[This article comes from an old magazine called Super Sports. The date is February 1972 (Pete Maravich graces the cover), and the now-late-great Wes Unseld let’s it be known that he’s not a true center and would prefer spending his career at forward. Though Unseld likely had help penning the article, it appears under his byline and offers some interesting observations about the early 1970s NBA. Give it a read. You won’t be disappointed.]
Six-feet, seven inches is hardly a height for a professional basketball player to be if he’s a center. I’m that tall. I’m a center. Few people realize what it’s like being a small giant in the physically brutal world of taller ones. I’ve had reasonable success doing what I do, even if it is by other people’s standards. I was named the National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year, both in the 1968-69 season. But I’d trade in those honors for a world championship of basketball to Baltimore. But slowly, I’m realizing that I am the vital cog lacking, the part keeping the Baltimore Bullets from winning the championship.
For the Bullets to climb the highest peak in the NBA, they need a taller center. By the very nature of the game today, I don’t feel I could adequately help the team achieve what it seeks, at least not as a center. In fact, my presence in the NBA, as a member of the Bullets, hinges on shifting positions. If I expect to play eight to ten years in this league, I’ll have to play forward. With the right man in the pivot and me at a forward position, then, I think, the Bullets could ascend to pro basketball’s highest heights.
Those last statements will probably surprise a lot of people. Modesty has nothing to do with it. What the Bullets did against the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoff finals last Spring substantiates my conjecture. Pro basketball has blossomed into a seven-footer’s playground. Bill Russell proved it 11 times with the Celtics. Wilt Chamberlain proved it with the 1966-67 76ers. Willis Reed proved it with the 69-70 Knicks. And Lew Alcindor proved it last season with the Bucks.
Switching from the hole to the corner has nothing to do with the night after night physical punishment. Every player on each of the league’s 17 teams is subjected to the battering and ramming all over the court. The idea isn’t to get yourself ready physically for the nightly battles. Any game you’re playing, you’re physically ready—or you wouldn’t play. Anybody can be physically alert and able. Coaches and trainers see to that. They get handsome salaries for that express purpose. The trick is to be constantly ready mentally.
It has just become the mental strain to be prepared game after game, if I’m not going to get myself embarrassed on the court. A switch to the forward slot would allow me a psychological edge. As for the body punishment, it’s the same. No one could convince me Wilt’s mammoth arms and elbows hurt less if you are playing forward than center. If I played forward, the mental strain jumps from my head to my opponent’s. Now, the other guy has to get up for me, instead of the other way around. He’s thinking all afternoon in the hotel room of ways to alter my game. My weight, which is now around 245, and strength can work to my advantage. The other team’s forward has to start dreaming up ways to counteract those strong suits.
Strategically, the positions don’t really differ that much. You have the same basic responsibilities. Offensively, you work just as hard for a rebound or to get your favorite shot no matter who’s defending you. Defensively, my man will work as hard to score whether he’s a center or forward. I feel I can guard most centers and forwards equally well.
But the center is like what the name of his position implies—he’s the center of attraction. He’s not only required to check his own man, but he’s obligated to compensate for loose men driving to the basket—his teammates’ mistakes. The final play of our seventh game win over New York for the Eastern Division title illustrates what I mean.
With 11 seconds remaining we held a 93-91 lead. New York had possession. Walt Frazier dribbled the ball downcourt on the left side to begin a play for either Willis Reed or himself. I was guarding Reed on the off side. When I noticed too many bodies between Frazier and Reed—where I thought the first pass was going—I jumped out toward Frazier to prevent him from releasing the ball to Reed. As Walt’s last resort, he spotted and passed to Bill Bradley near the baseline, 10 feet from the basket. That spot, incidentally, is Bradley’s favorite. Somehow, Jack Marin had been picked off and Bill was wide open. As quickly as I could, I jumped away from Frazier at the top of the key and darted over to Bradley who was shooting. Luckily, I nicked the ball, Gus Johnson grabbed the rebound, and we won.
That’s what it’s like being a full-time center. You’re a catch-all for mistakes. And remember, all that happened within 11 seconds.
There were times in my three-year career I thought I’d have the chance to bid farewell to the pivot. When I first joined the club, Leroy Ellis was the center. Leroy Ellis is 6-11 and reed-thin. We opened the season with Ellis in the middle, flanked by Gus Johnson on one side and me on the other. Jack Marin was the sixth man. For a while, the combination worked rather well. We won eight of our first 11 games. But then we had a game against Atlanta, a team Leroy had considerable difficulty with because of the awesome front line. They started Bill Bridges (6-6, 240) at one forward, Lou Hudson at the other, and Zelmo Beaty (6-9, 240) at center. Leroy was getting banged around, having trouble in the rebounding department. It was decided after that game, I’d move into the hole, bringing Marin in to start opposite Gus and having Leroy as the back-up center. So much for that stint at forward.
Coming into last season, a full two years of central duty behind me, I honestly thought my plight was nearing an end. The Bullets’ first round draft choice was George Johnson, a hulking, massive-muscled seven-footer from a tiny school in Texas. The team was so high on him, in fact, the front-office brass swapped drafting positions with Buffalo, giving up Mike Davis, to secure a shot at landing Johnson. But poor George had a history of knee problems, something I tried awfully hard not to think about.
If George somehow developed the way coach Gene Shue had expected, I envisioned my golden opportunity again. George could ease his way into the hole and I’d zoom over to the forward. I talked the maneuver over with Gene, but nothing was said definitely. Hopefully, I would be able to play forward well enough to eventually move over there.
Sadly, George never made it. He spent most of the exhibition season getting treatments on his knees. Anticipating the switch, I dropped from 250 pounds to 235. The loss, I felt, would have helped my quickness. But deep down, I knew I would play center again. I was right. George split the season between the Wilmington Blue Bombers of the Eastern League in Baltimore, where he backed up Dorie Murrey, who is backing me up. I ended up putting the weight back on, quietly going back to the pivot.
The most disturbing fact I learned in my third year at center was all the “breathers” had disappeared. Suddenly, there weren’t any more lulls in the schedule due to mediocre centers. Every team, it seemed, had a better-than-average center. Take Detroit, for example. When I came into the league, two other rookies, Otto Moore and Rich Niemann, and second year man Jim Fox were sharing the job inside. None of them was a Chamberlain in ability. Later in the season, the Pistons traded Niemann to Milwaukee and picked up Walt Bellamy from the Knicks. Bye-Bye vacations in Detroit.
With Bellamy playing all the following season and Moore maturing behind him, the Pistons started making all kinds of trouble for us. And now, with Bob Lanier in there, they’re as difficult a team as any in the league. Look what Lanier’s done for them. They had a better regular-season record last year than we did.
As difficult as it’s come to contend with Lanier, who improved 1,000 percent as the season wore on, he’s not the guy who gives me the most amount of problems. And more surprisingly, it’s not Lew Alcindor, either.
If anything, I seem to do better against Lew. My stats bear this out. I usually score better than my seasonal average against the Bucks. The first year Lew played in the league, I was a sophomore. My scoring average was 16.2; against Milwaukee it was 21.8. I averaged more points against Lew than any other center because he lets me shoot. He waits underneath the basket while I fire away from outside. He’d rather wait for rebounds or dissuade the guards and forwards from driving the middle. It’s almost impossible to drive on him. He clogs the middle like hair clogs a drain pipe.
Consequently, when we play the Bucks, we have to make certain adjustments. A smart team can adapt to the unique situation Lew presents. That’s basically our problem. We’re not always that smart team. Probably our greatest drawback the past season was our inability to recondition our game, depending on whom we were playing. Like Boston; there’s a team we should run against. But we slow down. With guys like Kevin Loughery and Earl Monroe who can effectively drive the middle, we hold a distinct edge. But you can’t do that against Lew. He rejects your shot almost before you can shoot it.
Offensively, Lew gives me trouble. But that’s nothing unusual. He gives everybody trouble. To stop him from shooting is like holding out your hand to stop a car doing 60 MPH right at you. I know he’ll score 30 points no matter what.
Of all the centers in the NBA, Nater Thurmond gives me the biggest headache—and for all the reasons Lew doesn’t. Nate Is the type of player he does everything well. He’s going to score, block shots, rebound and play defense so you’re never able to get a clear shot. He chases me all over the court. That’s what the center position is all about. Anytime you can force a man to make a pass, or at least alter his accustomed shot, you’ve done the job.
Willis Reed is similar to Nate in his overall effect on every aspect of the game. He does everything right. Although he isn’t the consistent rebounder Nate is, Willis makes up for it with terribly accurate outside shooting. At 6-9, he’s one of the best marksmen in the league.
I think over the years Willis and I have played to a standoff. It’s been a see-saw battle. One advantage for me in playing him, though, is Willis at 6-9 is closest to my size. So if I enjoy an edge anywhere, it’s rebounding. And because of his size, he’s not as demanding to play against as Alcindor.
The next toughest guy is really going to shock some people. But Tom Boerwinkle of Chicago at times can be a demon on the court. My main problem with him is his (italics, please) confidence. When he broke into the league the same time I did, he carried 265 pounds and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. He reacted clumsily in many situations and I didn’t have much trouble doing what I wanted. All that’s changed. With his bulk—and believe me, he now knows how to use it—he makes life tough for me. And he is strong! His improvement isn’t due primarily to the better usage of his weight. It’s his overpowering strength. He’s never fallen on me, but the mere thought of it makes me quiver.
The long, arduous NBA schedule is probably my next biggest enemy. Since we play almost nightly in one city, then another, all centers begin appearing with the height of Alcindor, the finesse of Thurmond, and the strength of Chamberlain. I haven’t mentioned Wilt at length, but in all honesty, his overpowering might is legendary. It staggers me.
Recently, I took a long look at how the league is changing, with so many of the big centers now dominating the game for so many more teams. I’m convinced for the Bullets, and me, there still is something missing. I look at all the things I do and we still come up short. It’s easy to look at the team and criticize, but first I have to look at myself to see what I’m doing. As I said before, my ultimate goal was always to bring a championship to Baltimore. It’s like that today, still, but I don’t think I can do it. I’m not tall enough. I can make up for a lot of things playing basketball, but I don’t know how to make up for a lack of height. The key approach to the situation, then, is make me a forward. That can’t be done, however, until the Bullets have an adequate center.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d hate for anyone to interpret this as dissatisfaction or discontent. That’s not the case at all. I don’t mind playing center. I like playing center so long as I’m the best one we have. I just feel we can’t win a championship with me there. Look at the history of the league. When did a team after 1956 ever win a title without the big man? The Celtics won 11 NBA crowns in 13 years. That alone proves my theory.
This season shouldn’t be any harder than it’s ever been. We still have to play the same teams and the same people. Others’ teams have new big men, like Elmore Smith in Buffalo and Howard Porter in Chicago. But we have new faces too, like 6-9 Stan Love, who spent four years at the University of Oregon playing center. We can compensate for any new players other clubs have with our own rookies. And maybe, if I’m lucky, the coach will work Love into the position where he and I can split the chores under the basket. Stan’s a fine outside shooter. All he needs is some additional strength on his 220-pound body.
As for my own future playing the post, like I said, I’m perfectly willing to accept and enjoy the job—so long as I’m the best the Bullets have. I can assume I’d play 10 years in the middle and it wouldn’t worry me that much. The time could come, though, when I have to play forward if the club trades for a seven-footer or injuries prevent me from playing the pivot night after night or I get traded to a team with a legitimate big man.
As long as I’m with the Bullets, I wouldn’t want five or six years to pass with never another chance to make the switch. It would be terrible if I never had the opportunity to play forward and all of a sudden, I had to. It’s not so much I don’t want to play the middle, but I want to be a champion. For that to happen, the Bullets need a better center. Or if not better, then taller.
People tell me how surprised they were the Bullets advanced to the finals last season. It didn’t surprise me. I knew we could. But the championship series with Milwaukee that we lost in four straight games showed how effective that big man can be. The game, and the championship, revolves around him.
–Wes Unseld, Super Sports, February 1972