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An Appreciation

The unforgettable Wes Unseld

Remembering the Hall of Famer and NBA champion who died Tuesday at 74

As the Washington Bullets walked off the floor after their last game of the 1993-94 season — a win over the Charlotte Hornets — Wes Unseld lingered at center court. Once his teammates were gone, Unseld grabbed the public address announcer’s microphone to make a special announcement to the sold-out crowd.

“This was my last game,” Unseld said. “I was going to announce it in the press, but I thought it would be more fitting to tell the fans first.”

Fans roared and gave Unseld a standing ovation. Balloons and confetti filled the air. In that moment, it didn’t matter that the Bullets had won only 24 games that season, finishing last in the NBA’s Atlantic Division. It was a celebration of Unseld, who was — and remains — the best player in franchise history.

On Tuesday, Unseld died at the age of 74.

The 1993-94 season was Unseld’s last as an NBA coach, and it was my first covering the NBA as I received a midseason assignment to cover the team.

Meeting Unseld for the first time was intimidating: I had heard the stories about how he and Bernard King had fought during the previous season and how, in another confrontation years earlier, he had lifted the late Manute Bol off the ground so high the 7-foot-7 center’s head hit the ceiling.

Yes, Unseld was tough. Standing at 6-foot-7, he played center in the NBA during an era where he had to go toe-to-toe with Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. In 1969, he became the only player besides Chamberlain to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season. He used his strength to earn five All-Star appearances. And in 1978, he led the Bullets to their only NBA title and was named the Finals MVP.

Fans will also remember Unseld for grabbing rebounds and racking up assists with the most perfectly delivered outlet passes. It’s a signature pass that is still utilized by Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, whose father, Stan Love, was a teammate of Unseld’s in Baltimore. Unseld was also Kevin Love’s godfather.

The Cavs star, whose middle name is Wesley, paid tribute to Unseld after his death.

While my time with Unseld as a coach was limited during the half-season I covered the team in 1994, I got a chance to know him more as part of the media contingent that covered the NBA’s 1994 trip to South Africa, which included stops in Cape Town and Johannesburg. For Unseld, it was his second straight year visiting South Africa, where the league held free clinics for a nation that earlier in the year had drawn a new constitution that enfranchised black people and other racial groups. We sat in restaurants alongside black South African residents who appeared tentative and confused, having never had that experience. During one dinner, Unseld said he could relate to the stories he heard from the black South Africans, as he had been denied entrance to certain restaurants while growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. (Unseld was the first black player offered a scholarship by the University of Kentucky and Adolph Rupp, but he decided to attend the University of Louisville.)

Unseld, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988, had an ability to connect.

As the coach in Washington, he was occasionally hard on Rex Chapman. But the former Kentucky guard appreciated Unseld’s tough love.

“I learned I couldn’t just rely on my athletic ability in the league, and I had to learn it the hard way last year,” Chapman, who had been benched the prior season by Unseld, told me on the day the NBA legend retired from coaching. “When I came back, Wes and I became very close as far as players and coaches go. I owe a lot to him.”

Michael Adams, the Bullets point guard that season, got emotional talking about Unseld after that final game in 1994.

“Any time in this business …,” Adams said, stopping to compose himself. “… I’m going to miss him as a person and a coach. He teaches young players very valuable lessons.”

Unseld, who became the team’s general manager in 1996, also helped extend those valuable lessons to young children when he and his wife, Connie, launched Unseld’s School in 1978 in Baltimore. The private school is still open with Connie Unseld continuing her role as principal, and their daughter, Kim, working as a teacher. Unseld took pride in his family’s mission to assist underrepresented kids, who got to know him for who he really was: a gentle giant.

At the end of his speech, in front of the crowd after his last game coaching, Unseld completed his remarks with a simple “thank you.” As he walked off the court, one final time, fans shouted his name as Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” blared from the loudspeakers.

Wes Unseld was, indeed, unforgettable.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.