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Louisville legend Wes Unseld dead at age 74

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A local and national icon has passed.

Portrait of Wes Unseld

The family of Wes Unseld released a statement Tuesday morning announcing that the Louisville legend has died at the age of 74. His death came following “lengthy health battles,” most recently with pneumonia. He was surrounded by his family at the time of his passing.

Westley Sissel “Wes” Unseld was hanging out by himself during recess one afternoon when his school’s fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Dickerson, called for him to come talk to her. A reserved, but obedient and gifted student, Unseld’s initial reaction was one of concern.

“I thought I’d done something wrong,” Unseld told The Washington Post in 1988.

In actuality, Mrs. Dickerson was about to light the match that would ignite one of the city of Louisville’s most well-known basketball fires.

“Somebody had decided to play a basketball game between the fifth and sixth grades,” he said, “and she told me I was going to play. And after that game, I didn’t touch a basketball again for three years.”

After not making his junior high school’s 8th grade team, Unseld figured he was finished with basketball. Then he grew. A lot. He attended Seneca High School in Louisville and was convinced to come out for the school’s basketball team by freshman and junior varsity coach Carl Wright, the man who Unseld said first made him fall in love with the game.

“Mr. Wright sort of look me under his wing,” Unsel told The Courier-Journal in 1967. “He was 6’5 and big like me and he sort of beat me around in practice. He taught me a lot.”

While his coach would later admit that his star was listed at 6’8 purely in an effort to intimidate opponents, Unseld — who eventually conceded that he’d never been measured taller than 6’6 — would go on to guide Seneca to state championships in 1963 and 1964. At the end of his senior season, he became just the second African American to be named the state of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball (the first had been his teammate, Mike Redd, the year before).

Though it took place more than a half-century ago, the recruitment of Unseld is still a much-debated issue in the Bluegrass State. What’s known is that Unseld became the first African American player that Adolph Rupp offered a scholarship to come play at the University of Kentucky. What’s less clear is why Unseld ultimately chose to stay home and play his college ball at the University of Louisville.

Some say Unseld didn’t want the attention that would have come with being a trailblazer, others point to the fact that he was roundly booed while playing at the state tournament in Lexington. Pat Riley, a member of the Kentucky basketball team at the time who was attempting to help convince Unseld to come to Lexington, told The New York Times in 1994 that he knew Wes received death threats.

Ultimately, Unseld chose to play for Peck Hickman the already integrated Louisville Cardinals. Though he wasn’t allowed to play on the varsity team because of the NCAA rules at the time, Unseld still made quite the impression on the U of L community during his first season on campus. He flourished in the classroom while majoring in both physical education and history, and dominated on the basketball court, finishing his debut season averaging averaging 35.8 points and 23.6 rebounds per game for Louisville’s freshmen team.

The next three years of Unseld’s life were fairly predictable. He scored 1,686 points in just 82 games (averaging 20.6 points per game) and grabbed 1,551 rebounds (averaging 18.9 rebounds per game), leading the Missouri Valley Conference in the category for all three seasons. Unseld led the Cardinals to the NIT in 1966 and the NCAA Tournament the two following years, and was named a first team All-American in both 1967 and 1968.

Although he arrived on U of L’s campus leery of playing for a man who he had been warned was only taking African American players because he had to, Unseld left Louisville crediting Peck Hickman for instilling in him the toughness that would go on to define his career.

“I was told he wouldn’t be the coach by the time I got to the varsity,” Unseld recalled. “He was as different a person as I’ve ever met in my life. But I left, after playing for him, thinking he was the greatest person ever. To this day, he’s one of the finest men I’ve ever been associated with.”

Unseld left Louisville with a B.S in health and physical education and history in 1968. Had had even more appearances on the school’s dean’s list than he had All-American honors.

The next part of Unseld’s story is better known to most. He was taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft, and in 1969 became just the second player ever to be named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and its Most Valuable Player in the same system. His 13-year NBA career would feature five All-Star appearances, and an NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award in 1978 when he guided the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) to their first and only world championship.

Unseld is one of just four Louisville players to have his number retired. He owns the school’s all-time record for most points scored by a three-year player, for scoring average in a single-season (20.6 ppg), and for points in a single game (45).

In 2008, Unseld was honored as the University of Louisville’s Alumnus of the Year, the highest honor bestowed on any graduate by the U of L Alumni Association. The award was given to Unseld as much for his off-the-court work as it was for the talent that landed him in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988.

In 1979, Unseld and his wife, Connie, also a Louisville graduate, founded Unseld’s School under the philosophy “Every Child Can Learn.” The coed private school located in southwest Baltimore offers a curriculum for children nine months to 14 years of age. It also provides programs that help its students in the areas of life skills, manners and etiquette, character education, outdoor education, sports and drama. The school has been acclaimed a “School of Excellence” in the United States.

Rest in peace to a Derby City icon.