THEY SAID IT, I LEARNED FROM IT
“Race you to the dorm”
Sometimes, heroes really are role models. In the place and time of my childhood, Wes Unseld and Brooks Robinson were two of the best at everything they did. The lessons these athletes taught are indelible. They were a part of us…and made us feel like we were a part of them. How have role models influenced your life?
My brother, Brett, oftentimes sends me text messages that remind me how old I am. He’s younger, far better-looking, wittier, and adept at ribbing me. Youth has its privileges. A few months back, he shared an article that featured the incomparable “Dr. J” (Julius Erving). Erving, it seems, claims that the most dominating basketball player in history — Wilt Chamberlain — actually feared a rival player on the court.
It’s hard to believe “The Big Dipper” feared anyone on the court, but apparently, he was a bit intimidated by Westley Sissel Unseld, center for the Baltimore Bullets. Wes Unseld was known as “The Baby Bull” for his relentless pursuit of rebounds. He was undersized for an NBA center but retired with virtually every accolade a player can receive.
My childhood is replete with memories of the glory years of the Bullets and the thrilling games played in the Baltimore Civic Center. The names — just like the players themselves — were magic: Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson, “Mad Dog” Freddie Carter, and of course, Wes Unseld, the rebounding savant. Wes was the Bullets’ “big fella” as announcer Jim Karvellas used to say. At 6’7”, he was the best big fella who wasn’t really a big fella, at least by NBA standards.
Brett’s text about Mr. Unseld reminded me of my week-long encounter with “The Baby Bull”. It was anything but cause for fear.
Unseld had come to Baltimore in 1968 as an All-American out of the University of Louisville. He quickly earned the admiration of Baltimore Bullet fans everywhere, especially young guys like me who idolized everything about him.
Wes announced plans to hold a summer basketball camp. I was in awe at the thought that I might be able to participate. It was the early 1970’s and my freshman year of high school loomed. I approached my parents about attending.
The reaction was mixed.
Dad couldn’t get past the $200 camp registration. Mom said she would pay the $50 deposit but the balance would be my responsibility. In my view, $150 of my earnings in exchange for a week with Wes Unseld at Mount St. Mary’s College (now University) in Emmitsburg, Maryland, was the deal of a lifetime.
The big day arrived. My close friend, Stewart Getz, attended the camp with me. His mom drove us to Emmitsburg and the beautiful campus known as “The Mount”. In the back seat, I clutched my envelope with $150 in small bills, the majority of which were 5’s and 1’s.
I discreetly counted and recounted the cash multiple times on the 90-minute trip. The anxiety of getting to the registration desk and being a few bucks short nearly killed me.
Upon arrival, I watched as moms and dads wrote checks (no credit cards accepted in those days) for the balance due on their sons’ accounts. The contents of my tattered white envelope were my ticket. The kind woman at the registration table counted quickly. I held my breath. A string with a dorm room key attached was passed across the table.
I was in!
Camp was incredible. Wes Unseld was the constant. He was everywhere. On the court, he demonstrated his patented outlet pass, the power, and precision of which had to be seen to be believed. He dared us to try and run through his powerful picks and notorious screens. He sat next to us as we watched film. Incredibly, he stayed in a room just down the hall. The great Wes Unseld slept in the campers’ dorm! We were beyond fortunate to have none other than the man who made Wilt Chamberlain fearful double as our camp director and our resident assistant. My, how times have changed.
Another thing “The Baby Bull” did was eat meals with the group. He made the effort to sit at different tables during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We were both hopeful and anxious for the moments he spent dining with us. He gave each one of us a generous portion of his time. He did it with kindness, sincerity, and in an innate way that was befitting of a genuine hero. For us, his humble manner instilled confidence, not fear.
One day during dinner, a summertime thunderstorm rolled through the campus. The rain fell in sheets as we finished eating. We stood by the cafeteria doors wondering if we should make a break for our rooms.
The huge shadow of Westley Sissel Unseld — THE Baltimore Bullet and future NBA Hall of Famer — enveloped two or three of us.
“Race you to the dorm,” he challenged.
We were off. He stayed behind. Five or six steps into the driving rainstorm we realized we had been had. Inside the cafeteria vestibule, grinning and laughing while holding the doors firmly shut, stood the fun-loving camp counselor named Wes Unseld.
Our attempts to get back into the building to ride out the downpour were futile. A few pairs of 13- and 14-year old arms were no match for “The Baby Bull”. The NBA MVP was treating us like his buddies and still earning our respect.
I could almost tear up as I write thinking of the 34 rebounds he grabbed in a game three victory over the New York Knicks during the 1970 Eastern Division semifinals. Thirty-four rebounds in one playoff game! One year after that epic performance, I literally was in tears. The joy as Wes blocked a Bill Bradley shot with three seconds remaining to preserve a 93–91 win over the rival Knicks was profound. My (the city’s) Bullets were going to the NBA finals for the first time.
Even more deep-seated than the memories Wes made on the court were those he provided to a bunch of 8th and 9th graders in the summer of 1973.
After retirement, Wes opened the Unseld School, an educational center that his wife ran in West Baltimore. Remaining true to his impeccable character, Unseld regularly mopped floors at the school, mowed the grass, and welcomed hugs from the young students who benefitted from his generosity.
“I’m proudest of the fact that I had a career in Baltimore,” Unseld said as he reflected on his magnificent time in the NBA. “I grew to love this city early on.”
We loved you, too, Wes.
Rest assured that some things are worth saving one and five-dollar bills for…especially when people like Wes Unseld are there to ensure value. The white envelope containing my lawn-mowing earnings was the best $150 I ever spent.
My brother Brett’s text reminded me that I’m getting older. It also allowed me to reminisce about when some heroes were also role models. It’s clear to me now in the recollections of youth why this wonderful man was often referred to as Wes “Unselfish”.
“Race you to the dorm.”
Five simple words of invitation from a then-budding basketball legend to some young basketball campers.
For a week at Mount St. Mary’s in the summer of 1973, we were part of him and he was part of us. Wes Unseld was a big-time guy who made the rest of us feel big-time as well. That’s a hero…and a role model.
Written by Craig Halsey
They said it, I learned from it is a compilation of lessons learned from the things we’ve heard people say over the course of many lifetimes. It’s amazing what you can learn when you listen. Watch for They Said it, I learned from it every Friday in The Weekly Hodl. It’s perfect reading while you enjoy your second breakfast. Sign up today.