Mild-mannered Unseld dominated center position with grit, guts

Sam Amico

Kevin Love is the best outlet passer since Wes Unseld. We hear that all the time -- or at least we did when Love was in his prime.

There's a reason for that. It's because no one threw outlet passes like Unseld. Few threw their weight around and rebounded like Unseld, either.

And no 6-foot-7 center scored, rebounded and took on the challenge of defending the game's giants like Unseld did.

Yes, Unseld was 6-7 and playing center. And centers during Unseld's era weren't like too many of the centers of today. They weren't stepping outside and shooting 3-pointers in hopes of pleasing the team's analytics nerds.

The NBA was a man's game during the Unseld era. You mixed it up underneath. You kept your feet planted, your butt on the opponent and lunged for the rebound, securing the ball with two hands. You threw elbows, and if the situation called for it, fists as well.

But despite having the size, width and strength, Unseld was never considered an NBA tough guy. He was actually just a big man with a big heart and an excellent understanding of the fundamentals. 

Unseld, 74, died after a lengthy battle with several health issues, most recently pneumonia, his family said in a statement Tuesday.

Those who knew him and saw him play are mourning. He was as gentle of a giant as they come. He was hard-working, polite, quiet and a man who got along with everyone.

He was also a champion.

Unseld was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets with the second overall pick in 1968. They later became the Capital Bullets, Washington Bullets and Washington Wizards, which is how we know them today.

Unseld immediately dominated -- becoming the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain to win Rookie of the Year and NBA MVP in the same year.

The Bullets made four appearances in the Finals with Unseld (1971, '75, '78, '79). Actually, it wasn't called "The Finals" back then. It was simply called the NBA championship series and almost all of it was broadcast on tape delay after the 11 o'clock news.

So a lot of players from that era were almost a secret at the time. But it was stars like Unseld who kept the NBA afloat before the league rode the popularity wave of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

Unseld and the Bullets defeated the old Seattle SuperSonics (coached by former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens) for the 1978 title, 4 games to 3.

Those Bullets were coached by Dick Motta and featured the likes of Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge, Phil Chenier, Kevin Grevey and Mitch Kupchak. The general manager was Bob Ferry, father of former NBA forward and GM Danny Ferry.

Unseld and the Bullets returned to the title series the next season, this time losing to those same Sonics. Then came the Magic and Larry show of the 1980s, and that was that for just about everyone else.

Unseld retired in 1981 with career averages of 10.4 points and 14.0 rebounds in 984 career games, all with the Bullets. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988.

He immediately moved into the team's front office, eventually becoming the head coach (1987-94) and after that, the GM (1996, 2001-03).

Unseld was born in Louisville, Ky., and played his college ball at the University of Louisville, but spent his entire professional career with the Bullets/Wizards.

So Unseld represents that franchise more than any man ever. And his influence on the game can still be felt today and likely will for forever.