But the saddest knee case belonged to Wes Unseld, the Baltimore center. He played far below full strength, suffering the lingering effects of a recent cartilage operation on his left knee. Unseld came to the Bullets from Louisville's Seneca High School and the University of Louisville. At both he achieved a reputation for athletic excellence and personal integrity that made him one of the most popular players in Kentucky history, and his presence was partly responsible for attracting 13,821 fans to Freedom Hall. Unseld had been caught up in the first of the violent bidding skirmishes between the NBA and ABA to sign top college stars. Some insensitive ABA tactics embittered Unseld and drove him away from his home town. He signed with the Bullets for $400,000, even though the then owners of the Colonels offered him more money.
In addition to injuries, the Bullets encountered the psychological problem that is likely to bother all NBA teams in the interleague games ahead. "I hear these guys are really up for this one. I'll tell you I'm really ready for it, too," laughed Baltimore's Jack Marin before the Kentucky game. "I mean I understand all that stuff about pride, but it shouldn't get outta hand. I gotta worry about getting in shape for the 82 games we've got to play and all the ones after that we hope to play. I want to be in shape for them because they mean something. If they want this game that bad, they'll kill us."
The Colonels wanted it bad. The day before the game, new Kentucky Coach Joe Mullaney, who hugely enjoys Gilmore's mobility after two years of coaching stationary Wilt Chamberlain in Los Angeles, hustled a scout off to the Bullet-Knick game in Virginia, an unheard-of move in the exhibition season.
"This is something we've been looking forward to for four years," said Louie Dampier, the 6', sharpshooting and ballhandling Kentucky guard whose size and talents made him the epitome of the ABA's image in the league's early seasons. "They say we're weaker and I'd like to prove we aren't. I won't say I'll play harder because I always play as hard as I can. But when they leave here tonight I want to make sure they won't be looking down on us anymore."
The Bullets did not exactly look up when they took the floor at Freedom Hall for a pregame practice session with the ABA's red, white and blue ball. "What's this thing for, trained seals?" asked Mad Dog Fred Carter as he took a ball and attempted—unsuccessfully—to spin it on the end of his nose. Marin, the long-range gun in Baltimore's offense, saw the three-point goal arc taped on the floor and announced, "I'm not just a star in this league, I'm a superstar." He promptly missed four of five practice tries from behind the line.
The Bullet shooting was barely more accurate in the game. Kentucky built a 14-point lead in the second period and was never seriously threatened thereafter. Without injuries and with the incentive of regular-season play, the Bullets assuredly would be at least a match for the Colonels. Yet Gilmore's performance, even though marred occasionally by the inevitable rookie errors, showed such promise that it may not be long before the Colonels surpass the Bullets and have to be talked about in terms of Milwaukee's Bucks.
On offense, Gilmore demonstrated far better mobility and a surer shooting touch than was expected after his career at Jacksonville University, where he rarely shot from anywhere other than directly under the basket. And his rebounding and defense are already excellent. On Kentucky's most spectacular offensive thrust of the game, Gilmore crashed high between two beefier Bullets for a defensive rebound and hurled to the speeding Issel a full-court pass reminiscent of Bill Russell. The resulting collision under the Kentucky basket indicated something of Issel's power and the toughness of Baltimore's 6'9" rookie Forward Stan Love, a first-round draft choice from Oregon who led his team with 19 points. Issel caught Gilmore's pass on the run, drove to the basket and scored, plowing over Love on the way. Issel's knee slammed the Baltimore player on the chest, knocked him cold and left him gagging. After the trainers from both teams had their fingers bitten reaching into Love's mouth to make sure he had not swallowed his tongue, the rookie, who had come within seconds of suffocating, took a one-minute rest and returned to the game.
On defense Gilmore blocked six shots and clearly intimidated the Bullets on four others. Again, his style reflected glimmers of Russell. On each of his blocks he waited patiently, ignoring the shooter's fakes, leaping only after the ball had been released and tipping it away before it had reached the apex of its trajectory.
"I know it sounds like hindsight, but there were some scouts last year who said they didn't like Gilmore," said Bullet Kevin Loughery, who is in his 10th NBA season. "I knew they had to be wrong. This game is all rebounding and defense. All you have to do is look at the kid to see that's what he likes best. Right now I'd say he's one of the five most important players in the pros."
Baltimore's embarrassment did not end in Kentucky. The next night at Miami the Bullets met the Floridians, one of the ABA's poorest teams, and lost again, 96-88, as little Mack Calvin scored 33 points. In two weekend games against the improved Carolina Cougars, who have a 7' rookie of their own, Jim McDaniels, the Bullets barely won one, 106-104, and then lost again, 108-98.