LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Westley S. "Wes" Unseld grew up in the Newburg neighborhood of Louisville and rose to prominence while still an underclassman at Seneca High School. He led his team to two state championships and was one of the most sought-after high school players in the nation.
He thought he might wind up at Ohio State, or even Kansas, where his older brother, George, played, but chose the University of Louisville for family reasons -- and became the most decorated player in school history.
Unseld died this morning at the age of 74, his family said in a statement released by the Washington Wizards.
Wade Houston and Eddie Whitehead, who already had integrated the Louisville basketball team, said they viewed getting Unseld into the fold as vital for the future of the young program, and that John Dromo, assistant coach to Peck Hickman, was instrumental in that effort.
"Wes was critical," Houston said in an interview several years back. "We all feel we played a huge role in the start of the program as far as bringing African-Americans in, but Wes was the one piece that we felt pulled us all together. . . . Everybody wanted Wes. Kentucky came after Wes so hard it was unbelievable. Wes' father, big Charles, just didn't buy into what was going on at the time. Big Charles would tell people that came in trying to be critical about U of L and positive about other schools, in a minute, ‘That's not the way it is.' Wes liked us, and Coach Dromo was a big piece of it."
Unseld was a bruising 6-8, 240-pound center. He had a body made for rebounding, and a flair for dealing outlet passes upcourt that remains legendary today.
Whitehead remembered the Unseld home being a gathering place for the Cardinals' African-American players for large family meals on Saturday.
Wes he said he didn't realize he might have pro potential until he went up against a former Louisville player -- Bud Olsen -- one day in a pick-up game. Olsen had been a pro for eight years at the time, and challenged Unseld to a game of one-on-one.
He told Courier-Journal reporter C. Ray Hall in 2003 that, "I was in the old Crawford Gym shooting around one day when this big guy comes in. Bud Olsen comes in the gym and asks me if I want to shoot around and play a little game of one-on-one. I think, `Ah, man, this guy's a pro.' And I thought, `Oh, well, OK, let's try it.' And I completely just kicked the ---- out of him. I kept thinking, `There's something wrong with this picture.' That was the first time that I had an inkling that, well, I might be able to do this."
During his three years at Louisville, the Cardinals went 60-22. Unseld set the school's single-game scoring record (45 points) and his career record for rebounding average (18.9 per game) never will be broken. He is the only Louisville player ever to record a career-scoring average of more than 20 points per game (20.6) and his three-year point total of 1,686 is the most ever scored in a three-year span for a Cardinal. He was a consensus All-American as a junior and senior.
He was the No. 2 overall pick of the NBA's Baltimore Bullets in the 1968 draft, and won the league's rookie of the year and MVP honors his first season -- just the second man in league history to do that, after Wilt Chamberlain. He went on to a Hall of Fame pro career, won the NBA Finals with the Bullets in 1978 and was the Finals MVP. He was a five-time All-Star, and in 1996 was named one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All-Time.
“I never played pretty,” Unseld said on the day he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “I wasn’t flashy. My contributions were in the things most people don’t notice. They weren’t in high scoring or dunking or behind-the-back passes.”
And most of his greatest contributions were off the court.
After his playing days, Unseld moved on to a front office position with the Bullets, and later served as head coach and then general manager. In an era when players and coaches move at will, Unseld stayed in Washington.
At U of L, they retired not only his jersey, but his number 31.
Though he grew up in Louisville, Unseld moved to Washington and lived in that area. He and his wife Connie founded the Unselds School in Baltimore in 1978, a K-8 school that includes a daycare and other support facilities. For many years, Wes greeted every student at the door when they arrived, and was there at the door when they left.
“He was the rock of our family — an extremely devoted patriarch who reveled in being with his wife, children, friends and teammates,” the family’s statement Tuesday said. “He was our hero and loved playing and working around the game of basketball for the cities of Baltimore and Washington D.C., cities he proudly wore on his chest for so many years.”
Reaction to Unseld's death has been swift and overwhelming.
“On behalf of the Wizards organization and the entire MSE Family, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the Unseld family, including his wife Connie, daughter Kimberly, son Wes Jr. and his two grandchildren as well as his large number of extended family and friends,” Chairman & CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment Ted Leonsis said. “We all admired Wes as the pillar of this franchise for so long, but it was his work off the court that will truly leave an impactful legacy and live on through the many people he touched and influenced throughout his life of basketball and beyond.”
Former NBA great Elvin Hayes said, “I lost a great friend and teammate this morning who went home to Christ. Know we all had great love for both you and your family always my friend.”
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