When you think of NBA centers, you probably picture guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal towering over the competition. During his time with the Washington Bullets, however, Wes Unseld found success without relying on incredible height. While everyone knows he wasn’t the biggest player in NBA history, the center might have been even smaller than you thought.
That reality, however, didn’t slow Unseld down on the hardwood. Despite being even smaller than his recorded height, the center still had a legendary NBA career.
Wes Unseld’s rise to basketball prominence
After a dominant high school basketball career, Wes Unseld received plenty of attention from big-name colleges and universities. While Adolph Rupp and the University of Kentucky made a pitch, the young center chose to head to Louisville and become a Cardinal.
As noted on Louisville’s official website, Unseld found a home both athletically and academically on campus. In addition to making the dean’s list and earning a degree in both health and physical education and history, the big man shone even more brightly on the hardwood.
During his three seasons on the varsity squad, Unseld averaged 20.6 points and an astounding 18.9 rebounds per game; he was named an All-American during his latter two campaigns. He also led the Cardinals to appearances in the 1966 NIT and the 1967 and 1968 NCAA Tournaments.
On the back of that success, Unseld became the second-overall pick of the 1968 NBA draft. After hearing his name called, however, the center was confronted with a misconception.
How tall was Wes Unseld in reality?
These days, it’s not uncommon to hear of a team exaggerating a player’s height or under-reporting his weight. Based on Wes Unseld’s NBA draft experience, however, that isn’t a recent phenomenon.
“I was watching TV in my room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, and this sportscaster, Charley Eckman, came on. He was screaming and hollering that the Bullets were idiots for drafting a slow, 6-foot-7 center from Louisville,” Unseld told Mike Klingaman of the Baltimore Sun in 2012. “Well, Charlie was wrong. I was 6-foot-6.”
NBA.com’s official biography also confirms the center’s claims. “Unseld was listed at 6-7,” the write-up explains, “but after he retired, he admitted that he actually had been just a hair under 6-6 all along.”
Regardless of his height, the center became an NBA legend
Sports can often be referred to as ‘games of inches,’ implying that small differences can make all the difference. While that might be true in some situations, one inch didn’t stop Wes Unseld from becoming an NBA legend.
During his first season with the Bullets, Unseld made a massive impact. He averaged 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds per night, propelling his club to relevance and claiming both the Rookie of the Year award and the NBA MVP title in the process. “All I wanted was to do enough to make the team want to keep me,” he said, according to Klingaman’s Baltimore Sun piece. It’s safe to say he did a bit more than that.
The center would spend his entire career with the franchise, winning a league title and NBA Finals MVP award in 1978. In retirement, he remained with the Bullets, working in the front office and spending some time as the head coach.
While he might have been even shorter than his listed height, that reality wasn’t going to stop Wes Unseld. Having a Hall of Fame NBA career is quite the accomplishment for anyone; to do it as a 6-6 center is even more impressive.
Wes Unseld died on June 2 at the age of 74.