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Blast From The Past
Jack McCallum
March 28, 1988
Wes Unseld and Willis Reed, two former NBA greats, try to revive the Bullets and Nets
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March 28, 1988

Blast From The Past

Wes Unseld and Willis Reed, two former NBA greats, try to revive the Bullets and Nets

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"But I decided to do it anyway. I had enjoyed working with the team in training camp, more than I thought I would. And my feeling was that I could do it for a year and get out if I didn't like it." Unseld takes a long sip of his iced tea. "Of course, it didn't turn out that way."

The Bullets started to collapse under Loughery on Dec. 22, when they lost 106-102 to Cleveland at home. Four more losses followed, including three in a row at home, and after the last, to Houston on Jan. 2, Pollin decided to make a change. As always, Unseld was foremost in his thoughts.

"Frankly, with the way things had deteriorated, he was the only one who could get the job done," says Pollin. Just to be official, Pollin solicited recommendations from general manager Bob Ferry, but according to Ferry, "Abe really tuned out everybody else." Pollin summoned Unseld to his home in Bethesda on the evening of Jan. 2, asked for his opinions on the team ("I did not paint a rosy picture," says Unseld), then offered him the job.

The pressures that fall upon a new coach were simply not there for Unseld. Pollin told him that the team was his for as long as he wanted to coach—naturally, they didn't talk contract specifics—and, when he didn't want to coach anymore, Unseld's old job would be waiting.

"What Wes brought to this club was stability," says Bullet assistant Bill Blair. "If somebody doesn't want to play, then that person will sit on the bench. Because nobody but nobody is running Wes Unseld out of here."

The man who ran Reed out of the Knicks job in '78 was Sonny Werblin, president and CEO of Madison Square Garden Corp., which still runs the club. The firing has never been a subject to bring out the conversationalist in Reed, but he spoke about it last week.

"My mistake was not taking the time to sit down and talk to Sonny," Reed said. "I had been hired by Alan Cohen [who preceded Werblin], and I did not make it my business to know Sonny's business. That was a mistake, a mistake I would not make today. You have to be aware of who's signing your paycheck." He leans back in his chair. "Anyway, the important thing is that after I was fired, I did something about it. I knew I still wanted to be a coach, and I said, 'Willis Reed is going to have to go somewhere to get some credentials.' "

So Reed went to college, specifically to St. John's, where he was Lou Carnesecca's unpaid assistant for a year, and then to Creighton University, where he was head coach for four years. Despite a 15-39 record in his first two seasons, and despite the onus of having coached not only the unpredictable Benoit Benjamin, but also Kevin Ross, the ex-Creighton player who later gained national attention by reenrolling in grammar school because he couldn't read or write, Reed survived and even prospered in his last two seasons, for which he had a 37-25 record. He had two years left on his contract when he took a pay cut to join the Atlanta Hawks as an assistant in 1985. As Reed says, "I knew I wanted to get back to the NBA."

He spent two "crucial" seasons under Mike Fratello before joining Bill Russell in Sacramento last September. In title he was still an assistant, but in practice he and Jerry Reynolds were more like head coaches in Russell's delegate-the-responsibility system. The Kings went gradually downhill—two weeks ago Russell was kicked upstairs and Reynolds was named head coach. (Incidentally, it was by no means a certainty that Reed would have been hired ahead of Reynolds had he still been in Sacramento.) The Nets' decline had been more dramatic. With his record at 2-13 on Dec. 9, New Jersey coach Dave Wohl was fired and replaced by designated dike-plugger Bob MacKinnon, the assistant general manager. MacKinnon was strictly an interim coach, a position he had previously filled when Loughery (he gets around, doesn't he?) was fired as the Nets' coach 35 games into the 1980-81 season.

Nets general manager Harry Weltman acknowledges that at first he strongly supported Indiana Pacers assistant Dick Harter for the top job. But Weltman insists that news reports claiming Reed was hired by Nets board chairman Alan Aufzien against the G.M.'s wishes are unfounded. "Willis had to win me over, and he did," says Weltman.

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