Wes Unseld: Oh, That Knee, 1974

[Wes Unseld was a force to be reconned with inside the paint for 13 NBA seasons. But heading down the homestretch of the 1973-74 season, his sixth in the NBA, and the Bullets’ playoff run, the forever-stoic, forever-dependable Unseld cracked. In a rare show of frustration, Unseld told a Washington reporter that he was contemplating immediate surgery to repair his damaged left knee and, quite frankly, he might retire from basketball. Between his chronic ankle issues and the constant ache in his knees, Big Wes said he didn’t want to end up crippled during his life after basketball and become a burden on his family.

Though Unseld was dead serious, he was massively conflicted about his final decision. On the one hand, he needed to stand up for himself and his wellbeing. Nobody else would. On the other hand, Unseld took his obligations to others seriously. Among his must-do’s was fulfilling his multiyear contract with Abe Pollin, owner of the then-Capital Bullets. The two had grown close, and Unseld felt he owed Pollin his services, on one leg or two.

In late February 1974, the two reached a handshake agreement: Pollin would pay for Unseld to have his badly inflamed knee checked out by Toronto physician, Dr. Robert Jackson, the world’s expert in the emerging surgical technique called arthroscopy. If Dr. Jackson discovered serious structural damage in the knee, Unseld would have surgery and likely retire. If not, Big Wes promised to continue the season and his NBA career. 

Dr. Jackson and his team spent a day scoping out Unseld’s tree trunk of a left knee. Their verdict: The knee was structurally sound, just badly inflamed and painful. A relieved Unseld flew back to Washington, took some extra time to bring down the inflammation, and soldiered on inside the paint for seven more seasons and an NBA title. 

This article, from reporter J.D. Bethea of the Washington Star-News, profiles Unseld more than a month before that fateful trip to Toronto. His left knee still is covered in a cast, and he’s deeply worried about his NBA career. Bethea’s rare glimpse into Unseld’s psyche ran on January 20, 1974.]

The man obviously was hesitant yet determined as he picked his way between the tables in the comfortable dimness of the restaurant lounge. He stopped in front of the outstretched leg of Capital Bullets’ center Wes Unseld.

“How’s the knee coming along, Wes?” the man inquired.

Unseld looked up from his sandwich and answered immediately. “It’s coming along just fine.” The statement was not exactly true, but it was typical of Unseld. Anything short of an amputation or bubonic plague, and Unseld says he is fine.

The visitor left, and Unseld tapped gently on the cast that encased his left knee. His eyes narrowed under the thick eyebrows, and Unseld was once again a man peering out at the world through a pair of one-way mirrors. Absorbing, calculating, weighing statements made to him and, at the same time, carefully examining his own feelings.

“When this thing happened, I thought it was just a little flare-up,” Unseld said. “You know, one of those things that just seem to happen. I thought I’d be out one or two weeks, and that would be that.

“Instead, I was put in a cast, came back and played some, and then went back in a cast. I said, ‘Damn, somebody is not telling me something.’ But then the cast came off, I played some more, and it was back in the cast again. I figured this is it.”

For many athletes, a condition such as Unseld’s arthritic knee would be it. There is reason enough to say “to hell with it.” The choices are to rest the leg as long as possible or write off the remainder of the season and have the operation that will correct the problem. The cast is off—again. But chances are that it will be on-again-and- off-again through the remainder of the season.

Unseld, however, doesn’t treat his condition as most athletes would. He lives in his own world. It is a world of responsibilities, obligations, and, above all, pride.

He took a sip of beer and thought about the choices he seems to have and smiled his crooked smile. Unseld knows that for him there really is no choice. “I’m paid a hell of a lot of money to play this game. I have an obligation to the owner, the guy who pays me.

“I began feeling pretty down about the whole thing. This is because, at the same time, I also feel I have an obligation to my wife and child. Even more so than to the team. The team will go on whether Wes Unseld is in the lineup or not. You begin thinking you should stop playing and have the condition corrected, if it can be. But I have to finish out the year. As a professional ballplayer, you only have so many years.”

The thought of his career being in jeopardy obviously is not new to Unseld. He also is aware of players who have stayed in the game after their effectiveness has become minimal. He now can sympathize with them.

“I don’t really think it’s demeaning or anything for a player to stay in the game as long as he can,” he said. “It has nothing to do with principles or integrity. Those things are fine, but a guy has to make a living, and he’s devoted his life to basketball. What are his alternatives? You take it to the utmost and hope for the best. I hope I won’t have to do the same thing. When my time comes, I just hope I can get out of the game gracefully.”

Unseld’s wife feels the same way. To her, he has had a fine career through high school, college, and as a pro. During these days of uncertainty, she tells him this very often. He thinks she is trying to prepare him for the worst, if it comes to that.

The Bullets without Wes Unseld are something the front office would prefer not to have to consider. The 6-feet-7 All-America from Louisville joined the Bullets and Earl Monroe in 1968 and changed the team from a loser into a winner. He became the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain to win both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season.

That was 1968. There have been many more honors for Unseld since, but he still remembers those early days and the fears he had as a rookie, especially how he would fit in on a team with such individual superstars as Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson.

Unseld was a shy, almost withdrawn bachelor who rarely had much to say off the basketball court. But he did fit in. His outlet passes were, and are, things of beauty. His rebounding Is devastating and, although at 6-feet-7, he is small for a center, Unseld sets the widest picks in the NBA. When he clogs the lane, opposing players decide to find a different route to the basket or get rid of the ball.

As teammate Mike Riordan said, “Most centers are known for scoring and rebounding. But Wes does so much more. Everybody knows about his outlet passes, for example. But if our offense were geared around him, Wes could lead the team in assists. That’s how good a passer he is. With him in the lineup, it’s like we’re running football plays. You know, zig-outs, zig-ins, and fly patterns, almost. We get a lot of easy baskets. This is especially important for a small forward like myself.”

When people speak glowingly about Unseld’s ability, he becomes embarrassed, which discloses yet another facet of his personality. The man is modest. Despite his achievements on and off the court, Unseld honestly thinks he is almost unworthy of the compliments.

Even today, Unseld compares himself to his brother George. “I play basketball the way I do out of necessity,” Unseld said. “I never had great leaping ability or anything. It’s like my brother. He didn’t have a lot of talent either, but he really knew the game. He used to play with guys who had a lot more natural talent. But head-to-head, George would always beat them. I learned from him.”

Unseld strongly denies that he has become a dominant force in the NBA. As far as he is concerned, he received so much credit for the Bullets’ improvement because former coach Gene Shue kept telling it to reporters.

“I didn’t deny it,” Unseld said. “But it was Shue, not me. I was just one of 11 or 12 guys. I’m really not trying to be modest. I’ve changed that much since my rookie days. But you have to know your limitations. I don’t want to be criticized, especially, but I also don’t want smoke blown at me.

“These days, I don’t expect to get credit for a win, but I also don’t want any abuse for a loss.” He laughed and added, “Of course, I might get abuse sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I’ll take it.”

As Unseld talked, it became evident that life for him is simply a series of adjustments. He makes them well. It took him six months or more to adjust to Monroe’s type of spinning moves, but after that, he could anticipate everything Monroe did.

In a way, Unseld and Monroe still have something in common. When informed of Monroe’s acquisition by the New York Knicks, playmaker Walt Frazier chuckled. “The Pearl Is a great ballplayer, man. But we’ve only got one ball, you know.”

Monroe adjusted. When the Bullets acquired Elvin Hayes from Houston, there was considerable apprehension about Unseld’s reaction. Hayes is now considered one of the finest players in basketball. He is highly publicized. It would seem natural for Unseld to feel a bit of resentment.

“Sure, I like to see me in the papers,” he said. “But the way Elvin is playing, he’s earned every word of praise that’s been written about him. I have to admit I didn’t always feel this way.

“Let’s face it, I had heard things about him just like everybody else had. But he came here and I met him and his wife, and I found that he’s a super guy and a super player.

“There’s no one in basketball playing better than Elvin. If anything about him bothers me, it’s because he’s talking a lot on himself. I don’t know whether he’s doing it intentionally, because I’m not in the lineup a lot, or whether he’s doing it subconsciously. Anytime a guy goes for 20 points and 20 rebounds a game, he’s put in a hell of a night. I just hope it doesn’t hurt himself.”

Hayes had many questions and some doubts about Unseld in his mind when he joined the Bullets. All were quickly dispelled. “When my wife and I first came up,” Hayes said, “she was pregnant. Wes and his wife helped her. My wife even stayed at their house, and they took care of her until she was able to come home. He helps me, and I like to think I help him. Wes is one of the strongest players in this league and, on a fastbreak, his outlet passes are the best there have ever been in this decade.

“Coming from Houston, which wasn’t exactly a successful team, you form a lot of bad habits. I found that when we would get down by 10-11 points, I’d be ready to push the panic button. You got down by that much on the Rockets, and you could forget it. But Wes would calm me down and tell me not to worry. He said we’d still win. Wes has restored a lot of my confidence in myself and my game.”

Unseld furrowed his brow and denied the impact of his help. He also refuses to believe that he has been particularly helpful by his deep involvement in youth and community affairs in Baltimore. Although he has received numerous awards for his work, Unseld says the honors should go to those who work at it full-time.

“I began doing things in the community just because people asked me, and I was a bachelor with time on my hands,” he said. “It’s no big thing.”

He rose from the table and walked stiffly through the lounge and out into the sunlight. Getting into his car was an ordeal, as he was forced to pull his left leg through the door. He smiled at the contortions.

As Unseld drove away, the thought occurred that he is really too good to be true. That is, unless you meet him and can get him to talk.

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