On and off the basketball court, Wes Unseld seemed larger than life. At 6-feet-6, the Baltimore Bullets center routinely dominated players who towered above him. And at the Unseld School, an educational center that his wife ran in West Baltimore, Unseld dwarfed the youngsters who gave him hugs and who called the man who mopped the floors and mowed the grass "Wessie."
Unseld died Tuesday morning after what his family called "lengthy health battles, most recently with pneumonia." He was 74. He was nicknamed "The Baby Bull" for his girth and grit in the lane, and "Wes Unselfish" for his team play.
"Wesley was a huge man in every sense of the word, except height," Bullets teammate Fred Carter said. "Dignity, class, character, integrity -- Wes had it all. Plus, he was a great player. He wasn't a leaper; he played with his body and his mind. He was a helluva big fella who wasn't a big fella."
A two-time, 245-pound All-American at Louisville, in his hometown, Unseld joined the woebegone Bullets in 1968, the second player picked in the NBA draft. That season, Baltimore improved by 21 games, surging from last place to first in the Eastern Division. Unseld averaged 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds and swept both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors, the second player ever to do so (Wilt Chamberlain was the first).
Told he'd won the MVP award, Unseld reacted with characteristic humility.
"It's very nice, but I don't know whether I deserve it or not," he said.
"Individual awards weren't his calling card," said Bullets forward Ray Scott, who played with Unseld from 1968 to 1970. "He'd rather pass than score. Wes made us a smart team, a thinking team. He knew how to play his position, and we all learned how to play ours so he wasn't left alone defensively."
Unseld spent his whole career with the Bullets, during which he made the NBA All-Star team five times -- four while in Baltimore before the club moved to Washington in 1973. Lifetime, he averaged 10.8 points and 14 rebounds a game while taking the Bullets to the playoffs in 12 of his 13 years. In 1977-78, they defeated the Seattle SuperSonics for the NBA title and Unseld, 32, was named MVP of the championship series. Ten years later, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Unseld received rings on both occasions, but rarely wore them.
"All I ever wanted to do was enough to make (the Bullets) want to keep me," he told The Baltimore Sun in 2012. "My first day, they asked what jersey I wanted. I said, 'In college, my number was 31.' But (general manager) Buddy Jeannette said, 'That's Ray Scott's number. Give him 41; he may not be here tomorrow.'