The memories of cherished childhood moments were awakened when I learned recently of the death of Westley Unseld, one of my true heroes.
Why would I call a basketball player a hero? That is because he was much more than a great basketball player to me.
Growing up, there were no blacks at either of the elementary schools I attended, neither at Beechmont Elementary nor Indian Trail Elementary, where I finished the sixth grade after our family moved to what was considered suburban Louisville at the time.
That summer, however, that changed. At Indian Trail, a recreation program was available for youth and since it was free and within easy walking distance it filled many hours for me.
The most important moment for me was the arrival of Wes Unseld, who had just led Seneca High School to its second straight state basketball championship and been named Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball. He would be attending the University of Louisville beginning in the fall. And that was the school I cheered for and, occasionally when I got lucky, was able attend Cardinals games at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds’ Freedom Hall.
When I first met Mr. Unseld, I didn’t know what to expect since I had never met a black man before. It was a pleasant learning experience that has shaped my thinking ever since.
One day, I pedaled to the school with my current Cincinnati Reds yearbook in hand. Wes took an interest and asked to look at it. On another day, Westley hit a softball too far on the outdoor playground and uttered a mild profanity.
Mr. Unseld didn’t hesitate to apologize.
It turned out to be one of the best summers I ever had.
Later, I found out we had the same orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Rudy Ellis, and I would see Mr. Unseld occasionally in the waiting room. Westley’s great career was complicated by knee injuries and since birth I had been plagued with knee and hip problems. Westley always had a friendly word when I saw him at the doctor’s office in downtown Louisville.
At the University of Louisville, Westley was renowned for his great outlet passes, exceptional rebounding and also was a 20-point plus scorer. Those impressive skills for the relatively short 6-foot 7-inch basketball player made him an All-American player and after that a great NBA player. One list named him one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all-time.
One year when Louisville basketball tickets were easy to get and a lot less expensive, my parents gave me the fabulous gift of a season ticket for the Louisville Cardinals’ home games during Wes’ senior year. That was a thrill watching that team that also included Butch Beard, another former Mr. Basketball; Jerry King, Fred Holden, and other outstanding players.
The connection continued at my high school, Thomas Jefferson High School.
Wes’ younger brothers, Robert and Isaac attended my high school. Ike was in my graduating class. Unfortunately, TJ was a fairly new high school and was opened after Wes started attending Seneca.
TJ was the best integrated public high school in Jefferson County and yet was still divided in many ways. You would see whites on one side of the classroom and blacks on another side. The only ones sitting together were white and black athletes.
In my senior year at TJ, I was the editor of The Declaration, the school newspaper. I was inspired to write a column by what I had learned beginning with meeting Westley and the words of a black classmate.
The words of the classmate stayed with me and were part of the column. He said, “There’s only one race: the human race.” I know many, unfortunately, would disagree with that sentiment, but if more people lived with that belief it would make for a much better world. It is a good companion thought to the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
As the years went by, I ran into Ike Unseld from time-to-time, but I didn’t see Westley again until after his playing career was over.
It was quite a career as Wes was voted the NBA’s rookie of the year and MVP in his first year with the Bullets. Later, he along with Elvin Hayes led the Bullets to their only NBA title.
In 1983, I was a reporter at the Prince George’s (Maryland) Journal when I encountered him (I can’t say I ran into him because he was a still a formidable presence for my 5-11 frame) at a Bullets’ event in Landover, Md.
I reminded Wes of that time decades earlier when I met him at Indian Trail Elementary School. He gave me a big smile and was delighted to see anyone remembered those days.
Who could have ever forgotten having met Wes Unseld? I was working as a “sheriff” at a polling place in Lawrence County, Ind., last week when I learned of his death. I could hardly hold back tears, but let out a big sorrowful “Oh my!”
I was asked by another poll worker what had happened. I explained by sharing my story of Big Wes, one of my lifelong heroes, and how he was someone who helped me realize the brotherhood of all humans.