Louisville Men’s Basketball has had its fair share of legends wear the red and black through the years. Wes Unseld is one of those legends. He didn’t just play for the Cards, though. No. Unseld was a son of our great city itself. Sadly, he passed away today at age 74.
Statement from the family of Wes Unseld.— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) June 2, 2020
Rest easy, Wes ♥️ pic.twitter.com/NwEtuofgG9
Born March 14, 1946 in Louisville, Unseld would attend Seneca High School where he won back to back state titles in 1963 and 1964. Out of high school, he was heavily recruited. In fact, Kentucky wanted him to be the first African American to play at the university. However, Unseld chose to play for his hometown Cardinals.
Unseld played 3 years at Louisville. It’s important to note freshmen weren’t allowed to play on varsity teams back then. In his 3 years, he proved to be a dominant force on the court for legendary Louisville Coach Peck Hickman and for Hickman’s replacement when he retired, John Dromo. Unseld averaged 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds per game in his career. His best season was his senior year under first year coach Dromo. He averaged 23 points and 18.3 rebounds per game. Unseld was a two-time All-American and helped lead Louisville to the postseason in all 3 of his years playing varsity; once to the NIT in his sophomore year and twice to the NCAA Tournament his junior and senior years.
Once his career ended at Louisville, he looked to professional basketball. Back then, there were two leagues, the ABA and the NBA. Unseld was a highly sought after prospect. His production at the college level was unbelievable and so the Baltimore Bullets made him the second overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft. However, his hometown Kentucky Colonels chose him in the ABA Draft. Unseld chose the Bullets.
His NBA career was as legendary as his college career. Unseld came right into the league and was a dominant force at C for the Bullets. He averaged 13.8 points. 18.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists per game for the Bullets in his rookie season. He became only the second player, and last one, to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season. The only other player to do that was Wilt Chamberlain and no one has done it since Unseld.
Unseld played 13 seasons in total before retiring in 1981. In those years, he led the Bullets to 4 NBA Finals and won one ring in 1978. During those finals, Unseld averaged 9 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game. This effort led to Unseld being named the Finals MVP. To this day, it remains the only NBA title the franchise has won. His career was cut a little short due to injuries that plagued him. Yet, he retired having averaged a double-double (10.8 points per game, 14 rebounds per game) for his career. He also averaged 3.9 assists per game as a C. After such a stellar career, Unseld was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was also honored as one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players.
After his playing career came to an end, Unseld stayed with the franchise as an executive and coach. Unseld served as the vice president, head coach, and general manager of the Bullets/Wizards at various times from 1981-2003. It can be argued he was one of the most, if not the most, influential figures in the franchise’s history.
One of his most powerful endeavors, and one he was likely most proud of, was the creation of the Unselds’ School in Baltimore. It’s a private school Unseld started with his earnings from his NBA career in 1979. His beloved wife Connie, a former educator in the Baltimore public school system, was the driving force behind its creation. Children from all walks of life have been educated by the Unseld family; pre-K to 8th grade. It was Connie’s vision and Unseld, the devoted and loving husband, helped to make it a reality.
Unseld was a legend on and off the court. During his career, he stood 6’7 and seemed to be chiseled out of rock; a moving monolith on the court. He was known for his bone jarring picks, his rebounding prowess, his excellent defense, and his epic outlet passes. Off the court, he was a gentile giant. A man who you could tell had a heart of gold and enjoyed making people feel special.
How do I know that last part? It’s because I was blessed enough to have met him one time. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Unseld about 18 years ago. I was working at the Big&Tall shop. He was in town scouting for the Bullets. As he browsed, he found he needed to ask me some questions about our merchandise. This led to us conversing, but I can’t remember exactly about what. It was at least a 10 minute conversation though. Mr. Unseld did not end up purchasing anything. At the end as he left, however, he shook my hand & said, “thank you young man. God bless you.” I never forgot that. In that one interaction, I could see he was a great man. Here was a man who was a HOF b-ball player and a legend. A man who was making a huge difference in the community of Baltimore. I was a 19 year old nobody; a college kid making $8 an hour. Yet, he thanked me & shook my hand just for answering a couple of merchandise related questions and talking with him for a few moments. He made it seem as if I had made his day. I don’t know that I actually did, but he made mine. I still tell this story to friends to this day. I can see why he impacted lives greatly outside basketball.
If there is ever a Mount Rushmore carved into some hillside around Louisville for UofL Men’s Basketball, Wes Unseld would undoubtedly be one of the faces to adorn it. Many Louisville fans who never got to see him play heard the stories of his playing days from their parents or grandparents. His number is but one of four retired by UofL. He was a man of character, a man that made a poor college kid working a menial job feel like he was important. He made me feel like I mattered. With his school, he helped hundreds of Baltimore youth feel like they mattered. The world needs more men like Wes Unseld. He will be missed by Louisville, Baltimore, and me.
Here is what UofL Athletics had to say about the Cardinal legend:
PRESS RELEASE FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUISVILLE ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT:
Cardinal Great Wes Unseld Passes Away
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Wes Unseld, a member of the University of Louisville and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, passed away on Tuesday. He was 74.
“Wes is one of my all-time favorite players,” said UofL Vice-President/Director of Athletics Vince Tyra. “Like dad (former UofL All-America Charlie Tyra), he was a local player who had great success at UofL. What’s as impressive was his NBA career as both a player and coach. Wes was a UofL and NBA Hall of Famer that used his platform to create change in education for generations to come. He was truly one of the finest ever to wear a Cardinal uniform. All of us in Card Nation offer our thoughts and prayers with the Unseld family.”
Unseld’s number 31 is one of just four retired numbers in UofL history. In three seasons at UofL (1965-68), he amassed 1,686 points (11that UofL) and 1,551 rebounds (2nd at UofL). A consensus All-American during his junior and senior years, Unseld is one of only five Cardinal players to pull down over 1,000 rebounds in his career.
A native of Louisville who graduated from Seneca High School, he began his senior season with a 45-point effort against Georgetown College, a UofL single-game scoring record that stands today.
Unseld was honored on the All-Missouri Valley Conference team each of his three years at UofL while leading the Cardinals to a combined 60-22 record. As a sophomore, he led the Cardinals to a final No. 2 ranking in both wire service polls while averaging 18.7 points and 19.0 rebounds. In his final season at UofL in 1967-68, he averaged 23.0 points and 18.3 rebounds when the Cardinals posted a 21-7 record and were ninth in the final Associated Press poll. Unseld’s 20.6 career scoring average ranks as the best in Louisville history and his 18.9 career rebounding average is also the highest for a Cardinal.
Following his career at UofL, Unseld was chosen as the second player overall in the 1968 NBA Draft by the Baltimore Bullets. He went on to play 13 years for the Baltimore/Capital/Washington Bullets (1968-81), where he became the second player in NBA history to be chose NBA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season. He was a five-time NBA All-Start and was named the Championship Series MVP when he led the Bullets to the 1978 NBA title.
He was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988 and was selected among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in 1996 to honor the 50th anniversary of the league. He served as head coach of the Bullets from 1988-94 and worked in the organization’s front office for many years.