For six seasons, through 1974, Willis Reed of the New York Knicks and Wes Unseld of the then Baltimore (and Capital) Bullets went at each other, mano à mano, in one of the NBA's more gladiatorial confrontations. Neither of the teams was ever far from first place, and Reed and Unseld, dominant centers both, never seemed to be that far from each other in the way they approached the game. Reed, at 6'10", was taller and had a feathery jump shot, while Unseld was a 6'7" bull moose who forged his reputation on rebounding, pick setting and outlet passing. But as the years rolled by they came to symbolize the same virtues: hard work, dedication, strength, loyalty, constancy, courage. And they commanded a lasting respect that is atypical around the NBA, even for great players.
In their present and somewhat parallel situations, that respect will get them a morning newspaper, provided they also throw in a couple of bits. Reed, 45, is the head coach of the New Jersey Nets, while Unseld, 42, holds the same position with the Washington Bullets, the franchise he joined two decades ago out of the University of Louisville. Both were summoned as in-season replacements to energize two tired old acts in the tired old Atlantic Division.
And, yes, there are signs that the rejuvenation process might be starting in both of those urban twilight zones, Landover, Md., and East Rutherford, N.J. Unseld is 20-18 since taking over for Kevin Loughery on Jan. 5, and at this writing the Bullets were a game behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Reed, meanwhile, has forged a 5-6 record since getting the Nets job on Feb. 29, including a 117-107 win over the Celtics at Boston Garden on March 2. At the very least, the two teams are out of the roll-over-and-die doldrums that preceded both hirings.
But early returns, as we know from the Iowa primary, can be misleading, and each coach faces major problems. Unseld, a rookie, must determine if the presence of his three established stars, Moses Malone, Jeff Malone and Bernard King, add up to one contending team or merely to three different average ones. And the situation for Reed, already a once-fired head coach (by the Knicks in 1978), can be summed up thus: He's only eight or nine players away from a championship.
March 28, 1988
"I didn't take the job because it was easy," said Reed last week. As for Unseld, he's not quite sure why he took the job at all.
Unseld lifts a Reuben sandwich to his mouth, then lowers it, lost in thought. "Wait a minute," he says. "Did I sign a contract? I don't even remember." Unseld is assured of the fact that, yes, at some point, probably at the beginning of the season when he was an assistant, he must have signed a coaching contract, because one is on file with the NBA office. He shrugs and resumes eating his lunch at Faunsworth's, a bar and grill down the road from the Bullets' offices in Landover.
Unseld's relationship with Bullets chairman and owner Abe Pollin is such that details like contracts and salaries are never an issue. Except for his rookie year, when he hired an agent, Unseld and Pollin always came to terms with a simple handshake. That system continued after Pollin named Unseld, on the night of the Wes's retirement ceremony in 1981, vice-president of both the Bullets and the Capital Centre.
At various times since then, as Unseld tended to mostly nonbasketball affairs for the Bullets—such as community relations, marketing and promotion—he would be asked why he didn't get into coaching. His eyes would narrow, his face would become one big scowl, and he would give his standard answer: "Because I'm not interested." He did tutor his protègè, former Bullet (and now Piston) Rick Mahorn, but their earth-moving workouts took place away from the spotlight, at a playground near Bowie State College. And last season Unseld came to training camp, at Loughery's request, to work with the Bullets' big men, but it was strictly on a temporary basis. His front-office job, his charity work and his family (wife Connie and two children, Kimberly, 14, and Westley, 12) kept him busy and content.
Which is the reason almost everyone was surprised—indeed, astonished—when Unseld accepted Loughery's invitation to become a full-time assistant coach at the beginning of this season.
"I haven't quite figured it out myself," says Unseld. "Certainly I had things going through my mind that would keep me from taking it. First, my job had gotten to the point where I could allocate time for my family. I coached my son's basketball team, for example. Second, I liked what I was doing. And, third, being one of the few black executives in sports, I was concerned with the appearance that I was taking a step down to become an assistant.
"But I decided to do it anyway. I had enjoyed working with the team in training camp, more than I thought I would. And my feeling was that I could do it for a year and get out if I didn't like it." Unseld takes a long sip of his iced tea. "Of course, it didn't turn out that way."
The Bullets started to collapse under Loughery on Dec. 22, when they lost 106-102 to Cleveland at home. Four more losses followed, including three in a row at home, and after the last, to Houston on Jan. 2, Pollin decided to make a change. As always, Unseld was foremost in his thoughts.
"Frankly, with the way things had deteriorated, he was the only one who could get the job done," says Pollin. Just to be official, Pollin solicited recommendations from general manager Bob Ferry, but according to Ferry, "Abe really tuned out everybody else." Pollin summoned Unseld to his home in Bethesda on the evening of Jan. 2, asked for his opinions on the team ("I did not paint a rosy picture," says Unseld), then offered him the job.
The pressures that fall upon a new coach were simply not there for Unseld. Pollin told him that the team was his for as long as he wanted to coach—naturally, they didn't talk contract specifics—and, when he didn't want to coach anymore, Unseld's old job would be waiting.
"What Wes brought to this club was stability," says Bullet assistant Bill Blair. "If somebody doesn't want to play, then that person will sit on the bench. Because nobody but nobody is running Wes Unseld out of here."
The man who ran Reed out of the Knicks job in '78 was Sonny Werblin, president and CEO of Madison Square Garden Corp., which still runs the club. The firing has never been a subject to bring out the conversationalist in Reed, but he spoke about it last week.
"My mistake was not taking the time to sit down and talk to Sonny," Reed said. "I had been hired by Alan Cohen [who preceded Werblin], and I did not make it my business to know Sonny's business. That was a mistake, a mistake I would not make today. You have to be aware of who's signing your paycheck." He leans back in his chair. "Anyway, the important thing is that after I was fired, I did something about it. I knew I still wanted to be a coach, and I said, 'Willis Reed is going to have to go somewhere to get some credentials.' "
So Reed went to college, specifically to St. John's, where he was Lou Carnesecca's unpaid assistant for a year, and then to Creighton University, where he was head coach for four years. Despite a 15-39 record in his first two seasons, and despite the onus of having coached not only the unpredictable Benoit Benjamin, but also Kevin Ross, the ex-Creighton player who later gained national attention by reenrolling in grammar school because he couldn't read or write, Reed survived and even prospered in his last two seasons, for which he had a 37-25 record. He had two years left on his contract when he took a pay cut to join the Atlanta Hawks as an assistant in 1985. As Reed says, "I knew I wanted to get back to the NBA."
He spent two "crucial" seasons under Mike Fratello before joining Bill Russell in Sacramento last September. In title he was still an assistant, but in practice he and Jerry Reynolds were more like head coaches in Russell's delegate-the-responsibility system. The Kings went gradually downhill—two weeks ago Russell was kicked upstairs and Reynolds was named head coach. (Incidentally, it was by no means a certainty that Reed would have been hired ahead of Reynolds had he still been in Sacramento.) The Nets' decline had been more dramatic. With his record at 2-13 on Dec. 9, New Jersey coach Dave Wohl was fired and replaced by designated dike-plugger Bob MacKinnon, the assistant general manager. MacKinnon was strictly an interim coach, a position he had previously filled when Loughery (he gets around, doesn't he?) was fired as the Nets' coach 35 games into the 1980-81 season.
Nets general manager Harry Weltman acknowledges that at first he strongly supported Indiana Pacers assistant Dick Harter for the top job. But Weltman insists that news reports claiming Reed was hired by Nets board chairman Alan Aufzien against the G.M.'s wishes are unfounded. "Willis had to win me over, and he did," says Weltman.
Reed is the seventh Nets coach since 1980. After this season Reed has three years left on a contract that with incentives could give him more than $800,000 total. Chances are, he'll earn every penny.
Unlike the Bullets' bench, where only Unseld and Blair hold forth, the Nets' pine is quite crowded. Still in place are two assistants hired by Wohl, Garry St. Jean and Bob Wenzel, as well as MacKinnon. It could be a confusing, not to mention volatile, situation, but that doesn't seem to be the case. "Willis is an open, receptive person, and it's been that way since the first day," says MacKinnon. "He likes input; he wants input. He is not insecure in any way."
"Coaching is more art than science, and Willis has a way of talking to the players, getting them to focus," says Wenzel. As an example he points to the March 2 game at Boston Garden when the Nets built a 17-point first-half lead only to see it cut to seven by half time. "There were lots of ways Willis could have handled it," said Wenzel, "but what he said was, 'If anybody told you yesterday you'd be up by seven at half-time in Boston Garden you'd be rejoicing. So, let's stop feeling sorry for ourselves.' And we played well in the second half and won the game.
"The biggest thing an ex-player can bring to coaching is a knowledge of how to handle the emotional ups and downs of the game. That's what Willis brings."
Unseld presumably brings the same thing. Beyond that, his abilities as a coach are unknown. When Unseld was a Bullet administrator, and even in the three and a half seasons that he served as a color commentator on Bullet broadcasts, he was not a man who studied X's and O's, illegal defenses or even NBA personnel.
"I was a fan, and, like most fans, I really only looked at my own team," admits Unseld. "Information is the most important thing about the game, and it's something I'll have to get better at."
Unseld will also have to make a decision about how far the club can go with Moses, a great center in his day but one who is increasingly a liability because of his refusal to pass the ball against the constant double-and triple-teaming he faces in the middle. A man must really want to be a coach to deal with that sticky situation, and it remains to be seen if Unseld has the energy for it.
Reed, on the other hand, has proved without a doubt that he wants to be a head coach. He did all the grunt work, went to all the clinics, pored through all the old playbooks. But consider the questions lurking in the swampland around Byrne Arena. Is New Jersey a team with only a few holes, or should it be torn down and rebuilt completely? Will Reed admit that the Nets brass made a mistake in the first round of the 1986 draft and get rid of Pearl Washington? And what will happen when Orlando Woolridge, Reed's first cousin, the son of his late father's sister, returns from drug rehabilitation, possibly before the end of this season?
How much better Unseld and Reed will become as NBA coaches is yet to be determined. Their mere presence has to have some effect if only, as Washington guard Frank Johnson says, referring to Unseld's retired No. 41, "because you can look up every night and see Wes in the rafters." Says New Jersey guard Otis Birdsong, "Players recognize players. Everyone here knows what Willis was for the Knicks, the way he didn't shortchange himself as a player, and they know he won't let us shortchange ourselves."
Fine. But eventually their playing careers will be of little consequence and only one question will remain for the fan: What have they done for me lately?
"Look, you only get so many shots at jobs in this league, and most times it's not going to be in what you'd call a great situation," says Reed. "Anyway, what I always enjoyed about basketball was the process, the way things came together." He examines his huge hands. "See, I don't wear my championship ring. [Neither does Unseld.] I don't have to, because what I enjoyed about those years was the process of winning, what went into it. Same thing with coaching at college. I enjoyed the process of building a program. And I expect it to be the same thing here."
For both of these proud warriors, though, this particular process is bound to be a difficult one.