His jersey's James fame is tough fit for Unseld

Basketball

February 01, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

WE'RE NOT saying Wes Unseld isn't cool, but how bad would a kid want a Wes Unseld throwback jersey?

Granted, the 1977-78 replica jersey is fly. It features the old Bullets logo with the hands outstretched toward a red basketball. It's done up in that eye-popping red, white and blue of '70s double-knit.

"You feel these things and you wonder how those players ran up and down the court like they did. These things are coarse, heavy, hot. But we've tripled sales in the past year," said Matt Bourne of NBA Properties

What would a kid these days risk just to have one of these coveted, old-school jerseys?

A lot, apparently.

Just ask LeBron James, who yesterday lost his high school eligibility, in part, over a Wes Unseld jersey.

James is the 18-year-old high school basketball star out of Akron who was just cleared in an investigation over the way in which he came by his $50,000-plus, custom-fitted Hummer.

The car was kosher. The jersey was not - which seems like a bunch of hyprocrisy.

Consider this: The Catholic high school James played for was allowed to prosper, thanks to James' marquee value. School officials allowed the games to be sold on pay-per-view. It allowed for a string of national cable appearances. The school also hired a marketing agent to maximize James' ability to fill the school's coffers.

Now James - and his teammates - must pay for his mistake of accepting two free jerseys, given to James by a store owner who, apparently, was appreciative of James and the business he brought the store. The incident, first reported on Monday, led the Ohio High School Athletic Association to rule James ineligible. Bylaws state that an athlete forfeits his or her amateur status by "capitalizing on the athletic fame by receiving money or gifts of monetary value."

Value? You better believe there was value in those shirts. One of the shirts was former Bears star Gale Sayers' replica jersey. It sells for $395. The other was Unseld's 1977-78 Washington Bullets jersey. Price tag? Four hundred and fifty dollars.

Unseld pleads innocent.

"I didn't give him the shirt. I don't even have one," he said.

All the money from the licensing deal between NBA Properties and Mitchell and Ness Nostalgia Inc. of Philadelphia goes to the Retired Players Association, not directly to the old players. Mitchell and Ness spokespeople say they are sticklers for research, details, authentic materials and these things make the items pricey. But Wes Unseld's old shirt? For $450?

"I can't even get one of those jerseys," said Unseld. "Some of the people in my office called up [NBA Properties] to ask about them. But they couldn't get any, either, so they bought about six or seven of them. But I don't have one. And I ain't paying no $400-some-odd dollars to get one, either."

Unseld, the general manager of the Washington Wizards, may want to ride this funky jersey story awhile. The tale of his Wizards is less compelling these days.

"We just play good enough to lose," Unseld said, although our favorite Unseld quote this season was about Michael Jordan's decision to start games and not limit playing time since he's going to retire after this season -- allegedly:

"I don't care if he plays 100 minutes. Long as we win," Unseld said.

At their current under-.500 rate, the Wizards aren't going to make the playoffs this season, let alone add any more NBA titles to the one Unseld helped the Bullets win back in '78. It's been a long time since the Bullets/Wizards were winners, let alone champs. Maybe this has escalated the value of Unseld's jersey.

"Hey, I don't get any of that money," Unseld said.

In the constellation of old-school NBA stars, Unseld doesn't figure to burn the brightest over hip-hop nation.

Sure, Unseld was the '70s robo-rebounder. He was as much muscle and iron will as Willis Reed, Wilt Chamberlain or the former Lew Alcindor could handle.

Unseld was thick as a bull and smart as a whip - reading a play while it unfolded, setting teeth-rattling picks, rifling outlet passes. He was on top of the game, ahead of it, which is why he was the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1968-69; was a five-time All-Star who took the Baltimore-Capital-Washington Bullets to four NBA Finals, winning the 1977-78 championship.

But is he the kind of player to whom "da playahs" who set the music-fashion-cultural tone in the rap world would gravitate?

You better bet he is, even if Unseld is slightly aghast over all the commotion.

"I think it started with some rap guys who wore it and then it's the colors. The red, white and blue. The colors have something to do with it. But it's probably mostly from the rappers, and no way can I sit here and tell any kind of things about what happens in rap culture," he said.

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