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Billy Reed: Remembering the great Wes Unseld, a big fella with a stellar career, dead at age 74

The last time I saw Wes Unseld, we were at a cocktail party in Louisville, participating in an event called “Louisville’s Legends.” The big fella was still massive, and I seem to recall a walker or cane nearby. I knew he had been suffering from some physical ailments.

When he saw me, he smiled and motioned me to come sit with him. After the usual greetings, he said, “I need to get you up to Baltimore so we can talk about my book.” Having covered Wes since he was a sophomore at Louisville Seneca High in 1961-’62, I was thrilled. “Call me,” I said, “and I’ll be there.”

Sadly, the call never came probably because his health got steadily worse. And now that he’s dead at age 74, I’ll never get to ask him all the questions I had about his career at Seneca High, the University of Louisville, and the NBA, mostly with the Baltimore/Washington Bullets.

He was one of the most unique “big men” in the game’s history. At 6-foot-6, he wasn’t especially tall. He also wasn’t much of a leaper and he wasn’t particularly quick. Yet his body was like a huge block of granite. Nobody got through a Wes Unseld pick. He’s remembered most not so much for his scoring or rebounding, although he put up some big numbers, but for the two-hand outlet passes he could rocket up the floor after he got a defensive rebound.

From the time I met him in 1962, Wes had a Buddha-like quality about him. With his high cheekbones, he looked like some kind of Oriental prince. If he were ever in a Christmas play, he would have to be cast as one of the three kings. He was stoic, rarely smiling in public, and he measured his words carefully.

Most basketball fans may remember Wes as only the second player (Wilt Chamberlain was the first) to be named both NBA Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in the same season (1968-‘69). However, to me, he’ll always be the player who set the future courses of both the Kentucky and Louisville programs.

Wes was preceded at Seneca High by older brother George, who was an inch taller and several pounds thinner. After graduating in 1961, George accepted a scholarship to Kansas, where he led the team in scoring for two years and was the 71st pick in the 1965 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers.

Wes Unseld

But George couldn’t make it in the NBA and he returned to Louisville, where he became a teacher and coach at his alma mater. When he died in 2010 at age 67, he was in his 11th year as a Metro City Councilman.

“I’ve always looked up to him,” Wes said at the time. “I watched it (the recruiting of George) and I learned from it, thank goodness. And I always had him to draw back on in case I needed to learn more or didn’t understand something I had learned.”

Wes was the catalyst of teams that won back-to-back state championships for Seneca in 1963 and ’64. His junior team was better than the senior one because of the presence of Mike Redd, a 6-3 guard who could either slash his way to the hoop or pull up for a jumper. In Kentucky hoops folklore, Unseld is linked forever to both Redd and to Butch Beard, the star of the Breckenridge County team that lost the championship game to Seneca in Unseld’s senior year.

A year younger than Wes, Beard followed him to the University of Louisville, where they provided a lethal 1-2 punch in the 1966-‘67 and 1967-’68 seasons. Although they never made it to the Final Four, they set the table for Coach Denny Crum, who coached the Cardinals to national titles in 1980 and ’86.

To this day, Unseld is arguably the most important recruit in the rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville. Iconic coach Adolph Rupp of Kentucky wanted to make Unseld his first African-American recruit and offered him a scholarship. However, when Unseld’s mom asked Rupp if he could guarantee Wes’s safety when UK played in the Deep South, Rupp, to his credit, said he couldn’t.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

Had the Wildcats been able to get Wes, he would have been the sophomore center on the 1966 “Rupp’s Runts” team instead of Thad Jaracz. With Wes in the lineup, the chances are good that UK would have defeated Texas Western’s all-black starting lineup in the 1966 NCAA championship.

At Louisville, he teamed with Beard his junior and senior seasons to make the Cards a serious contender for the NCAA title. However, Unseld’s junior team was upset by Kansas, his older brother’s alma mater, and his senior team lost to Elvin “The Big E” Hayes in the regional semifinals.

In his three varsity seasons, Unseld averaged 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds. In the 1968 NBA draft, the Baltimore Bullets picked him second, behind Hayes. After that historic season in which he was both the NBA’s MVP and Rookie of the Year, the Bullets eventually acquired Hayes, who teamed with Unseld to lead the Washington, not Baltimore, Bullets to the 1978 NBA title.

Wes retired in 1981 with 10,624 points and 13,769 rebounds to his credit. In 1988, he was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Said Wes, “I never played pretty. 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.”

After his retirement, Wes stayed in the Bullets’ organization in various capacities, including head coach, where he went 202—345 from 1987-’94. From 1996 to 2003, he was the team’s general manager. He then retired to be with his family and deal with his health issues.

I’ll always regret not being able to do a book with Wes. I had so many things to ask. I’ll just have to be content with the memories of the fierce way he played the game, from the bazooka-like outlet passes to the splattering of players who had the misfortune into running into one of his picks.

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