioles dropped out of the race. It was the same year Earl Weaver made his big league managerial debut, so there was a lot going on.
As the Bullets’ director of public relations/promotions, the person I worked closest with during the offseason was Unseld, which is why I got to appreciate him as a person even more than I did for his considerable playing ability.
The offseason was not the time for a vacation for Unseld. By the time I joined the staff full time, he was already doing clinics on an almost daily basis. He would later admit he put off getting married to Connie Martin for a year so he could test the waters in Baltimore.
“You could never know how things might go, and I felt like I had to check everything out,” he said.
So for his first two offseasons out of college, Unseld did clinics, rode in Little League parades, attended Blue and Gold Banquets for the Cub Scouts, spoke at high school banquets and generally solidified himself in the community. When Coca-Cola came looking for an “honorary” commissioner for the Baltimore branch of the Neighborhood Basketball Leagues it was starting along the East Coast, the company got more than it bargained for — a hands-on, daily participant who made a point to visit each site every week.
For the better part of five years, when he wasn’t dealing with surgery issues for balky knees, Unseld was my one-man assault team when it came to personal appearances. He was reimbursed by the team to the tune of $25 per, meaning he made about $150 per week in the community, when he wasn’t making $100,000 per year on the basketball court.
Wes and Connie married after his second year, and he asked to concentrate on daytime activities in the offseason so he could have most evenings at home. I’m not sure exactly how it came up, but I remember asking Unseld if he had any interest in delivering anti-drug messages to school kids.
It was the early 1970s, and the FBI was running three-day courses aimed mainly at law enforcement agencies, with an emphasis on prevention as much as detection. Unseld got on board and took one of those crash courses. But the school systems were reluctant to let Unseld present and take on an endeavor that might not coincide with their own programs, so a demonstration was set up, and I will never forget the experience.
Unseld was scheduled to speak at an assembly for all the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students at Golden Ring Junior High School. I don’t remember his name, but the Baltimore County school superintendent was there with an army of his lieutenants.
To say Unseld was prepared is like saying he could rebound. He spoke to the assembly of about 1,000 kids for 35-40 minutes, and the silence was so deafening you would hear the proverbial pin drop. When Unseld finished, he opened up for questions, and they came rapid fire, many of them tough ones like comparing adults’ use of alcohol to kids’ use of drugs.
When the session ended, the adults in the room were stunned. There had not been one question about basketball.
What was supposed to be a test run became a no-brainer. The school system’s leaders had seen and heard all they needed.
“We’ll take him every day he’s available — and if there are days he can do two, we can handle some of those, too,” the superintendent said. It was a special moment.
When the Bullets moved down the road to the Capital Center in Landover, Md., and I went back to the Baltimore News-American to take that Orioles’ beat job Steadman had in mind for me all along, Unseld and I had gone in vastly different directions. So it almost seemed like fate when we memorably crossed paths in Seattle in June 1978.
The Bullets were in town for Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Seattle Supersonics, and the Orioles were opening a series against the Seattle Mariners. It was during that rare meeting when I first heard about Unseld’s desire to build a school.
He was in his 10th year, his knees had taken a toll, and there had been some speculation, so I asked him if he was thinking about retiring.
“I want to play one more year and use the money to build a school for Connie,” he said. “She’s had to make a lot of sacrifices for my career, so I’d like next year to be for her.”
I put that thought in the back of my head; the Bullets lost the fifth game to go down, 3-2, in their series, but rebounded with a win in Game 6, forcing a seventh game in Seattle. Wonder of wonders — and I swear this is the only time in all the years I traveled covering baseball — the Orioles had two scheduled off-days before going to Oakland, Calif.
It was another no-brainer. I went back to Seattle and covered the final game of the series, as the Bullets won what is still the organization’s only NBA title. In the final minutes, Unseld was dominant and seemed to own every rebound. He hit the clinching free throws (never his strong suit, a career 63.3 percent shooter) in the final seconds and fittingly was named series MVP.
Months later, they broke ground on Unseld’s School, and even though he would go on to play another three years, his 10th season had been as magical as his first, cementing his position as a Hall of Fame player.
It was also the year Unseld committed his legacy to Baltimore, a city he never left, even though the team did. I guess everything turned out OK.
Bob Ferry was right. I love everything about Wes Unseld.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Issue 228: December 2016
Originally published Dec. 15, 2016