Wes Unseld: The Outlet Pass is His Specialty, 1975

[Several years ago, I interviewed the now-late Baltimore Sun reporter Alan Goldstein, who covered the NBA Bullets back in the 1960s and early 1970s. Goldstein, then in his 70s and still extremely sharp, was one of those easy interviews. He started talking and the stories spilled out. I just had to get out of his way to jot everything down. 

Goldstein: “Funny story. When Wes Unseld reported to training camp as a rookie, he was like deferential to the veterans. Ray Scott was with the Bullets then, and he was pushing Unseld around inside. I guess he though Unseld would take some of his playing time. Gus Johnson, who was kind of the team’s spiritual leader, pulled Unseld aside after one practice, pointed his finger, and said, “If you don’t start hitting back, I’ll beat the hell out of you.”

Message received, and the rest is NBA history. Part of that NBA history is Unseld’s sometimes jaw-dropping two-handed overhead outlet passes to trigger the Bullets’ fastbreak. Unseld had no equal, and neither has the game produced anyone better or probably even close to Big Wes. (Kevin Love mimicked Unseld’s slingshot deliveries earlier in his career, but he doesn’t attempt the outlet pass much anymore.)

Today, it’s rare to find an article that delves into Unseld’s outlet. But below is one of those four-leaf clovers. The great sportswriter David Dupree gets Unseld the Master to explain how it’s done. His article was published in April 1975 issue of Basketball Digest. See you waiting at halfcourt, both hands up and ready to run.]


Most fastbreaks begin—and many end—with the outlet pass, the long throw a rebounder makes to a teammate breaking down the court. When it comes to making that all-important first pass, Washington Bullets’ center Wes Unseld has no peers.

“Nobody taught Wes. You’re talking about somebody who is unique,” Washington assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff said.

“The ideal outlet pass is to the side, about the free-throw line extended,” Bickerstaff added. “But you cheat and inch down the floor more. Some teams take the sideline outlet pass away altogether with their defense, so you have to go to the middle with the first pass, but that’s where you want to go eventually anyway.”

The reason the first pass should go to the side is because there is normally less traffic there than in the middle of the court. Unseld’s technique is marvelous to watch. He uses his size, strength, and quickness to get himself into perfect rebounding position under the defensive boards. He is also thinking outlet pass and fastbreak every time he grabs a defensive board.

“Whenever I get the ball, I take that quick glance down the court,” Unseld said. “In the normal fastbreak, the guards are supposed to flood the sides, but I’m always aware if somebody has released and is open downcourt.

“Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest, but I just look for the color of the guy’s shirt. If it’s the wrong color or the guy is too tall, I don’t throw it to him. If he’s short and in the right jersey, I do.”

Unseld has played fastbreak basketball ever since he was in high school, but even he has improved on his technique. Seldom does an Unseld outlet pass get intercepted, deflected, or miss its target. He usually releases the ball with a two-handed, over-the-head pass or a two-handed chest pass.

“I don’t like the one-handed baseball pass because it’s too hard to control,” Unseld said. “I don’t even teach it in my basketball camp.

“An important thing to remember is that you don’t have to throw a perfect pass every time in order to make the break go. Particularly when a guy is releasing long, you just throw the ball near him and let him go get it. If you have a step on a guy, you are supposed to beat him.”

Unseld also has an extraordinary sense of anticipation that makes his outlet pass all the more effective. “Most guys aren’t able to detect the defender on the outlet pass,” Bickerstaff added. “But Wes does. If the defensive guard is overplaying for the outlet pass to the side, Wes will hold the ball a little longer and let his guard release all the way down the floor.

“If you teach that, you’d have it made. Nobody comes even close to Wes, though. He can stand at one endline and hit the other endline with an over-the-head pass.”

The breakaway, in which a man releases down court as soon as a shot goes up, is the most-dramatic type of fastbreak. Its proper execution often calls for an outlet pass that travels three-fourths the length of the floor. The classic fastbreaks, however, are the three-on-two, three-on-one, or two-on-one.

With Unseld starting it, the Bullets get many of these advantageous situations. Unseld says that the first pass usually goes to Mike Riordan or Kevin Porter. “Phil (Chenier) has a great finish on the break,” Unseld said, “so he isn’t the one you want to start it. You want him at the other end. Ideally, you want to Kevin or Mike just start it.”

Although he is looking for the break virtually every time he grabs a rebound, Unseld said there are still certain teams that it is extremely difficult to break against. “You aren’t going to get many breaks against teams like the Knicks,” he said, because they are an outside shooting team, and they always get back on defense.”

At 6-feet-7, 245 pounds, Unseld is not a tall center, but he uses his weight to make up for his height. Other NBA centers do not look at the outlet pass as being as important as Unseld does. In the backs of some of their minds is the thought that if they grab a rebound and start a break going, they will not get the ball again until they get another rebound.

Unseld has no such worries. To begin with, he is one of the most unselfish players in the league and does not have any hang-ups about scoring a lot of points. He knows he is worth 10 times as many points to his team as he actually scores himself. He also knows that if the break does not develop, the Bullets will wait for him to get upcourt and then go into they’re patterned offense.

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