Basketball Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld, an elite rebounder who led Washington to their only NBA championship in 1978, died on Tuesday, aged 74, his family said.
Unseld, who along with Wilt Chamberlain is one of two players to win NBA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season, died following lengthy health battles, most recently with pneumonia.
“Wes Unseld was one of the most consequential players of his era,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “Wes elevated the game by mastering the fundamentals.”
The second pick in the 1968 NBA Draft, Unseld turned the Bullets around in his rookie year by leading them to 21 more victories than the previous year and the team’s first ever playoff appearance.
A bruising center with an awesome outlet pass and a nose for the ball, Unseld was troubled by knee problems his entire career but always played a physical game. He retired in 1981 as the league’s seventh all-time leading rebounder.
Unseld led Baltimore to five consecutive playoff appearances and continued the streak when the team moved to Washington in 1973. The Bullets made 12 consecutive playoff appearances during Unseld’s his career, including four trips to the NBA Finals.
The pinnacle of Unseld’s career came in 1978 when he led the Bullets, who rebranded themselves as the Wizards in 1997, past Seattle for the NBA championship and was named Finals Most Valuable Player for his efforts.
“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,” said Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard.
After his playing career, Unseld also worked for the Washington team as a vice president, head coach and general manager.