ONCE A BULLET ALWAYS A BULLET Remembering Wes Unseld (1946-2020)

ONCE A BULLET ALWAYS A BULLET Remembering Wes Unseld (1946-2020)

Known for his blue-collar style of play, Bullets center Wes Unseld left a permanent trace in the history of Washington D.C. and Baltimore basketball.

“I’m a Bullet. I’ve always been a Bullet, and I always will be.”

Wes Unseld, via SI

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Unseld was already a standout at the University of Louisville. During his three-year-long stint, he led the Cardinals to a respectable 60-22 record while earning All-American honors in both 1967 and 1968. He also won the gold in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

One of the shortest centers of all time, generously listed at 6’7”, continued his career in the NBA. Drafted as the 2nd pick in the 1968 NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets robust center was essential for the team’s remarkable 21-game turnaround in 1968-69 season, on it’s way to a 57-25 record.

Starring alongside the future Hall-of-Famer Earl Monroe, Unseld significantly helped to install a winning culture within the organization and thus changed the team’s course for the upcoming decade.

By averaging 13.8 points and 18.2 boards per game, Unseld earned both the Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, thus becoming only the second Rookie of the Year ever to be named the league MVP. Prior to him, the only player who had achieved a similar feat was Wilt Chamberlain in 1959-60.

Despite his height disadvantage, Unseld dominated the opposition with his relentless approach on both ends of the floor, selflessly sacrificing his body, battling for the position underneath the basket.

“Wes had given so much for this basketball team. He had left his body out there on the basketball court for the Bullets.”

Elvin Hayes

Unseld was mostly known for his interior defense, relentless rebounding, and crisp passes, which had greatly helped the 1970s Bullets to trigger countless fastbreak opportunities en route to easy points.  

During his 13-year stint with the Bullets, the team had never missed making the postseason. Unseld led the team to the NBA finals four times, eventually taking the Bullets all the way in 1978.

That year the Bullets had achieved a modest 44-36 record, and almost nobody considered them to win it all. But Unseld & Co. proved all the ney-sayers to be wrong by eventually eliminating the Atlanta Hawks, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Philadelphia 76ers en route to the 1978 NBA finals.

In the finals, the Bullets faced a tough Seattle Supersonics team. The huge battle reached its climax in game 7 in Seattle, which the Bullets won 105-99, claiming their only NBA championship title in the franchise history. The well-balanced Bullets team was led by the 1978 finals MVP – Wes Unseld.

“Wes was the rock of the team, the guy who did all the dirty work and allowed the other players to shine. People respected that people understood what he was doing to help the team win.”

David Alridge, editor in chief, The Athletic D.C.

After retiring in 1981, Unseld got a position in the Bullets front office. During the 1987-88 season, team owner Abe Pollin named him the team’s head coach, and Unseld held the position until the end of 1993-94 NBA regular season when he resigned with a 202-345 record (36.9%). In 1996 he took over the GM position and held it for the next seven years.

Unseld will be remembered for his great selflessness and sacrifice, both on the basketball court as well in the charitable activities he and his wife provided within the Washington and Baltimore communities.

R.I.P. Wes Unseld.

Basketball Network contributor Murray Crnogaj, the 1980s and 1990s basketball specialist, is the proud co-author of the Amazon.com TOP 100 basketball biography ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon.’