Wes Unseld Jr. never lost faith in his journey to becoming an NBA head coach
The Wizards coach talks about his father’s legacy, his path starting as an intern and the lessons learned in his first season in Washington
The late Wes Unseld Sr. is widely known as the greatest player in Washington Bullets-Wizards franchise history. He was named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team, is one of the top rebounders in league history and the African American pioneer also held positions as vice president, head coach and general manager with the Bullets and Wizards.
So, what did that mean for his son’s dreams of becoming an NBA head coach?
That Unseld legacy didn’t open the door any quicker. It took Wes Unseld Jr. 15 years as an NBA assistant coach (and six head-coaching interviews) before he came home to become the Wizards’ head coach in July 2021.
“You have to fight that doubt that sometimes creeps in,” Unseld Jr. told Andscape. “ ‘Are you ready?’ Or, ‘Are you good enough? What’s the next step?’ But I stopped worrying about it, honestly, probably about five or six years ago.
“I’m good where I was, and I put all that other stuff aside and stopped chasing the what-ifs. Just be the best version of yourself in that job. And when I did that, good things started to happen. So, maybe there’s something to it.”
Unseld Jr. said that his father thought it was important that his son learn the entire business as an intern with the Wizards if he ever wanted to work for an NBA franchise. The former Johns Hopkins University star did just that as he made copies of press clippings for Washington front-office members and ran errands, worked in marketing and in the media room, and even played the mascot when needed in a pinch.
Unseld Jr. became a personnel and advance scout for the Wizards for eight seasons and was an assistant coach for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics before becoming a full-time assistant coach with the Wizards in 2005.
The 46-year-old was an assistant coach with the Wizards (2005 to 2011), Golden State Warriors (2011 to 2012), Orlando Magic (2012 to 2015) and Denver Nuggets (2015 to 2021). Unseld Jr. interviewed for NBA head-coaching positions five times while working as an assistant coach under Michael Malone with the Nuggets.
“I interviewed 26 people. We went through rounds and rounds, and each time everyone kept coming back to Wes. He’s fantastic, meticulous, thorough, thoughtful, very accountable and he knows the game inside and out.”— Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard on hiring Wes Unseld Jr. as head coach
Even with all that hard work, Unseld Jr. was still worried that naysayers would think he landed the Washington job due to nepotism.
“I said: ‘Wes, you can’t control what people think. We all know here you’re getting this job on your own merit. The fact that you get to go back to the franchise where your father was one of the 50 greatest players of all time that you grew up with, you get to go home near your mother and your sister, this is a terrific scenario and one you have to take advantage of, ’” Malone told Andscape.
“He is more than capable. He more than paid his dues. The patience paid off.”
The rebuilding and injury-plagued Wizards have struggled this season with a 35-44 record and three-time NBA All-Star Bradley Beal limited to 40 games after having season-ending wrist surgery. The good news for Washington is Beal is expected to sign a five-year, $241 million extension and stellar newcomers Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma are also expected to return.
Beal and Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard are also happy about the return of Unseld Jr. to Washington.
“I interviewed 26 people,” Sheppard said to Andscape. “We went through rounds and rounds, and each time everyone kept coming back to Wes. He’s fantastic, meticulous, thorough, thoughtful, very accountable and he knows the game inside and out.”
Beal said to Andscape: “This is 20-plus years working in the NBA before he had an opportunity to coach. He’s overachieved his tenure. He should’ve got a chance a minute ago.”
The following is a Q&A with Unseld Jr. in which he talks about his father’s impact on and off the court, his lengthy journey to becoming an NBA head coach for the first time, the state of Black NBA head coaches, the future of the Wizards and much more.
How big is the Unseld name in Washington, D.C.?
It carries a lot of weight obviously in the city that I work for, maybe more so than elsewhere. But every day you learn more and more of the impact he had not only on the organization, but on people. There’s been so many people that reached out, not only since he passed, but since I’ve gotten a job, and touch on that legacy, and touch on those unscripted moments, whether it’s a fan that met him back in the ’70s when he was a player or someone that crossed paths with him in the last few years. But I’ve heard enough of the positive things, so that, in itself, is impactful for me.
What were your earliest memories being around your dad while he was a coach?
We had a little film room in the house. He would kind of hunker down, watching film, preparing for next opponents. I’d sneak in there and I didn’t want to bother him or disturb him. I’d try to watch the games and he would just watch it in real time and be able to diagram stuff and write his notes. And it was moving too fast for me. I couldn’t quite grasp it because I was used to watching it as a fan.
I was probably in junior high school, high school. And I’m watching how’s he picking all that up so fast … I saw how the wins and losses started to affect him, his health and overall well-being. I was like, I don’t want to do that. That’s not for me.
What do you remember was his biggest triumph and his darkest day as a coach?
The triumphs were more after the fact. The relationships he established with players. The former players. The impact he had on their lives, and it went beyond basketball. If you played for him, you were family. He would really lookout for the guys and go above and beyond and make sure that they were in a good place. But the darkest day, you could start seeing it wear on him and he wasn’t sleeping. It just starts to consume you. He played the game at a high level and so were his expectations for the guys he coached. He held them to a higher standard. And when they didn’t have that, it bothered him.
So why didn’t those memories deter you from coaching?
It wasn’t really in the cards for me at first. I didn’t think about [coaching] as an end-all. It was supposed to be a kind of a year sabbatical and then go back to grad school. I kind of got drawn into it, but I never looked at it as like one day I would be head coach. Wasn’t even on my radar.
“I saw how the wins and losses started to affect him, his health and overall well-being. I was like, I don’t want to do that. That’s not for me.”— Wes Unseld Jr. on the earliest memories of his father, Wes Unseld Sr., as a coach
What was your dream?
Honestly, I wanted to work in the financial world. If I had a dream, it’d be like, I want to run my own hedge fund. But when you played the game, you don’t lose that competitive spirit. And then you get away from that, this is kind of an outlet, an inroad back to that. You’re just close enough. And once you get back into it, it kind of piques your interest.
How did you get your start coaching?
Well, when I started as an intern [for the Washington Wizards], I was going to take the year off after I graduated. I interned the previous summer, interned the summer after I graduated. The plan was to take the year off and just do some personal stuff, and before I got that job, my internship was, ‘Hey, if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to learn the whole business.’ So, I interned for a couple months in marketing, sales, PR, you name it, I did it. And at the time I didn’t understand the significance of that.
It gave me a sense of the hundreds of people that come to work every day to make that product work. So, it gave me a lot of insight into the business itself, the business of basketball and the day-to-day operations of it.
What was the funniest little thing you had to do?
Oh, I did everything. I served food in the press room, did lunch runs, washed cars for front-office execs. We used to have to go to a 7-Eleven first thing in the morning, get all the newspapers, go to the sports section, cut out all the sports clippings, fold it, copy front and back, put it, bind it and make sure every executive had a copy before noon. It would take three or four hours to do that. And now you just go to [an NBA news website] and you’re like, ‘There it is.’ We did everything. I threw on the mascot uniform. I did everything.
Where did you wear the Wizards’ mascot uniform?
It was an appearance for a player. We were trying to re-sign a player, but I’m not going to say his name, but, yeah. Back then, I think the mascot’s name was Hoops. It was like a big basketball hoop with a head on it. I don’t know what the problem was with the person that was the mascot that day. But it was like a last-minute thing to put on the mascot uniform.
“Oh, I did everything. I served food in the press room, did lunch runs, washed cars for front-office execs. … I threw on the mascot uniform. I did everything.”— Wes Unseld Jr. on working as an intern for the Washington Wizards
What did your dad say when you told him you wanted to pursue coaching in the NBA?
My dad pretty much told me I was crazy. And he’d already retired by the time I made that transition from scout to behind the bench to being in with the team full time. But he said so jokingly, he was like, ‘You’re an idiot,’ having seen some of the things that he’d gone through. But he was also encouraging. He’d watch games and give me some feedback and we’d talk about it a little bit. It was always good because he’d been in it for so long. We had that relationship where you have something else in common. We’d just kind of chop it up and he would give me his thoughts and opinions, how we saw things.
What do you consider your first real experience as an assistant coach?
Well, it’s funny. I was still an advance scout at the time. And I would do a lot of the game preps and I would always be in the meetings with the coaches and give them my thoughts on everything. I would always walk them through the game plan and give them all my thoughts, this, that and the other. Then they gave me a curveball. We’d go out on the floor, we’d start to shoot around and then the head coach, Eddie Jordan, turns to me, he is like, ‘All right, you do it.’ So, I didn’t know I was going to do it. I certainly wasn’t prepared to do it and I fumbled my way through it and we kind of laughed about it.
They were great because they would always try to empower me and give me a voice, give me an opportunity to do things. But it also kind of stuck out to me, it’s like you’ve always got to be prepared. You’ve got to be ready. And that’s when I think I really started to dive in and take things more seriously on that front, as far as owning your voice and being comfortable being in front of the group and taking command of the room.
“It’s a network business, just like any other business. And if we as minorities don’t have the network, you’re not given or at least allowed the opportunity to get in front of the decision-makers. I don’t think it’s subconscious bias. It’s just more of a systemic issue where those doors haven’t been opened yet.”— Wes Unseld Jr. on the state of Black coaching in the NBA before this season
When did you think you were ready to be a head coach?
Probably about three, four years ago. And I think a lot of that coincided when I started getting the opportunities to interview. Michael Malone’s been great as far as giving me opportunity. He gives all of his assistants opportunities to coach and work, but just leaning on me as much as he did helped me. And you got to be ready, prepared and organized. And anytime he got thrown out [of a game] and I had the opportunity to step in his shoes for those moments. So, it gives you a little preview as far as how this thing goes.
You interviewed for NBA head-coaching jobs five times before being hired by the Wizards. Did you ever start losing faith?
No. And the thing was, I knew I was close. But I didn’t worry about it because I was in a good position. I’m like, ‘It’s great if it happens, if it doesn’t, so be it.’ But you’re with a great organization and around good people. You have plenty of opportunity and you’re doing well financially, so it’s not the end-all. So, I think that there was a level of comfort, knowing that I was in a good place, in a place that I loved, around good people and a team that was having a lot of success.
Prior to the NBA offseason of 2021, the number of Black NBA head coaches was low. Then, that all changed when seven of eight head coaches hired last offseason were Black, including yourself. What were your thoughts when the number of Black NBA coaches was low?
The initiative the NBA was taking was it was the priority for organizations to bolster minority representation. But part of the problem is it’s a network business, just like any other business. And if we as minorities don’t have the network, you’re not given or at least allowed the opportunity to get in front of the decision-makers. I don’t think it’s subconscious bias. It’s just more of a systemic issue where those doors haven’t been opened yet.
Wes Unseld Sr. is a Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer, the patriarch of the Washington Wizards/Bullets, a former head coach, vice president and general manager for the franchise, an NBA champion in 1978, the NBA Most Valuable Player in 1969, a five-time NBA All-Star, a former NBA Rookie of the Year and one of the greatest rebounders in league history. But more important, he is your father. What comes to mind when you think about his passing at the age of 74 on June 2, 2020?
With COVID, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to be there. Being as far away as I was [in Denver], every time you get a call late at night, it’s always the first thing you think of, because he had been ill for some time. But I’d been home a couple times that summer and when I got the call that he wasn’t doing well, I was able to get home, spend time and actually be in the hospital when he passed. So, just having those last moments, I thought they were of comfort to me, obviously. But I think he was aware of it, and he was responsive to us. So, I think there was a level of comfort for him as well.
How much do you miss your father?
A lot. There’s a huge void there, and it’s weird. Because of the distance, we didn’t get a chance to see each other in person a lot, but he would FaceTime quite often with the kids. I’d call him twice a week and we’d chat, talk, but you just miss those moments. And there still are times where you know he’s not here, but your instinct is to grab the phone and dial his number and it dawns on you again that that’s not possible.
Tell me about the phone call you received from Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard when he told you that you would be the next head coach.
We were in town, and I’d already had two meetings with Tommy, his staff and ownership via Zoom. And we were going to meet in person. It corresponded with me being in town, anyway, because we were trying to get home before the end of summer, wanted to bring the kids home to see my mom. Last time we were home was when my dad had passed. So, we’re staying at my mom’s place and the kids are having a good time in Westminster, Maryland.
I was still kind of in the mix in Orlando. And so, I was constantly on the phone, talking to different guys, talking to my agent, this, that and the other. And the kids are getting restless. So, I said, ‘Look, I need to make one more phone call and we’ll go out for ice cream, I promise.’ So, I finish that call, I’m on my way upstairs and phone rings again. So, I’m trying to find a quiet place to talk. I wind up in the laundry room of my mom’s house in the basement, out of all places.
I’m just trying to go find somewhere and that was the closest place I could go. And Tommy was talking, talking, and I thought it was just another conversation. We’d been talking at length over that span, two or three times a day. So, I didn’t think anything of it. He finally just gets to it and offers me the job. I was of course quite excited, but I’m thinking, this is not how this is supposed to play out. In your mind, there’s supposed to be this grand moment. And I’m in the basement of my mom’s house, in the laundry room. So that’s pretty much how it played out.
I’m sure you wish your dad could see this.
Oh, gosh. He would have been so excited. I can imagine, more excited just because we’d be coming home, being close and close to his grandkids. And that’s probably the most important thing to him and my mom is being able to spend time with them.
Working for Washington, what does that mean to you?
It’s still surreal, honestly. It’s where everything started for me 24 years ago. And it’s not lost on me, there’s only 30 of these [head-coaching jobs] in the world. The fact that I have one is remarkable in itself. The fact that it happened here makes it that much more special. It’s just because it also is where I got started, but also that legacy component, it’s real.
Is it hard not to notice your father’s retired No. 41 jersey in the rafters at Wizards home games?
Obviously during the press conference, introduction, the whole night, I made an effort to take some time. Since then, I haven’t really had an opportunity. When they did the bust reveal of my father, that was really touching because I hadn’t seen any other renderings up until the final product.
What is the biggest thing you learned this season?
How important communication is to the group. Not just to players, but to the staff as well. Collective messaging and individual conversations are a must. They need to hear from me directly every day, and it’s not always about basketball. Having a direct line of communication and being able to be open and honest with each other develops a deeper personal connection and that’s what helps extract the best versions of ourselves.
What was the biggest triumph you found in your first season coaching Washington?
The biggest triumph isn’t found in our win-loss record. It’s knowing we’re building and growing in the right direction. We’ve been through a lot this season but still find joy and purpose in what we do. You can feel the collective spirit and see our connectivity, which means we’re on the right track. That’s something we can be proud of.