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Volume 23 No. 18
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Forum: Remembering a ‘Hall of Fame human’ Wes Unseld

My start in sports was at the Washington Bullets in 1993. I interned for general manager John Nash, and little did I know I was starting relationships that would last a lifetime. I met people that remain in sports today — from Susan O’Malley (University of South Carolina), to Lee Stacey (Monumental Sports), to Jim Delaney (Activate Sports & Entertainment), while Jon Steinberg, Jeff Garrant and Doug Hicks were in PR. Years later, I found out that Andy Elisburg, from the Miami Heat, interned with the Bullets as a 20-year-old going into his senior year of college.

The executive tree from Abe Pollin’s Washington, D.C.-sports empire should never be overlooked, and I fondly remembered those days after the loss of Wes Unseld, who could be considered the patriarch of the “Bullets family” outside of Abe and Irene Pollin. Growing up, I watched Unseld run the floor in the Bullets’ salad days of the mid-70s as they went to four NBA championships, winning it all in 1978. He could pass and rebound, and boy, was he tough.

I remember how intimidated I was on my first day being led into his office to be introduced to “Coach Unseld.” Unseld gingerly separated his large frame from his chair and stood, grabbed my hand, asked about me, my background and my interest. He had a new fan for life. Delaney texted me quickly after Unseld’s death, “He always had your back. We lost a Hall of Fame human.” What stood out to me is the quiet impact Unseld had on the lives and careers of so many young people at that time. Here are their stories:

DOUG HICKS (marketing consultant/Sinclair Broadcast Group): “In the fall of 1996, Wes was among several, along with Susan O’Malley and Matt Williams, who asked me to take on a role with the Capitals. I wanted to remain with the Bullets staff. The team was just off of a playoff run and had big stars and high expectations. Despite that, I made the move. It was not lost on me that the man asking me to change jobs had done anything and everything Mr. Pollin had asked of him, all for the betterment of the franchise. He was the epitome of selflessness and loyalty, and I was inspired to follow his example.”

JON STEINBERG (senior director, basketball communications/Atlanta Hawks): “In the summer of 1993, I was two weeks out of college and was fortunate to intern in the Bullets’ PR department for less than a year, where I met a mentor in Susan O’Malley and learned under incredible PR professionals. To say I was intimidated by Wes Unseld’s presence is an understatement. I knew he was a giant in the organization, literally and figuratively. As a coach, he was clearly the epitome of tough love. Once we were introduced, the man I met simply couldn’t have been kinder to literally the lowest-level employee, and once you knew him and experienced his enveloping handshake, it felt like you were officially part of the Bullets family.” 

JEFF GARRANT (SVP/Publicis Sport & Entertainment): “Wes had the ability to make everyone feel that they were important and had a personal relationship with him. When I was an intern (1993-95 seasons) I also waited tables at nearby Chadwick’s restaurant. Maybe a month into the internship, Wes came in with a couple of coaches for a post-workday dinner. He had no reason to even know who I was, forget know my name. Yet, he says, ‘Jeff, if you’re waiting on us tonight make sure you get us what we need faster than you get me the halftime stats!’ and then patted me on the back and chuckled in that infectious Wes laugh. Needless to say, I was the ‘hero’ that night to my fellow restaurant staff and managers.”

ANDY ELISBURG (SVP and GM/Miami Heat): “When I was introduced to Wes, I was, for the first and only time in my life, star-struck. I did not know what to say and had become my 8-year-old self. As a child growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, Wes was my first sports hero. It took me a second to collect myself and communicate as an adult and a working professional. It is usually a disappointing story for adults who meet their childhood heroes. Real people are often unable to live up to the image that the child has created. Wes was every bit the person that my childhood memories remembered. He lived his life and represented his family, team and team family with toughness and honor. His passion for the Bullets and the Washington community was real. The Bullets became his family. I worked in Washington for just that summer before returning to college and joined the Miami Heat in the fall of 1988, where I remain today. The Miami Heat has become my family. Just like my hero Wes.”

The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell called Unseld “the most dignified athlete I ever met” and “never a more respected person.”  To me, he was a gentleman who made a youngster in sports feel welcome. Recently, someone wrote me, “It’s nice to not just forget people. We learn that more every day.” Let’s not forget the legacy, loyalty and talents of Wes Unseld. 

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.