The basketball world suffered another great loss this week with the passing of NBA legend Wes Unseld at the age of 74.
To most, he will be remembered as one of the greatest players in the history of the National Basketball Association. He was a dominating figure during his 13-year career with the Baltimore/Washington Bullets from 1969-81.
To me, he was simply Uncle Wes. He was the fourth of seven children born to my grandparents Charles and Cornelia Unseld, in Louisville back in 1946. He was the younger brother of my late mother Sandra Austin, who was the oldest of the seven Unseld kids.
He was one of the best high school players in the history of state of Kentucky during his career at Seneca High. He stayed home for college to play at the University of Louisville, where he was a two-time All-American. He was drafted by the then-Baltimore Bullets in 1969, where he won the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player award in the same season. Only Wilt Chamberlain has accomplished that feat before in 1960 and nobody else has done it since.
In 1978, he led the Washington Bullets to their only NBA world championship over the Seattle Supersonics. Although he was only 6 feet 7 inches, he was a star center while playing in an era of some of the greatest big men to ever play the game. He was the best player ever to throw the outlet pass to start the fast break and the best ever to set picks to get his teammates open. I still love it when I see a player throw a great outlet pass on television and the commentator always says, “That’s a Wes Unseld outlet pass.”
He was also a larger than life figure off of the basketball court with his community involvement. He and my Aunt Connie founded the Unseld School in 1979, which is still going after more than 40 years in Baltimore. They broke ground on the new school just a few months after he had hit the clinching free throws to give the Bullets their world championship. What started as a day care center morphed into a full-fledged school that served kids from daycare and nursery age through middle school.
Uncle Wes was my No. 1 sports hero and role model from the time he put on that Baltimore Bullets jersey as a rookie in 1969. I was only four years old and living in Milwaukee at the time, but I knew anything and everything about what was going on with the Bullets. I was always surrounded by Bucks fans, but I always represented the Bullets and Uncle Wes with great ferocity. Whenever the Bullets came to Milwaukee to play the Bucks, our family was front and center at every game. Afterwards, Uncle Wes and a few of his teammates would come over to the house and hang out with us.
As I got older and started to embark on my own basketball career, I patterned my playing style after his. I was an undersized center who used physical strength, fundamentals and intellect to overcome the opposition. I watched his every move on the court. When I got to college at Lindenwood University, I wore his No. 41 with great pride. The biggest compliment I would always get was when people would tell me I played like Wes Unseld without knowing our family connection.
Most of all, I will remember Uncle Wes as just being a cool dude to be around. I worked his basketball camps throughout high school and I had a great time being with him, my Aunt Connie and my cousins Kimberly and Wes. He was a down to earth man with a great sense of humor. If you didn’t know him, you would have never thought that he was this NBA legend. He never talked about it. He was a quiet man who exhibited great character and strength in everything he did.
Uncle Wes never needed to talk about his basketball greatness. He had a proud nephew in St. Louis to do it for him.
Rest well Uncle Wes. You were a great player and a great man.