The NBA and the world lost a great player and a greater man today. Wes Unseld passed way Tuesday at age 74, following a series of health issues that most recently included pneumonia.
A two-time state champion at Seneca High in Louisville, Unseld became the first black player offered a scholarship by Kentucky and Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp. Many civil rights activists in his community encouraged Unseld to accept the Wildcats’ offer and break the SEC color barrier. He instead chose to stay home and play for the Cardinals, where he became a two-time All-American.
“I told my mother then that if I played in the SEC, I’d set civil rights back 20 years,” Unseld told Sports Illustrated in 1974. “A lot of people felt I should be the first black to play. I told them I didn’t have the right attitude to be a pioneer, that it just wasn’t me.”
He averaged 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds in three seasons at Louisville, leading the Cardinals to consecutive Missouri Valley Conference titles and NCAA Tournament appearances. He was the second player chosen in the 1968 NBA Draft, behind power forward Elvin Hayes, and eventually they would become teammates and lead the Washington Bullets to the 1978 NBA championship. Wes played for 13 seasons in the NBA.
Wes didn’t have the height at 6′ 7″ of many rivals as he was almost a half-foot shorter than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberland, but no one ever questioned his credibility as a big man. But he was an NBA rookie of the year, most valuable player, NBA Finals MVP, first-ballot entrant to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and member of the NBA’s official list of its 50 greatest players.
Unseld spent six seasons as a coach with the Wizards and seven more as a general manager. Toward the end of his playing career, Unseld and his wife, Connie, a teacher in Baltimore’s city schools, established Unselds School, a private school in southwest Baltimore that has been in operation through more than four decades.
Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said in a statement, “His physical prowess, undeniable talent and on-court demeanor may have struck fear in opponents throughout the NBA, but he will be remembered best as a mentor, leader and friend.”
RIP Wes, it was always enjoyable and entertaining to watch you play.