Wes Unseld, Hall of Fame Bullets/Wizards legend, dies at 74

June 2, 2020 | WTOP's Dave Johnson remembers Wes Unseld

Hall of Fame basketball player Wes Unseld, who guided the Washington Bullets to their only championship in 1978, has died at the age of 74.

The Wizards released a statement that read in part:

“Wes Unseld passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by family following lengthy health battles, most recently with pneumonia. He was the rock of our family – an extremely devoted patriarch who reveled in being with his wife, children, friends 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 NBA career with the Bullets and then the Wizards organization. In 1968, the Baltimore Bullets selected Unseld second overall in the NBA Draft. In his first year he joined Wilt Chamberlain to become the second player ever to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award and MVP honors in the same season.

From that strong start, Unseld literally and figuratively became the rock of the franchise. At 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, Unseld was one of the best rebounders and defensive players in the game.

With another Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes, Unseld formed a dynamic front court partnership, and the Bullets of the 1970s became one of the NBA’s best teams.

By 1975, the Bullets had moved to Landover, Maryland and the recently built Capital Centre. The team was in the NBA Finals. Unseld and the Bullets lost that championships series to the Golden State Warriors. In 1978, the Bullets were not expected to contend for the title but ended up winning it all in seven games against Seattle.

Unseld was named MVP of the 1978 NBA Finals and led the Bullets back to the championship series in 1979, but this time the team lost to the Seattle.

During his career, Unseld averaged a double-double: 10.8 points and 14 rebounds per game. His aching knees forced him to stop playing in 1981, but he remained with the franchise that would eventually retire his No. 41 jersey.

“We all admired Wes as the pillar of this franchise for so long,” Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said, “but it was his work off the court that will truly leave an impactful legacy and live on through the many people he touched and influenced throughout his life of basketball and beyond.”

Unseld was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988, and named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time in 1996.

Unseld’s journey to the Bullets started in his home state of Kentucky, where he starred at the University of Louisville. He chose Louisville despite becoming the first African American athlete to be offered an athletic scholarship to the University of Kentucky when legendary coach Adolph Rupp attempted to recruit him.

During his playing days with the Bullets, Unseld formed a close relationship with then-team owner Abe Pollin. After retiring in 1981, Unseld initially worked in Washington’s front office and was very active in the team’s community iniatives. Unseld was head coach of the Bullets for nearly seven seasons from 1987-94, compiling a 202-345 record with one playoff appearance.

Unseld moved back into the team’s front office and was active in the planned move of the franchise to downtown Washington, D.C. Pollin consulted with Unseld on plans for a new arena in Chinatown, now known as Capital One Arena. By 1996, he returned the basketball side of the Bullets’ operation and was the team’s general manager through 2003, making only one playoff appearance during that seven-year stint.

Unseld took a leave of absence from the Wizards for undisclosed health reasons in 2003, ending 35 years of continuous service to the franchise. He had both knees replaced in October of that year and afterward appeared at games only occasionally.

After Pollin died in 2009, Unseld said: “I have no doubt that he kept me longer in positions than he should have — and longer than I wanted him to. He was loyal.”

Pollin’s widow, Irene, said Tuesday: “Since 1968, Wes was the broad shoulders upon which our team was built, and his Hall of Fame career and the championship that he helped bring our city speaks for itself. But for us, the loss of Wes is more than that. He and the Unselds are family to us, and when you lose a family member — especially a beloved figure like Wes — the sorrow is unfathomable.”

Unseld was very passionate about education. In 1979, he and his wife, Connie, started the Unseld School in Baltimore, which Unseld was extremely proud of.

Their son, Wes Unseld Jr., was the school’s first graduate and currently serves as an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets. Their daughter, Kimberly, is a teacher at the school.

“What they do here with these young adults is amazing,” said Unseld in a 2017 interview. “That’s why you know that there’s a lot of time, effort and resources, you put into it but when you get out there and you see them and see what they do and what they become, it’s so worth it.”

Funeral arrangements were pending.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations be made to the Unseld School on the Monumental Sports website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

WTOP Sports Director Dave Johnson talked on May 1 with former play-by-play announcer Frank Herzog. Herzog remembers when Unseld and Bullets won title in 1978. Watch the video below.

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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