Wes Unseld: Most Valuable Player, 1970

[About 10 years ago, I interviewed Ken Jackson. He was the public address announcer at the Baltimore Civic Center when the NBA Bullets were still in town. Jackson, better known today as one of the city’s longest-running radio announcers, chuckled about the days of introducing the starting lineups to the crowd in his low, rumbling, “Number 10, Earrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrl Mon-roe!” Or playing the high-pitched recorded whiz of a speeding bullet—ping-PING—whenever “the good guys” scored.

“You had your regulars. They were the guys who bet on games, and they had their little clique there that sat right behind me. They’d send notes down to me all the time. ‘Hey Ken, what’s the score of the Chicago-Cincinnati game?’ They’re all placing bets as the game is going on. 

“I remember the Bullets were getting blown out one night by the Bucks. We had a little-used rookie who was getting some garbage time, and he intercepted a pass right before the final buzzer. As he went in for the layup, I could hear these guys yelling and screaming, ‘No, no, no,’ followed by the buzzer. He’d just busted the point spread and cost them a lot of money.”

A highlight of the interview was Jackson’s memory of rookie Wes Unseld breaking in with the Bullets. “His first exhibition game was against the 76ers, and Wilt was still there. When they handed out the stats at the end of game, Wilt was enraged when he saw that this rookie from Louisville had outmuscled him for something like 27 rebounds.  

“The Bullets’ next preseason game was against Boston, and Wes snatched a couple of rebounds right out of Bill Russell’s hands. Russell started trotting down the floor, shaking his head and muttering, “Goddamn.” He kept glaring at Wes like ‘Who is this guy? He’s not showing me any respect.’”

By April 1969, “This Guy” Unseld had finished as the league’s rookie of the year and MVP. He joined Chamberlain as the second NBA rookie to pull it off. Fifty-plus seasons later, no first-year talent has replicated the feat. In this article, published in the magazine Basketball Sports Stars of 1970,  veteran Baltimore Sun reporter Alan Goldstein profiles the Bullets’ MVP and shows what a class act Unseld was. RIP.]

Wes Unseld would rather forget the day he first picked up a basketball. “I was walking past the playground one day at Newbury Elementary School back home in Louisville when my grade teacher, Mrs. Dickerson, grabbed me. She told me our fifth-grade team was playing the sixth grade that day, and she needed a replacement for the center, who was home sick. So, she forced me to play. 

“Well, the truth is that I was just awful. I was gangling and uncoordinated and unsure of myself. I couldn’t wait for the game to end, and I didn’t touch a basketball again for another four years.”

Unseld is no longer unsure. Trying to separate the powerful Baltimore Bullets’ pivotman from the basketball now it’s tougher than making a Great Dane part with the juicy steak bone. As Billy Cunningham of the Philadelphia 76ers puts it: “He’s one of the strongest men in the league. Once he gets his hands on the ball, forget it.”

In one season, this miniature oak tree, who stands 6-foot-7 ½, transformed Baltimore from Humpty Dumpties to the Cinderella team of the National Basketball Association. By leading the Bullets to the Eastern Division title, the former Louisville All-American swept both the Most Valuable Player award and rookie of the year honors. 

He is now being hailed as one of the game’s future superstars. But, surprisingly, the Bullets almost passed over him in the 1968 college draft after losing a coin flip to San Diego and missing out on the more-celebrated Elvin Hayes of Houston. 

Bullet coach Gene Shue now says he wouldn’t trade Unseld even-up for Hayes, but he admits that he had his doubts after first seeing him play in college. Shue and his assistant coach and chief scout, Bob Ferry, were giving serious consideration to both Pan-American’s Otto Moore and bouncy Charley Paulk of Northeast Oklahoma as possible first round picks. 

As Ferry recalls: “We heard that Moore (now a Detroit Piston) was another Bill Russell. Both Gene and I scouted him in the Olympic trials. We tried to convince ourselves he was the big man we needed in the middle to make us into a winner. But he didn’t impress us that much.”

A few nights later, Shue and Ferry sat for hours in a rented car in Indianapolis reviewing their scouting reports. They finally decided Unseld was the man they wanted and then had to spend the next two hours over a multiple phone hook-up trying to convince co-owners Arnie Heft and Earl Foreman that the 22-year-old muscleman was worth in the neighborhood of $400,000.

Unseld then had to convince himself he belonged in the same company with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Russell, Jerry Lucas, Nate Thurmond, and Zelmo Beaty. “Believe me,” Wes confesses, “I had no delusions of grandeur when I walked into training camp last year. No one assured me I was going to be a starter or anything else. The Bullets still had a fine center in LeRoy Ellis. 

“I really didn’t know what to expect. The whole pro setup was strange to me. I hadn’t even seen the Bullets play before. For all I knew, I had a chance of being cut.”

But Unseld made quick believers of Shue and his playmates. “He’s totally coachable,” bubbles Shue. “He’s an excellent pro rebounder. He has adjusted so well to this game. He can play defensive center and forward, and when the time comes, he will also do a great job for us offensively. Wes is simply a winning player.”

“If you can call Jerry Lucas a superstar,” comments teammate Kevin Loughery, “then so is this kid. We have two superstars now, Monroe and Unseld.”

“Wes is just beautiful,” echoes frontcourt partner Ray Scott. “The other team shoots, Wes goes for the ball, and the rest of us go charging downcourt. He hits one of our guards at midcourt with one of those incredible two-handed, over-the-head tosses of his and someone winds up with an easy layup.”

Even more meaningful is what the opposition has to say about the Bullets’ new star. “Unseld was what the Bullets needed to become a great team,” comments Boston’s veteran forward Tom Sanders. 

“I guess it was sort of like the Celtics before we got Bill Russell. A lot of good ballplayers, but no one to get those 20 rebounds a game for them. Without a man to get 20 rebounds, teams don’t win in this league.”

But perhaps no one has summed up what Unseld has meant to the Bullets better than Jeff Mullins, the San Francisco Warriors’ All-Star guard. “Unseld is so unselfish,” claims Mullins, “that all he cares about is getting the ball off the board and passing it out to one of his teammates. It’s awful tough to be a selfish player yourself when you’ve got someone that unselfish on the team with you. 

“That’s why I don’t believe the Bullets would have been as well off if they had won the coin flip with San Diego and landed Hayes instead. They already had great shooters like Monroe, Johnson, Loughery, and Marin. They didn’t need another big scorer like Hayes. 

“With Hayes,” Mullins added, “they might still have been a collection of individuals with fine ability. But, with Unseld, they became a team, and he fully deserves the MVP title.”

“Unseld’s a great team player,” says Mr. Team himself, Bill Russell, the former star player-coach. “He doesn’t make any mistakes. A lot of guys can rebound, but they don’t get the ball out on the break the way he does.”

Unseld can get rid of a rebound as quick as Bill Mazeroski handling a double play or Joe Namath firing a long pass downfield. He has made rebounding his specialty since his prep days at Seneca High in Louisville. 

“We were rated the second-best high school team in the country when I was a sophomore,” Wes recalled. “We had some real good ballplayers. To play on this team, you had to do something to impress the coach.

“So, I just started concentrating on perfecting my rebounding. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. So I just got the ball and let our two guards do the shooting.”

Unseld has reduced rebounding to a science—if not an exact one. “You keep your eye on the ball and try to be there when it comes down,” says the Bullets’ chairman of the boards. “Once I have the ball, I look for a shirt. When you do that, you don’t have time to look for a face.”

It may not be the best system, but it certainly works. Big No. 41 collared 1,491 rebounds in his freshman campaign, finishing second only to Wilt Chamberlain, who happens to be a half-foot taller. Wes also averaged a very respectable 13.8 points a game and never lost a minute’s sleep worrying about scoring. 

“I’m always more pleased with my rebounds,” he says. “Of course, if I have a center playing me that I feel I can beat, I feel the other guys should get the ball to me inside. But not so much so that I can score points, but for the benefit of the team.”

Shue is certain that his defensive star can improve his offensive statistics this season. “He’s got a very good move to the basket, a great first step,” notes the Bullets’ crewcut-haired coach. “He’ll work on his outside shot, and that will help him. Soon, he will be able to take the bigger men outside with him, and that will help him, too.”

After winning both the MVP and rookie awards last winter, it’s hard to see what Unseld can do for an encore. When someone suggests that he will become the successor to Russell as the dominating force in the league, Unseld becomes a trifle embarrassed. 

“Another Russell? I’d be stupid to try,” he said. “I’m not built like him, and I don’t think like him, I guess. I really don’t know how good I can be.”

But Bob Ferry has a pretty good idea. “He’s just like a computer,” says the Bullets’ assistant coach. “Just feed him the information, and it always comes out right. He isn’t going to be a good player. He’s going to be a great one and stick out in the NBA for a long, long time.”

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