Wes Unseld, the burly Hall of Famer who led the then-Washington Bullets to the franchise’s only NBA championship, died Tuesday morning, his family said in a statement. He was 74.
Unseld’s family said he passed away surrounded by relatives and following lengthy health battles, most recently with pneumonia.
“He was the rock of our family — an extremely devoted patriarch who reveled in being with his wife, children, friends and teammates,” his family wrote. “He was our hero and loved playing and working around the game of basketball for the cities of Baltimore and Washington D.C., cities he proudly wore on his chest for so many years.”
Selected with the second overall pick in the 1968 draft by the Baltimore Bullets, Unseld made an immediate impact and changed the fortunes of the franchise — now known as the Washington Wizards.
In his first season in Baltimore, he guided the team to a 57-25 record — 21 more wins than the prior year — and led the Bullets to their first-ever playoff appearance.
Averaging 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds per game his rookie season, Unseld won both the Rookie of the Year and regular season Most Valuable Player awards, becoming the second NBA player after Wilt Chamberlain to capture both awards in the same season.
Known for his rebounding and great outlet passes, Unseld led Baltimore to five consecutive playoff appearances, which continued after the franchise moved to Washington — technically, the Maryland suburbs — in 1973. The Bullets made 12 straight playoff appearances and four NBA Finals during his career. Over this time the five-time All-Star averaged 10.8 points, 14.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
His biggest moment came in 1978, when he and Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes led the Bullets to the NBA championship, defeating the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games. Unseld was named the Finals’ Most Valuable Player.
“We all admired Wes as the pillar of this franchise for so long, but it was his work off the court that will truly leave an impactful legacy and live on through the many people he touched and influenced throughout his life of basketball and beyond,” said Ted Leonsis, Chairman & CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, owner of the Wizards.
In 1981, Unseld’s No. 41 was retired and his is now one of five Bullets/Wizards jerseys hanging in the rafters at Capital One Arena in Washington.
After retiring from the NBA, Unseld remained with the Bullets, first working in the front office and then coaching the team. He won 202 games, the second-most in franchise history.
In 1988 Unseld was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was voted a top 50 player in league history in 1996.
“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,” Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said.
Wes Unseld is survived by his wife Connie of 50 years, daughter Kimberly, son Wes Jr. and his two grandchildren.