Unseld remains at head of class, if not Bullets

April 26, 1994|By Bill Tanton

Baltimore has never been represented by a classier sports figure than Wes Unseld, who just stepped down as coach of the Washington Bullets.

Unseld, now a hard-to-believe 48 years old, was loaded with class when he came here in 1968, drafted by the Baltimore Bullets. That's a tribute to the parents who raised him in his native Louisville.

Even at 22, Unseld was a man of quiet dignity who respected others and, in return, won universal respect.

As a player he was a marvel, a 6-foot-7 center who, in his first pro season, won the NBA's Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards.

He led the Bullets to 12 straight playoff appearances, first in Baltimore, then in Washington, and to an NBA championship in D.C. in 1978.

Those things you can learn from an NBA Guide. They only show that he was a wonderful player. I'm more impressed that he's a wonderful person.

In the Bullets' heyday in Baltimore nearly a quarter century ago, the big thing was the playoff series against the New York Knicks.

Oh, those games, those matchups, were something to behold -- Gus Johnson going against Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe against Walt Frazier, Jack Marin against Bill Bradley, Kevin Loughery against Dick Barnett, Unseld against Willis Reed.

I can still remember the incredible grace Unseld showed in 1971 after a Bullets loss to the Knicks in Madison Square Garden that knocked Baltimore out of the Eastern Division semifinals.

It was a fiercely fought contest, as all of them were. The Knicks won at the buzzer and the season was over for the Bullets. It seemed like two seconds later that Jim Karvellas was shoving a microphone in Unseld's face and asking for a comment.

And Wes said, calmly, "First, I'd like to congratulate the Knicks on their victory."

Strange that should stay with me all these years, but it was so simple, so sportsmanlike, so typical of Unseld. I don't think I've heard another athlete say that in the 23 years since.

The following year the Bullets were quartered in the New York Hilton during an Eastern championship series that eventually was won by Baltimore. Gene Shue, the Baltimore coach and an early riser, was in the lobby at 8 a.m.

Shue didn't expect any of his players to be up before noon. Suddenly he spotted Unseld moving toward the hotel's front door.

"Wes, where are you going at this hour?" Shue demanded to know.

"To the station," Wes mumbled.

"The train station?" asked the vexed Shue. "What are you going there for?"

"I'm giving a talk at Morgan State today," Unseld said softly.

Shue blew up.

"You mean to tell me," Shue said, "that we've got a playoff game with the Knicks in the Garden tonight and instead of resting you're going to Baltimore on the train to give a talk?"

"I told the students I'd be there," Unseld said.

"Wes, go back upstairs and get in bed," Shue demanded. "I don't want to see you again until at least noon. I'll call Morgan and explain that I've forbidden you to go down there."

Shue called the school and learned that Unseld's commitment was no big deal speaking engagement. At most, there would have been a dozen students present. But Wes had told them a month before -- before anyone knew the playoff schedule -- that he would be there. He didn't care if there were going to be a dozen people or a thousand in the audience. He had given his word. He couldn't go back on that.

Unseld hasn't changed. Now his son, Wes Jr., is a freshman basketball player at Johns Hopkins, where he's a perfect fit academically and athletically.

One night in February, I went to a Hopkins game and there, seated in the front row, was the Bullets coach with his wife, Connie, watching their son.

As I approached Wes, this massive man stood up to shake my hand. Same gentleman. Same Wes.

Wes Jr. is 6-4. Nobody is looking for him to become a big star.

"He may have a growth spurt now," said Wes Sr. "I had a growth spurt when I was 18. But the main thing is, he likes living in the dorm at Hopkins and he's doing well in his studies."

This year for the first time I didn't go to a single Bullets game, not even the ones played in Baltimore. It was becoming too painful.

The team won only 24 games. Wes's teams have lost 50 or more games for the last five years. For three straight years, they've won fewer than 30. I haven't seen Unseld smile in years.

I'm glad he's retiring from coaching. He's suffered enough. He's too good a man to go through any more of this.

NBA coaches come and go with such rapidity that some leave before they're well known. Don Nelson now has the league's longest coaching tenure, six years with Golden State. That's why Unseld's departure creates such a void.

For a generation of Baltimoreans, Wes Unseld is the last link to an exciting era. Though the Bullets left Baltimore, the Unselds never moved away. People here love them for that.

Now Unseld can function as a Bullets vice president, helping owner Abe Pollin to get a new arena somewhere.

He'll be good at that. People love the guy. As Wes says, it's time for another voice on the bench.

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