Wes Unseld could have been the SEC’s version of Jackie Robinson. Long before he carved out a Hall of Fame career in the NBA, he was a highly-coveted high-school recruit trying to figure out where to play college basketball during a time when many colleges still didn’t feature black players.
The University of Kentucky tried desperately to land the local star. But the backlash from boosters and other people culminated in Unseld receiving a dead chicken in the mail. Let’s just say his recruiting journey is an incredible story worth reading.
Wes Unseld was heavily recruited by legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp
From 1930 to 1972, Adolph Rupp served as the head coach of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. During his incredible run, he won…a lot. He earned five National Coach of the Year honors and seven SEC Coach of the Year selections. The Kansas native won 876 games and produced 11 consensus All-Americans and still ranks seventh in all-time wins amongst college basketball coaches.
However, the player he really wanted to get his hands on was Wes Unseld. A star at Seneca High School in Louisville, the big man led his team to two Kentucky state championships. A prolific rebounder with terrific passing skills for a center, Unseld garnered widespread attention from the nation’s best programs.
Of course, this came during an era where black players still weren’t given the same opportunities at many college athletic programs. It hadn’t even been 20 years yet since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. So for Rupp, the opportunity to land Unseld could be a monumental move.
Unseld received a dead chicken in the mail during his recruitment
As a premier high-school recruit, Wes Unseld could have gone anywhere to play his college ball. A good student who was born and raised in Kentucky, he seemed like the perfect fit for Rupp’s program. But according to The Baron and the Bear: Rupp’s Runts, Haskin’s Miners, and the Season That Changed Basketball Forever, other forces intervened in Unseld’s recruitment.
“According to Reed, word of Rupp’s recruitment efforts brought numerous death threats and a visitation by a dozen UK boosters—including a former Kentucky All-American—trying to dissuade Rupp from signing Unseld or any other blacks.”
According to the book, Rupp responded angrily and told the racists to leave his office and never return. Subsequently, Wildcats player Larry Conley tried to get in on the recruiting effort to land Unseld. He drove to Louisville to try and persuade the talented youngster to join Rupp’s program. His efforts proved unsuccessful.
But what might have been ran up against a harsh reality. After receiving threats in the mail, including a dead chicken, Unseld told Larry, “I don’t want to be the first one.”
Kentucky native took his talents to Louisville and became an NBA Hall of Famer
Ultimately, Adolph Rupp couldn’t get Wes Unseld to commit to Kentucky. It simply wasn’t in the cards for the local star to break the SEC’s color barrier. However, Unseld didn’t travel far. He ended up playing for the University of Louisville, where he became a two-time All-American.
As a senior, he averaged 23.0 points per game on a career-high 61.3 shooting percentage. His dominant college career led him to become the second overall pick of the 1968 NBA draft.
Wes Unseld went on to become just the second player in NBA history to win league MVP honors as a rookie. No other player has joined Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain in accomplishing that impressive feat.
An NBA Hall of Famer who spent his entire career devoted to one organization, Unseld passed away on June 2 at the age of 74.