For Wes Unseld, last Saturday's quiet assault on the Chicago Bulls was just another typical night's work. The big guy played beautifully, managing to draw about as much attention from the crowd as one of the kids hawking Cokes in the Capital Centre, and the Washington Bullets won yet another game, nine now out of their first 11, leaving the rest of the NBA's Central Division an early-season shambles. Unseld finished with just four points, which is what most superstars get before they're warmed up, and he couldn't have been more delighted. "It is not my job to look good," he says. "It is my job to make other people look good." And, the 6'7", 245-pound center-forward could have added, to make other people's people look bad.
Against Chicago, six Bullets finished with more points than Unseld. All that firepower left Unseld free to roam in comparative obscurity, doing what he enjoys most: setting murderous picks, hauling in rebounds, directing a devastating defense, neutralizing the other center—this time, Nate Thurmond—and triggering the Bullets' offense with some of the most amazing passing in the league. There were also the blocked shots, the steals, the forcing of turnovers. After you watch Unseld play, scoring becomes a shallow statistic.
"I have to admit I didn't know just how great he really was when I came here," says K.C. Jones, now in his second season as the Bullets' coach. "You have to be with him to appreciate how much he does. It's that air of leadership. He just does it all. He's so big, yet so quick."
A year ago it was a different story. Unseld's left knee was torn up so badly that he played in only 56 games and then mostly at half speed. Feeling that there were just so many minutes left in the leg, he almost never practiced with the team and limited his warmups. Before one game 200 cc. of fluid were drained from the knee. And he played, though doctors will tell you that that is impossible. What did seem possible was that Unseld's career was about over.
November 18, 1974
The career had started in Louisville where he led Seneca High to two state championships. He was the first black to be pursued by Southeastern Conference schools, and there was a lot of pressure put on him to play at the University of Kentucky. No way, he said.
"I told my mother then," Unseld says, "that if I played in the SEC I'd set civil rights back 20 years. A lot of people felt I should be the first black to play. I told them I didn't have the right attitude to be a pioneer, that it just wasn't me. I have the same attitude now. I feel if someone is nice to me then I'll be nice to them. But if someone isn't nice, well, I believe in talking to them in a language that they will understand. If a man spits on me I'll probably spit back. Feeling like that, I didn't think I'd make a very good barrier breaker."
Instead, Unseld chose to play at the University of Louisville, where he majored in history and physical education, and where he twice made All-America. The Bullets drafted him in the first round in 1968, and he and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players ever to be named the NBA's Rookie of the Year and its Most Valuable Player in the same season. Unseld is the only one, however, to achieve both honors while reading Greek mythology, which he enjoys doing in his spare time.
Shortly thereafter, the Neighborhood Basketball League, a playground association, was started in Baltimore, then the home of the Bullets, and the sponsors asked the team for a player to serve as a figurehead commissioner. "I suggested they take Unseld," recalls Jim Henneman, who was the Bullets' public-relations man at the time. "But I told them Unseld wouldn't be a figurehead, that he'd really work at it, that he'd want to get involved. Unseld was capable of commanding $200 or $300 a day at summer clinics or camps and he could have made $1,000 a week in the Catskills. Instead he chose to spend three years at a nonpaying job because he felt his presence would have an effect. I like to think he touched some of those kids. It's pretty hard to be exposed to him and not have a little of his class rub off."
If there is any way to say no to a youngster, Unseld hasn't found it. One day the big Bullet dropped in for some cold tablets at the Kernan Hospital for Crippled Children, which is in Baltimore near Unseld's home, and where most of the injured Bullets went for treatment. "When I saw those kids," he says, "I felt embarrassed about asking for something just for a cold." He stayed to talk to the children and that was the first of hundreds of visits he has made. The youngsters know him as "The Jolly Green Giant."
Two years ago, Unseld was given a Distinguished Service Award by the Triple "C" Jaycees for his contributions to the community. That same year he was the recipient of the Big Brother Award for Maryland, and Bear Cave 24, a private club of former athletes, named him its 1972 Man of the Year. Making the last award, Earl Banks, then head football coach at Morgan State, said, "When you get to the peak, you've got to reach back and help your brother. That's what Wes has done."
By the end of last season, Unseld needed some help himself. His left knee was all but gone and in May it was operated on. Cartilage was removed, bone spurs scraped away and the knee cap reset. But after a summer of rehabilitation, Unseld was not completely sanguine. "I've got a fear," he said before the season started. "I don't want to overdo it. I'm scared of getting hurt again."
If there still is a fear, it doesn't show in his play. Nor in Washington's. The Bullets opened with a 110-92 victory over New Orleans and then ran through six more rivals before losing to Houston. The record went to 8-1 before a loss to surprising Cleveland early last week. In that game, the second loss, Unseld led the team in scoring with 21 points. "That means we were in trouble," he said. "I shouldn't score that much. I just put the ball up because nobody else was doing anything."
Unseld's return to form has meant, among other things, that Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier no longer have to carry the Bullets by themselves. The team offense has improved and the defense is dramatically better. The result can be seen in one set of figures. Last season the Bullets averaged 1.5 points per game more than their opponents, seventh in the league. This year they lead the league with plus 8.9 points a game.
There is also the matter of depth. K.C. Jones says the Bullets have more of it than any of the Boston Celtics championship teams on which he played. "I don't believe their bench," said Bill Fitch, the Cleveland coach and general manager as he watched the Bullets pull to within five points of the Cavs after being down by 27 last week. "I called two time outs but I didn't want to talk to my players. I wanted to see if the Bullets weren't using six players on that karate defense of theirs."
As icing, the Bullets signed Jimmy Jones, the Utah Stars' smooth, smart All-ABA guard, after the season opened. Jones contends that he became a free agent when the Stars did not properly exercise their option. They disagree, naturally, and the dispute is now in the courtroom. Meanwhile, the Bullets roll on full-bore on the court.
Well, not quite full-bore, says Unseld. "We're just overpowering a lot of teams. We have to settle down, to think more. We have to start putting teams away instead of letting them hang around."
Saturday night the Bullets had a chance to put away the Bulls as early as the third quarter, but at the end there was tough old Chicago, losing 96-89, but still hanging around. At the end of the first quarter, Chicago had been ahead 26-19, at which point K.C. Jones turned loose his bench, led by Jimmy Jones, who has been playing himself into shape, and Chicago was sacked. By the half, the Bullets had a 47-45 lead, and the bench had scored 22 of the last 28 points. By the end of the third quarter the lead had fattened to 77-63, but the Bullets couldn't quite apply the coup de gr√¢ce. They held on to win by seven.
For the night, Unseld brought down 14 rebounds (three from the offensive boards), had two steals, blocked two shots, had three assists and held Thurmond to 10 points.
"He doesn't even think about scoring," said Mike Riordan, the forward-guard out of the Bronx. "Most players, when they get the ball, instinctively look for a shot. Wes instinctively looks for the open man. Totally unselfish. He keeps the ball moving so much everybody gets a piece of the action. Guys love playing with him. He makes everybody else look good. I guess that's why he never gets any publicity. Most people are impressed by scoring statistics. The players are more impressed by all the other things he does, his ability to neutralize the other people. And you have to remember—this guy isn't a superstar just on the court. He's a superstar in life, too."
Riordan grinned. "But I've been working on him," he said. "I even get him to take a beer now and then."