Wes Unseld, a pillar on and off the court

BALTIMORE – Wes Unseld sat in The Unseld School, his pre-kindergarten through eighth grade private school, for the longest time he had in a year and half. With health complications over the last few years, the 71-year old NBA Hall of Famer has not been able to spend as much time as he’d like in the school. Still, what goes on within those walls epitomizes the person that is Washington Bullets legend Wes Unseld.

Unseld’s wife, Connie, runs the school, while his daughter, Kim, is one of the school’s primary teachers. Within the school are plenty of classrooms, a library, and of course a basketball court. The Unseld School’s students dream of becoming doctors, marketing executives, actors, veterinarians and athletes. They all have different long-term dreams, but Connie hopes to get them there, one step at a time. The school has a classic curriculum, focusing on critical thinking, character, and work ethic. Education is about more than just learning information and grades, and Connie wants her students to graduate and leave The Unseld School as better people and members of society.

“There’s no way that they’re not going to be class students and class citizens,” Connie says about the school’s mission. “That’s all I can ask for. Academically you want them to do well, but I want social maturity, I want growth, I want you to be able to work within the world and to be inclusive and appreciate people, and this is what you’re going to get.”

Unseld retired from the NBA as a five-time All-Star, playing in 75 or more games in 11 of his 13 seasons, all with the Bullets organization. He was the 1969 MVP and Rookie of the Year and averaged 10.8 points, 14.0 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game during his career. His No. 41 is one of four currently retired numbers in the rafters, with Phil Chenier joining the select group later this season.

For longtime fans of the Washington D.C. area, they’ll forever remember Unseld for being a member of the 1977-78 Bullets championship team. Often referred to as the face of the franchise, Unseld was one of the leaders of that team that delivered the franchise’s only championship. The Wizards organization and the Wizards and Bullets Alumni Association will celebrate the 40th anniversary of that team in March.

“I would say they need to get a new face, but no – it means a lot,” Unseld says of being considered the face of the franchise. “I don’t want to downplay everything. It was important when it was happening and at the time, and if there are those out there that are as old as I am and can still remember it, that’s nice.”

Looking back on that championship season, Unseld credits the team’s end of year surge to health. In particular, Chenier was lost early in the season to injury and Mitch Kupchak missed 15 games. The Bullets were so shorthanded some days that they could barely scrimmage in practice. With health issues all regular season long, the Bullets may have finished with a record of 44 – 38, but the team knew all along that they had the talent and camaraderie to beat anybody.

“It wasn’t anything off the cuff,” Unseld says. “We all got healthy. If you look at that season, you won’t find five straight games where Bobby [Dandridge], Elvin [Hayes], myself, Tommy [Henderson], Kevin [Grevey] that we all played together at the same time. And then about half a dozen games before we were in the playoffs, everybody was healthy. At that point right there, I think we knew there might be somebody who could beat us, but they had a full day’s work ahead of them.”

Unseld was at the tail end of his career after falling short in two previous Finals appearances. He rarely missed games, stood up for his teammates on and off the court, and was the team’s leader from the beginning of his career.

“It was important because of the integrity he had for the game, and his due diligence,” Connie Unseld explained. “His determination, his attitude was ‘I want to win,’ and this was the fruits of his labor. He won. It was important that the team had that team concept. I’ve never seen a team so combined together, on the same attitude, on the same page.”

The ultimate teammate and warrior, Unseld to this day regards all individual achievements as unimportant. He was 1978 NBA Finals’ Most Valuable Player, but it meant nothing to him. Unseld reflects that the MVP could have easily belonged to Hayes or Dandridge for their efforts in the Finals, but nobody would argue that Unseld wasn’t deserving of the accolade considering his role with the team for so many years on and off the court.

“That was vintage Wes Unseld – stepping up at the right time doing the right thing because I knew in his heart he would do it because he wanted that championship,” Hayes said from his home in Houston of Unseld helping to deliver the championship.

“I remember when I got the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year award my rookie year and the only problem was when they announced it, I was out on the Chesapeake Bay on a little boat fishing,” Unseld says of his individual accolades. “When I get back to the dock, all of these people are crowded hollering at me, ‘What did you do? What did you do?’ And I said, ‘You know I didn’t catch anything; what are you talking about?’ But they wanted to make something out of it. I could never get into what to get excited about things like that that wasn’t an important thing whether I won an award or not.”

It was that mentality in his playing days, years coaching with the Bullets from 1987-1994, and every day off the court that defines Unseld. His values of family first, character, and making the world the better place still reign supreme today. The championship meant more than he may admit, but Unseld stays true to his values.

“At the time, I was a married father with two great kids – that changed my life. Winning the championship gave me some satisfaction of being successful at what I did as far as my job, as far as my work was concerned. But it didn’t change my life. It wouldn’t have changed if we didn’t win the championship. I still would have been a happy man with my family and friends.”

Unseld has not quite embraced technology at 71 years old, but he does have an iPad. The Apple device is used once a week for one purpose only: to FaceTime his grandchildren on Sunday nights at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. His grandkids are in Denver with Wes Jr. and his wife Evelyn, and they are the only members of his exclusive iPad club. Unseld also keeps in contact with a lot of former players and Bullets like Earl Monroe, Dandridge, Chenier, and others. In fact, he had spoken to fellow NBA Hall of Famer Willis Reed on the phone the night before this interview.

In the end, despite being an NBA Hall of Famer and one of the faces of one of 30 basketball franchises, it’s clear Unseld’s values remain the same. To this day, his former teammates and executives rave about Unseld’s character and how he was the pillar of the franchise for so long.

“Westley is a tremendous human being,” Jerry Sachs, former vice president and general manager of the Bullets, says of Unseld. “Not only is a great basketball player, but very deep, very sensitive, very bright person.”

“One of the most unselfish guys that you could ever meet, and when you had a guy like Wes Unseld that was very unselfish, then we just followed his lead,” 1978 championship teammate Larry Wright said of Unseld. “He would do anything he could to win and he was certainly a nice guy off the court.”

“My first year coming in you could look at Wes and just gain confidence by looking at him and being around him,” Chenier said. “He just exuded confidence. So, you know you always had that staple.”

“A great leader, a wonderful family person, incredibly bright, well-read,” teammate Kevin Grevey said. “I would love to sit down and talk to him about current events or issues that might exist politically and he had an opinion. Just a wonderful, wonderful person to be around.”

Unseld’s fame will live in basketball history forever on the court, but he and Connie’s legacy off the court is impacting children and young adults every day. Their son Wes Jr. was the first to graduate from The Unseld School, and he’s looked up to as the model for all of the kids for what it means to go and graduate from the school.

Wes Unseld Jr. graduated from Johns Hopkins University, coached and worked for the Wizards for several seasons, and has worked his way up the coaching chain around the NBA. Wes Jr. is now the associate head coach of the Denver Nuggets under head coach Mike Malone, representing The Unseld School and his family to the upmost.

“What they do with these children – well, actually most of them are young adults – is amazing, and that’s why there’s a lot of time, effort, and resources you put into it,” Unseld Sr. says. “But when you see what they do and what they become, it’s so worth it.”

There may be a basketball court at The Unseld School, but even those regarded as the greatest of all-time must leave the court behind. It’s what one does with his or her time off the court that truly leaves an impactful legacy.

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