By the end of last season, Unseld needed some help himself. His left knee was all but gone and in May it was operated on. Cartilage was removed, bone spurs scraped away and the knee cap reset. But after a summer of rehabilitation, Unseld was not completely sanguine. "I've got a fear," he said before the season started. "I don't want to overdo it. I'm scared of getting hurt again."
If there still is a fear, it doesn't show in his play. Nor in Washington's. The Bullets opened with a 110-92 victory over New Orleans and then ran through six more rivals before losing to Houston. The record went to 8-1 before a loss to surprising Cleveland early last week. In that game, the second loss, Unseld led the team in scoring with 21 points. "That means we were in trouble," he said. "I shouldn't score that much. I just put the ball up because nobody else was doing anything."
Unseld's return to form has meant, among other things, that Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier no longer have to carry the Bullets by themselves. The team offense has improved and the defense is dramatically better. The result can be seen in one set of figures. Last season the Bullets averaged 1.5 points per game more than their opponents, seventh in the league. This year they lead the league with plus 8.9 points a game.
There is also the matter of depth. K.C. Jones says the Bullets have more of it than any of the Boston Celtics championship teams on which he played. "I don't believe their bench," said Bill Fitch, the Cleveland coach and general manager as he watched the Bullets pull to within five points of the Cavs after being down by 27 last week. "I called two time outs but I didn't want to talk to my players. I wanted to see if the Bullets weren't using six players on that karate defense of theirs."
As icing, the Bullets signed Jimmy Jones, the Utah Stars' smooth, smart All-ABA guard, after the season opened. Jones contends that he became a free agent when the Stars did not properly exercise their option. They disagree, naturally, and the dispute is now in the courtroom. Meanwhile, the Bullets roll on full-bore on the court.
Well, not quite full-bore, says Unseld. "We're just overpowering a lot of teams. We have to settle down, to think more. We have to start putting teams away instead of letting them hang around."
Saturday night the Bullets had a chance to put away the Bulls as early as the third quarter, but at the end there was tough old Chicago, losing 96-89, but still hanging around. At the end of the first quarter, Chicago had been ahead 26-19, at which point K.C. Jones turned loose his bench, led by Jimmy Jones, who has been playing himself into shape, and Chicago was sacked. By the half, the Bullets had a 47-45 lead, and the bench had scored 22 of the last 28 points. By the end of the third quarter the lead had fattened to 77-63, but the Bullets couldn't quite apply the coup de gr�ce. They held on to win by seven.
For the night, Unseld brought down 14 rebounds (three from the offensive boards), had two steals, blocked two shots, had three assists and held Thurmond to 10 points.
"He doesn't even think about scoring," said Mike Riordan, the forward-guard out of the Bronx. "Most players, when they get the ball, instinctively look for a shot. Wes instinctively looks for the open man. Totally unselfish. He keeps the ball moving so much everybody gets a piece of the action. Guys love playing with him. He makes everybody else look good. I guess that's why he never gets any publicity. Most people are impressed by scoring statistics. The players are more impressed by all the other things he does, his ability to neutralize the other people. And you have to remember—this guy isn't a superstar just on the court. He's a superstar in life, too."
Riordan grinned. "But I've been working on him," he said. "I even get him to take a beer now and then."