For six seasons, through 1974, Willis Reed of the New York Knicks and Wes Unseld of the then Baltimore (and Capital) Bullets went at each other, mano à mano, in one of the NBA's more gladiatorial confrontations. Neither of the teams was ever far from first place, and Reed and Unseld, dominant centers both, never seemed to be that far from each other in the way they approached the game. Reed, at 6'10", was taller and had a feathery jump shot, while Unseld was a 6'7" bull moose who forged his reputation on rebounding, pick setting and outlet passing. But as the years rolled by they came to symbolize the same virtues: hard work, dedication, strength, loyalty, constancy, courage. And they commanded a lasting respect that is atypical around the NBA, even for great players.
In their present and somewhat parallel situations, that respect will get them a morning newspaper, provided they also throw in a couple of bits. Reed, 45, is the head coach of the New Jersey Nets, while Unseld, 42, holds the same position with the Washington Bullets, the franchise he joined two decades ago out of the University of Louisville. Both were summoned as in-season replacements to energize two tired old acts in the tired old Atlantic Division.
And, yes, there are signs that the rejuvenation process might be starting in both of those urban twilight zones, Landover, Md., and East Rutherford, N.J. Unseld is 20-18 since taking over for Kevin Loughery on Jan. 5, and at this writing the Bullets were a game behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Reed, meanwhile, has forged a 5-6 record since getting the Nets job on Feb. 29, including a 117-107 win over the Celtics at Boston Garden on March 2. At the very least, the two teams are out of the roll-over-and-die doldrums that preceded both hirings.
But early returns, as we know from the Iowa primary, can be misleading, and each coach faces major problems. Unseld, a rookie, must determine if the presence of his three established stars, Moses Malone, Jeff Malone and Bernard King, add up to one contending team or merely to three different average ones. And the situation for Reed, already a once-fired head coach (by the Knicks in 1978), can be summed up thus: He's only eight or nine players away from a championship.
"I didn't take the job because it was easy," said Reed last week. As for Unseld, he's not quite sure why he took the job at all.
Unseld lifts a Reuben sandwich to his mouth, then lowers it, lost in thought. "Wait a minute," he says. "Did I sign a contract? I don't even remember." Unseld is assured of the fact that, yes, at some point, probably at the beginning of the season when he was an assistant, he must have signed a coaching contract, because one is on file with the NBA office. He shrugs and resumes eating his lunch at Faunsworth's, a bar and grill down the road from the Bullets' offices in Landover.
Unseld's relationship with Bullets chairman and owner Abe Pollin is such that details like contracts and salaries are never an issue. Except for his rookie year, when he hired an agent, Unseld and Pollin always came to terms with a simple handshake. That system continued after Pollin named Unseld, on the night of the Wes's retirement ceremony in 1981, vice-president of both the Bullets and the Capital Centre.
At various times since then, as Unseld tended to mostly nonbasketball affairs for the Bullets—such as community relations, marketing and promotion—he would be asked why he didn't get into coaching. His eyes would narrow, his face would become one big scowl, and he would give his standard answer: "Because I'm not interested." He did tutor his protégé, former Bullet (and now Piston) Rick Mahorn, but their earth-moving workouts took place away from the spotlight, at a playground near Bowie State College. And last season Unseld came to training camp, at Loughery's request, to work with the Bullets' big men, but it was strictly on a temporary basis. His front-office job, his charity work and his family (wife Connie and two children, Kimberly, 14, and Westley, 12) kept him busy and content.
Which is the reason almost everyone was surprised—indeed, astonished—when Unseld accepted Loughery's invitation to become a full-time assistant coach at the beginning of this season.
"I haven't quite figured it out myself," says Unseld. "Certainly I had things going through my mind that would keep me from taking it. First, my job had gotten to the point where I could allocate time for my family. I coached my son's basketball team, for example. Second, I liked what I was doing. And, third, being one of the few black executives in sports, I was concerned with the appearance that I was taking a step down to become an assistant.