Matt Williams had a nickname for Wes Unseld Jr. when the college student worked for him in the Washington Wizards public relations department.
“I called him Captain America,” said Williams, who was the franchise’s executive vice president and media relations chief from 1988 through 2010.
The new Wizards head coach has been asked to do what his father, whose jersey hangs in the rafters at Capitol One Arena, did as a player decades ago: Bring this beleaguered organization an NBA championship.
The Wizards made it official Saturday with the announcement that Unseld, the son of the late Wes Unseld Sr., the greatest player in franchise history, would take the job left vacant after Scott Brooks and his five-year, $35 million contract was not renewed.
Unseld, who played high school and college ball in Baltimore, returns to lead a franchise where he got his start as an assistant coach, from 2005 to 2011, followed by stints with the Golden State Warriors, the Orlando Magic and the Denver Nuggets.
I’m guessing that Unseld’s four-year deal doesn’t have a $7 million annual salary attached to it. Owner Ted Leonsis is probably still wondering what he got for his $35 million with the previous coach.
“I want to thank Tommy and Mr. Leonsis for the opportunity to lead this talented team both on and off the court and to continue moving the franchise in a positive direction,” Unseld said in a statement released by the team. “Becoming a head coach in the NBA is a goal that I have pursued my entire adult life and to have that dream realized by coming full circle back to Washington is truly special. I look forward to representing the DMV, connecting with our fans and establishing a new standard for Wizards basketball.”
He is a legacy for a franchise that hasn’t had many opportunities for legacies. His name carries a lot of weight, thanks to the success that drafting his father in 1968 brought to this franchise, first in Baltimore, then in Washington: Four NBA finals and the 1978 NBA championship.
But the name also comes with the baggage — also part of his dad’s legacy — of Unseld Sr.’s losing stints as the Wizards’ vice president, coach and general manager. For a generation of Washington basketball fans, Unseld Sr. represented much of what was wrong with the tenure of previous owner Abe Pollin.
“His strong record as an in-game tactician along with his attention to detail on both sides of the ball combined with his reputation for player development and outstanding character during his 20-plus years of coaching left no doubt that he was the best choice to guide our team to the next level,” Washington general manager Tommy Sheppard said in the team statement.
No doubt? There were eight coaching vacancies in the NBA after the season ended. Unseld Jr. got the last job left.
I’d say there was plenty of doubt.
Still, for those who watched Unseld grow up in this organization, it seems like the right fit.
“I had seen him as a young teen and young man,” Williams said. “That family is as remarkable as a family can be. The kids emulated their parents, in that they were extremely smart, engaging and pleasant to be with.
“It was obvious he was extremely intelligent and steeped in basketball knowledge.” Williams said. “His work ethic was remarkable. He will never leave a stone unturned. He quietly does the work and I’ll bet he outworks anybody.
“He’s got that work ethic that his mom (Connie) and dad had. His mom was so committed to education and kids having an opportunity. That’s why they started the Unseld School. They had a passion for success and working hard, and I know Wes has those qualities.”
Maybe Unseld will be the guy to bring this franchise and its fanbase to the promised land — someplace they haven’t been since his father ruled the court. No 50-win seasons since 1979. No Eastern Conference finals appearances, let alone NBA finals.
Maybe it will take the combination of Wes and Connie Unseld to turn around a franchise that has seen the Bird-Magic era, the Jordan era, the Shaq-Kobe era, the Tim Duncan era and now the twilight of the LeBron era come and go without any local evidence that the NBA was and has been, as they used to say when Unseld Sr. played, “fantastic.”
Definitely a job for Captain America.
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