WASHINGTON — No matter what changes the Washington Bullets could, should and perhaps still will make before the upcoming NBA season, it's safe to say one of the more startling moves of their offseason has been Wes Unseld's becoming an assistant coach.
A Bullet vice president almost from the day of his retirement as the team's center following the 1980-81 season, Unseld never used to hesitate when people asked him about the possibility of coaching: no way, nohow, nowhere.
Sometimes the sentiment would be conveyed merely by a flashing glare from his dark, deep-set eyes. At other times a firm hand would clamp itself, viselike, across an inquisitor's arm and then a soft voice would coo, "Don't talk to me about coaching."
Still, after watching the Bullets play at Capital Centre, or from a courtside seat on the road, where he did television commentary, Unseld gradually began to have second thoughts.
"I'd sit there watching and get more and more frustrated," he said. "I'd see things that should be done--especially by big guys--where they could help the team and help themselves but they weren't doing it. When (Coach) Kevin (Loughery) asked, I began to think 'Why not?' "
So began the process that led Unseld, 41, to his new role, filling the vacancy left when Fred Carter was allowed to join the Philadelphia 76ers' staff.
"I have it firm in my mind that I have some things to offer," said Unseld, who retains his vice president's title. "It would be silly for me to say that I'm going to go out and show Muggsy (rookie guard Tyrone Bogues) some offensive moves. But defense and rebounding, setting picks . . . those were the things I liked to do and could do well. I think I could help people in those areas."
Loughery said, "We had a lot of qualified people apply for this job, a lot. But Wes was the first guy that I thought of. There's no one in professional basketball who I respect more. He's the classiest guy I've been around in the game and he has a good knowledge of the game--he's a good guy to have around."
Unseld may be good to have around because his presence lends an air of credibility with the players that Carter lacked, most specifically with center Moses Malone. Loughery and Malone are both strong-willed men, and often didn't see eye to eye last season. Some speculate that Unseld will be able to reach the 32-year-old all-star at a level Loughery can't.
"I've heard that, and Kevin has given both me and (fellow assistant) Bill Blair the authority to say anything we want to anyone," Unseld said. "Moses isn't going to especially listen to me more than he would anyone else."
Loughery says a six-month, 82-game grind isn't going to be without friction, adding, "I hope we have as few incidents as we did last season." Malone puts in that his main concern, like Loughery's, is winning and that he foresees no problems.
Winning is the biggest problem facing the Bullets. To that end, scrimmaging has been kept to a minimum during the training-camp practices, with an emphasis on fundamentals.
That will be essential during the regular season, especially if Washington's inconsistent shooting and rebounding of 1986-87 continue. Now, though, the routine of two-a-days might seem like drudgery for a man accustomed, as Unseld is, to spending his time as he sees fit. But Unseld says he has thoroughly enjoyed the work.
"There's no reason why I shouldn't like it. The head coach is the one with the pressure on him," he said. "We (assistants) do our stuff before game time, then all eyes are on the head coach. Then, (the fans) aren't going to know that we didn't prepare the players right."
There has been speculation that Unseld is being groomed for something better, perhaps Loughery's job or maybe even General Manager Bob Ferry's if the Bullets should stumble.
Asked this week if they were feeling any job pressure going into the season, Loughery and Ferry said they do not.
"You can't do it in this business, you just can't," said Loughery. "The Detroit series (a three-game sweep by the Pistons in the opening round of last season's playoffs) was a major disappointment to me as a coach. It finished the year on a sour note. But overall we had a good year, winning 42 games with three of our top seven people (Frank Johnson, Jay Vincent and since retired Dan Roundfield) out for most of the season."
"All you can do is do your best with what you have," echoed Ferry. "The last three years, if everybody's healthy, we would have been near 50 wins each season. Even so, we made the playoffs this year. . . .
"They had their chance if they wanted to get rid of me," Ferry said. This summer, the Bullets denied the New York Knicks permission to talk with Ferry about their general-manager opening.
Unseld winces when he hears talk that he is an heir apparent for a better job. He knows people wonder why he left a job in the front office, where he was the only black in a managerial position with the Bullets.
"There's such an outcry today in sports about blacks and the front office, and here I was thinking about giving up a spot to be an assistant coach," he said. "It was a really big concern; I had a lot of friends ask if I was being demoted for some reason. But I never put much stock in titles. It didn't do me much good to be known as a vice president. Once I was satisfied in my mind that I was doing the right thing, then I did it."