Who Was Wes Unseld? The Former NBA MVP and Rookie of the Year Has Died at 74

Former NBA MVP and 1969 Rookie of the Year Wes Unseld died Tuesday morning following numerous health issues, including a recent bout of pneumonia.

Unseld's family mourned the 74-year-old in a statement shared on Twitter by the Washington Wizards. "He was the rock of our family—an extremely devoted patriarch who reveled in being with his wife, children, friends, and teammates. 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 more than 20 years," the statement reads.

Statement from the family of Wes Unseld.

Rest easy, Wes ♥️ pic.twitter.com/NwEtuofgG9

— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) June 2, 2020

Unseld began his professional career in 1968 after getting drafted to the Baltimore Bullets, who would later become the Washington Bullets and then the Washington Wizards. According to a press release from the Wizards, in his first year with the Baltimore Bullets, during the 1968-69 season, Unseld averaged about 18 rebounds and 13 points per game, and led the franchise to its first playoff appearance. That same season, he was awarded both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, making him the second player in NBA history to receive both in one season. (Wilt Chamberlain was the first and only other player to earn both awards in a single season—not bad company.)

Even though Unseld was considered small for the center-position on the court, he was still a renowned player. The Wizards' press release highlights his "relentlessness in the paint and bruising nature, as well as his outlet passing and screening ability." Unseld was an NBA All-Star five times over his 13-year playing career, and led the Bullets' sole championship team to the NBA title in 1978—a feat which also earned Unseld the Finals MVP Award in 1978. He retired from playing basketball in 1981.

Unseld's number-41 jersey was the first ever to be retired by the franchise in 1981, and he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988. The Wizards' press release notes that Unseld is "universally considered the greatest player in franchise history."

Even after his retirement, Unseld remained with the team in a number of different roles. He was the team's vice president from 1981 to 1987, and then served as head coach from 1988 until 1994. Under his leadership as coach, the 1988 Bullets team made a playoff appearance. Unseld later returned in 1996 and worked as the franchise's general manager until 2003, save for a year that Michael Jordan took on the role.

Aside from his basketball career, Unseld is also known for opening a Baltimore school with his wife, Connie. In 1978, the couple opened The Unselds' School in Baltimore, where his wife served as principal and his daughter Kim was one of the primary teachers. "The school is one of the few fully-accredited, black-owned, non-church-affiliated elementary schools in Maryland," according to the press release. The family asked for donations to Unseld's school in lieu of flowers.

A number of people from the Wizards' organization mourned Unseld in the team's press release "Those of us who were fortunate enough to spend time with Wes knew him as a generous and thoughtful man whose strong will was matched only by his passion and drive for uplifting others," current Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said in the statement. "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."

Wes Unseld
Wes Unseld, player for the Washington Bullets basketball team. Unseld died on Tuesday. Getty/Bettmann