PressBox Writer Dean Smith: Wes Unseld Was My Childhood Hero

I met Wes Unseld at his basketball camp in the Poconos in the early ’70s.

The campers had gathered in the gymnasium and Wes walked toward the basket at one end to demonstrate his signature outlet pass. The only sound was that of his Converse shoes squeaking across the floor.

He tossed the ball against the backboard glass, jumped up and grabbed it. In the air, he turned with the ball above his head and executed a full-court pass that hit backboard at the other end of the court.

Then he did it again.

I attended the camp for five years, and my father, Jim “Snuffy” Smith, was a director. Jim coached as an assistant at VCU, UMBC, Johns Hopkins, Wheeling and the University of Baltimore.

In the early years, when my father lived out of state, this was time for us to be together. The camp moved to St. Mary’s College and then Bowie State. The dorms had no air conditioning and we spent many days in 95-degree heat doing defensive slides across parking lots.

“Just remember, when you are back in the air conditioning on the couch there is someone outside getting better than you,” the coaches drilled into us.

A few years later, I became a counselor and Wes was on my team during the staff pick-up games. He grabbed the rebound, turned and threw an outlet pass to me — about 10 feet over my head.

The Washington Bullets had won a world championship that year (1978) and he was MVP of the series. The headline in The Baltimore Sun read: “Wes is a rock as Bullets win championship.”

Phil Chenier, Mitch Kupchak, Kevin Grevey, Elvin Hayes and head coach Dick Motta spoke at the camp that year.

Unseld had the most commanding presence of anyone I had ever seen. He looked ominous — his brow creased like the lintel above a door. He never had to say a word. It was the way he carried himself. There was an embedded fury in his gaze.

“Do you know how to defend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?” he once asked us. They had squared off in the 1971 NBA Finals and for many years during the regular season. Wes’ tactics were thought to be better than most, given that he was the smallest center in the league (6-foot-7, 245 pounds).

Silence.

He brought a big man down from the audience. At first, he let the player shoot a hook shot a few times unabated. Then he would nudge against the player and step on his feet.

“You’re stepping on my feet,” the big man said.

“No, I’m not,” Wes said, tongue in cheek.

Wes taught me how to rebound. He showed me how to box out as a point guard — to anticipate the path of the ball after it hit the rim and track the feet of the person you are boxing out with peripheral vision.

He explained that size was part of it, but widening the base of the box-out was the key — and it didn’t matter how tall you were. If you had position, the ball was yours.

He tallied 13,769 rebounds, averaging 14 caroms per game, sixth all time in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Jerry Lucas and Nate Thurmond.

He’d always bring me down to demonstrate how guards would steal the ball if the forwards and centers brought it down too low.

“Go ahead and grab the ball,” he would tell me. I would take it from him when he brought it down to my level.

“I hate point guards,” he said. “Try it again.”

He lifted the ball to his shoulders.

I’d reach for the ball and each time his elbow would rest gently on my eye socket.

Stories emerged from after-hours sessions with the coaches:

– Wes and legendary Detroit Piston Bob Lanier had once confronted Bill Walton about not taking a shower for an extended period on their international tour. Walton supposedly explained that he was communing with nature. Lanier responded that this was fine but that he didn’t need to become his own brand of human fertilizer.

– Dick Motta had once gotten ejected from a game so he could watch the Ali vs. Spinks fight.

– During the Bullets’ team meeting after the NBA championship, it was Unseld who mediated the fair distribution of championship winnings.

Wes was a graceful leader with a mean streak on the court and a gentle touch off it. He was my hero and a role model.

There was always one day, late in the camp week when Wes would succumb to crowd pressure and dunk the basketball. It was a gritty and serviceable effort — a box check — but not his main attraction.

Wes often stopped by my room to say good night before lights out.

His camp was the highlight of my childhood. He made my life better.

Dean Smith is a writer for PressBox. His stories can be found here.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dean Smith