Wes Unseld, Powerful Hall of Fame N.B.A. Center, Dies at 74

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Wes Unseld, a Hall of Fame center and indefatigable rebounder who was only one of two N.B.A. players to be named rookie of the year and most valuable player in the same season, died on Tuesday. He was 74.

His family confirmed the death in a statement posted on the Washington Wizards’ website, saying that he had received diagnoses of pneumonia and other illnesses. The statement did not say where he died.

At 6-foot-7, Unseld was undersized for a center. But at 245 pounds he was a wide-bodied powerhouse who, it was said, could block out the sun. He fixed his opponents with a glower, set bone-rattling picks and planted himself under the basket with steely determination to grab rebounds against much-taller centers like Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond and Kareem Abdul-Jabbarr.

Over 13 seasons with the Baltimore, Capital and Washington Bullets (now the Washington Wizards), Unseld’s teams went to the N.B.A. finals four times and won the league’s title in 1978 over the Seattle SuperSonics. Unseld was named the series’ m.v.p.

He would later coach the team and serve as its general manager.

In a statement, Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, called Unseld “one of the most consequential players of his era,” adding, “Wes elevated the game by mastering the fundamentals.”

Unseld had a career average of 14.0 rebounds a game; in his rookie season, 1968-69, he finished second in the league off the boards, behind Chamberlain, averaging 18.2. He and Chamberlain are the only players in N.B.A. history to be mamed rookie of the year and m.v.p. in the same season. Unseld was named to five All-Star teams.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Willis Reed, the Hall of Fame Knick center who played against Unseld for nearly a decade, recalled their physical battles during both the regular season and the playoffs.

“You always wanted to make sure you got a good night’s sleep before you played against him,” Reed said. “He was most consciously a rebounder — he could shoot, but he didn’t emphasize that part of his game — and felt that if he did his job right, by getting the defensive rebound and making the quick outlet pass, they would score quickly.”

Unseld had learned the outlet pass at Seneca High School in Louisville, Ky., and by the time he arrived in the N.B.A. he had mastered it. He would grab a defensive rebound and, in almost the same motion, turn and throw a pinpoint fastball downcourt to a teammate like Earl Monroe, Phil Chenier or Gus Johnson, who would be racing downcourt on a fast break.

That skill was ideal for Unseld, who was unselfish about his scoring. While other players could have emulated him, few did.

In 2015, he told The New York Times: “When you throw that outlet pass, you’re not going to get the ball back.” But others, looking for more glory, he said, “would rebound the ball and they would hold it, give it to a guard to dribble it up, and then post up and get the ball back so they could score.”

“It just depends on how you look at the game.”

Westley Sissel Unseld was born in Louisville on March 14, 1946, to Cornelia and Charles Unseld. His father was employed by International Harvester and later worked in construction; his mother was a school lunchroom manager.

Unseld was heavily recruited by colleges after leading Seneca High School in Louisville to two state championships. He chose the University of Louisville, where he averaged 20.6 points and 18.9 points a game over three seasons. He was a consensus All-American in 1967 and 1968.

The Bullets chose him as the second player in the 1968 N.B.A. draft; a future teammate, Elvin Hayes, was selected first, by the San Diego Rockets. The Bullets improved dramatically in Unseld’s rookie year, winning 57 games, up from 36 the previous season.

The Bullets were in the playoffs in 12 of Unseld’s 13 seasons, making it to the finals against the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 and the Golden State Warriors in 1975 before beating Seattle in seven games in 1978. Unseld averaged nine points and 11.7 rebounds in that series. The next season, in a repeat finals appearance, the Bullets lost to the SuperSonics in five games. The team, known as the Wizards since 1997, hasn’t been to the finals since.

Unseld retired in 1981 with 10,624 points and 13,769 rebounds, career totals that led to his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., seven years later.

“I never played pretty, I wasn’t flashy,” Unseld once said. “My contributions were in the things most people don’t notice. They weren’t in high scoring or dunking or behind-the-back passes.”

Unseld was named a vice president of the Bullets by the team’s owner, Abe Pollin, on the day he announced his retirement. Early in the 1987-88 season, when the team had an 8-19 record, Unseld replaced Kevin Loughery as head coach.

Unseld brought stability to the team, which won 30 of its next 55 games and made the playoffs. But he never had a full winning season as coach or another playoff appearance.

After the final game of the 1993-94 season — a victory over the Charlotte Hornets — Unseld announced that he was stepping down to return to the team’s front office. He was named general manager two years later and served in that role until 2003, except for an 18-month period in 2000 and 2001, when Michael Jordan replaced him as general manager. (Emerging from retirement, Jordan left in 2001 to play for the Wizards.)

Unseld’s survivors include his wife, Connie; his daughter, Kimberley; his son, Wes Jr., who is an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets of the N.B.A.; and two grandchildren.

Unseld, who was known for his off-the-court work during his playing career, founded Unselds’ School, a private elementary school, with his wife in 1978. She has served as the school’s principal and director, and their daughter has taught there.

“I’ve always been involved,” Unseld told Press Box, a website that covers Maryland sports, in 2016, “ but most of the time I just did lawns and painting and that type of thing. Then I actually retired and started doing administrative work.”

Connie Unseld added: “I couldn’t exist without Wes — the money behind the scenes, the inspiration. You know, he’s a very bright person. I lead with my heart, but he’s the grounded person.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.


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