Basketball Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld, who overcame a lack of size with a bruising style of play and court vision to earn five All-Star bids and carry the then-Bullets franchise to its only championship, died Tuesday, his family said in a statement. He was 74.
“It is with profound sadness that we share that our adored husband, father and grandfather Wes Unseld passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by family following lengthy health battles, most recently with pneumonia,” said the family’s statement.
“He was the rock of our family — an extremely devoted patriarch who reveled in being with his wife, children and teammates. He was our hero and loved playing and working around the game of basketball for the cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., cities he proudly wore on his chest for so many years.”
Unseld spent his entire 13-year NBA career with the Bullets after being taken second overall in the 1968 draft. He was an immediate sensation: Unseld was named the league’s Rookie of the Year and MVP during that 1968-69 season, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only rookies to achieve that double in league history, in carrying the then-Baltimore Bullets from last place to 57 wins and the top of the East division.
Unseld averaged 14.0 rebounds per game for his career despite being undersized for the center position at just 6-foot-7. He was known for quickly turning rebounds into fast-break opportunities by hitting teammates breaking for the basket in stride. In his Hall of Fame bio, the NBA notes that Unseld’s “outlet passes to start the fast break became legendary.”
In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, Unseld said, “I had to do something. I realized that if I could rebound the ball and get it to them, we would be quite successful.”
“I used to tell them that I enjoyed doing it because I didn’t have to run down the court. I could save my energy.”
Surrounded by a rotating cast of fellow stars — from Gus Johnson and Earl Monroe to Elvin Hayes — Unseld was the one constant during the Bullets’ four conference championships during the 1970s. In 1978, Unseld teamed with Hayes to lead the then-Washington Bullets to the NBA championship against the Seattle SuperSonics, still the team’s only championship. Unseld was named the Finals MVP.
Other trips to the NBA Finals would end in defeat: to Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, to the Golden State Warriors in 1975 and to SuperSonics in 1979. The Bullets’ franchise was the only one in the NBA to make four appearances in the Finals during the 1970s.
After retiring in 1981, Unseld spent six years in the Bullets’ front office before being named head coach during the 1987-88 season. He would spend the next six seasons in the position, once winning 40 games and compiling an overall record of 202-345. He also served as the Bullets’ general manager.
Unseld was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1988, and in 1996 was named as one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players to celebrate the league’s 50th anniversary.