Wes Unseld’s Route to the Hall of Fame

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The Washington Post

The fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Dickerson, summoned Westley Unseld from the playground.

“I thought I’d done something wrong,” he said the other day. All she wanted, it developed, was to innocently introduce the classiest athlete many of us will ever meet to a sport not of his choosing.

“Somebody had decided to play a basketball game between the fifth and sixth grades,” he recalled, “and she told me I was going to play.”

So it was Mrs. Dickerson who started, actually pushed, Unseld toward a career that includes induction last Tuesday into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.


Smiling, Unseld said: “And after that game, I didn’t touch a basketball again for three years.”

He was not just another pretty jump shooter. He graces basketball’s showpiece museum for being as solid, tough, hard-working, relentless and intelligent off the court as on. He agrees.

“This award has got to reflect the people around me,” he said. “Rookie of the year, MVP of the league (which he earned the same season, 1968-69) are something you almost think you did. This says something about who you’ve been involved with, because there are so many great basketball players, as such, who don’t make it.”

For the longest time, he wanted to emulate his first coach, Carl Wright, who ran the freshman team at Seneca High in Louisville. In college at Louisville, he grew to admire a coach he had been warned had little respect for blacks: Peck Hickman.

“I was told he wouldn’t be the coach by the time I got to the varsity,” Unseld said. “He was as different a person as I’ve ever met in my life. But I left, after playing for him, thinking he was the greatest person ever.

“To this day, he’s one of the finest men I’ve ever been associated with.”

Unseld said he was the first black recruited in the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences, that Kentucky made only a token effort at signing him and that he didn’t know where the Louisville campus was until his senior year.


In high school, Unseld began living a sporting lie that never ended until he quit playing in 1981. He is not 6 feet 8, as the Seneca coach said in an effort to scare opponents; neither is he 6-7 1/2, as the NBA press guide listed, nor 6-7, as the Bullets advertised.

His public shrinkage ended, not long after his final game, with his admission that he had been 6-5 3/4 all along. That’s what his draft board said.

Such an NBA career. So full of experiences: Playing on teams that battled Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West in the beginning, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird at the end and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar almost totally throughout.

“Earl Monroe revolutionized guard play,” Unseld said of his former dazzling teammate. “Gus Johnson (another late-’60s Bullet) could have been the best ever; his problem was not doing it every night.”

Except for Unseld’s knees, it could have been great fun.

“I saw Wes go night after night on those bad knees,” Elvin Hayes said from Houston. “He played with all heart.”

When Unseld became the Bullets’ head coach on Jan. 4, Hayes called and pretended he was a Texas sportscaster hot for an exclusive.


“He fell for it for about five minutes,” Hayes said.

Relaying that to Unseld caused his face to break into a familiar smile-scowl.

“How’s Elvin gonna pretend?” he said. “I knew who it was right away.”

Charles Johnson, whose insight during the Bullets’ run to the NBA title in 1977-78 was as keen as his long-range shooting, had trouble seeing Unseld as a coach.

“I didn’t think Wes would open up the way a coach has to open up,” he said from San Francisco. “We’ll find out who the true Westley Unseld is.”

Later in the conversation, Johnson said: “He did have an opinion about players. He was not taking up space. Now I see him (on television), tie undone, his shirt open. He’s really into it. Amazing. I love it.”

Looking back on his playing career, Unseld said: “I’ve never been able to differentiate. The same people who were important to me in sports also were important to me outside of sports. Coaches. Parents. Some friends. It’s always been intertwined.”

Mention that Unseld seemed to be one of the all-time complainers, that he seemed to think every official who called him for a foul had suddenly gone blind and daft an instant before blowing the whistle brought this rejoinder:

“I never complained about a call until my fifth year. Then I was told you had to complain. You had to be known as a complainer. So I started.”


But did Unseld ever honestly believe he had committed a foul?

“I don’t think so,” he said.

Not surprisingly, he wanted Bullets owner Abe Pollin to present him for induction Tuesday night. Told that honor must be done by a member of the Hall of Fame, Unseld chose Willis Reed.

“I’ve got no complaints at all,” he said. “Guys on the playground used to say: ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a wino who got a break.’ I still hold to that. I’m probably nothin’ but a derelict who got a break. I keep telling myself that.”

Always, he said, there was the “potential” for trouble growing up. His father, Charles, who died in 1980, was determined to set an Unseldian pick before that potential came close.

“He believed sports was a way of staying out of trouble,” Wes said. “He kept us involved in everything except fishing. He felt fishing was a lazy man’s sport. He always had strict guidelines, said he didn’t raise any fools.”

His basketball thrills include one that shows Unseld’s character and insight.

“I remember being in the dressing room after the final regular season game my first year, in Chicago,” he said. “That still sticks out. It was a time when 12 guys sat there and knew we could win.”

He named most of those Bullets: Gus Johnson and Monroe, Jack Marin, Ray Scott, LeRoy Ellis, Kevin Loughery and Bob Ferry. Nearly all had been on Bullets teams that had won 20 and 36 games the previous two seasons. The Unseld-led team sitting in Chicago that day had finished the season with 57 victories.


“Most people think the championship is the highlight of your career,” Unseld said. “I think that time in Chicago was as big a moment as winning the title.”