Basketball is in Wes Unseld Jr.’s DNA, but it wasn’t necessarily his destiny. The 47-year-old head coach of the Washington Wizards knew at a young age that he wouldn’t be following his legendary father’s footsteps onto an NBA court. He was a good player at small-time (when it comes to basketball) Johns Hopkins University, where he was a two-time captain and ranked 15th in program history in scoring when he graduated with a degree in economics in 1997.
The younger Unseld thought he was headed toward a career on Wall Street until his dad, a one-time Hall of Fame player who was then general manager of the Wizards, persuaded him to take an internship with the team. He started on the ground floor but knew after a few weeks that Wall Street would have to wait.
“I fell in love with the competition,” Unseld says.
Despite his famous name, nothing was handed to him. The elder Unseld, who spent his entire playing, coaching and front office career with the franchise, was a modest superstar who believed in hard work and education. He made sure his son learned every aspect of the business. Unseld Jr. started his professional journey as a scout, then worked as an assistant coach for the Wizards and three other teams in the league for a total of 16 years before Washington hired him as its head coach in July 2021.
The job was the culmination of decades of sweat and perseverance.
“This is truly an honor, to get an NBA coaching job,” he said at his introductory news conference in July 2021. “Certainly, for it to happen here makes it that much more special. I put in a lot of hours to get to this point. For this opportunity to unfold is so gratifying.”
Unseld’s Maryland roots run deep. He grew up in Catonsville, just outside of Baltimore, where his father started his career as a member of the NBA team then known as the Bullets. (The franchise moved to the Washington area in 1973 and changed its name to the Wizards in 1997.) His mother, Connie, founded a private school in Baltimore, where his sister, Kim, still serves as the principal.
Last year, he and his wife, Evelyn, purchased a home in Potomac, where they live with their 10- and 8-year-old children.
We spoke to Unseld at the MedStar Health Performance Center, the Wizards’ training facility in Southeast Washington, D.C., after a practice in October. He was eager to put last season’s disappointing 35-47 record behind him. Two days later, the team got off to a promising start: The Wizards won their opener, defeating the Pacers 114-107 in Indiana. This interview has been edited and condensed.
We’re 48 hours away from the start of the season. What are your emotions at the moment?
There’s a little bit of angst. I think it’s a natural kind of back-to-school feeling. I like where this group is. It’s exciting to see how all the pieces will fit together. We’ve had a good summer and a good September, a solid training camp leading up to the start of the regular season. Everyone is itching to go. They’ve put in a lot of work. They want to see the fruits of that labor.
You were raised in Baltimore County. What were the values that your parents instilled in you and your sister?
Very simple: Be a good citizen. Be a good student. Those were the two themes. Regardless of what we were into, what we were doing, just treat people the right way. Just very basic things that sometimes get overshadowed. Although [my father] played a prominent role in his profession, he never overlooked those little things. Be on time, work hard and you’ll get what you deserve.
Was there a moment when you first realized how famous your dad was?
I don’t remember one specific moment, but there were times when we were kids—obviously this was before social media and everyone had cameras on their phones—but we’d go to dinner as a family and quite often he would be gracious enough to sign autographs and speak to people. …I remember him telling my sister and I, ‘It costs nothing to say hello.’ It’s just a simple gesture. He had an understanding that he was in a privileged position, and within the position came a responsibility to be a good steward of the community and conduct himself in a professional manner. He took that to heart. It was a lesson for us, certainly for me in this business, that humility is not lost.
How involved was he in molding you as a player growing up?
He wasn’t that involved at all. I think he did that intentionally. He was concerned about the undue pressure that would put on a kid. There were times I did hear parents of other kids make comments like, ‘You’ll never be as good as your dad.’ I’m 6, 7 years old. So he really tried to step back, let me be coached. He didn’t want to overshadow the coaches, didn’t want to become the center of attention, which I can appreciate now.
You would end up attending Johns Hopkins University. Was that a basketball decision, an academic decision, or both?
I had no intention of staying that close to home, but I had a really good experience as I visited with the coaching staff, with some of the other recruits in my class. I knew at an early age that I wasn’t playing professionally. Just being around it, you had a pretty good insight on what that entails. For me, it was more about education. The thought was to go through school and be able to play at the collegiate level. I enjoyed that experience.
Your first “job” in basketball was as an intern for the Wizards. What did you learn?
I did everything. My dad, as the general manager at the time, said, ‘You have to learn the business.’ So I interned in every department. The first thing he gave me was the collective bargaining agreement. He said, ‘You’ve got to read it and you’ve got to know it.’ It’s a lot of legal jargon, which gets a little confusing, but I learned the basics. I interned in marketing, sales, PR, human relations
—every facet of the business. Now in the position that I’m in, I have an appreciation for everyone and what they do to help make our jobs easier. It also helps me in my working relationships with those departments because I understand the struggles they have to go through.
When did you start thinking about coaching?
It didn’t start until my fifth or sixth year in. I was an advance scout, basically sending back reports as I’d go out and see teams, trying to help our team prepare for their next opponent. You start watching so much film and so many games, you’re kind of pulling in different philosophies. You look at certain coach-player relationships and think, I like this; I don’t like that. You’re always writing things down and stealing different ideas. You start formulating ideas, even though you don’t really do it consciously.
All of a sudden you have a notebook full of stuff. I think that’s where it kind of clicked for me. The relationship I had with the [coaching staff] allowed me inroads to jump from the scouting realm to assistant coaching.
You were an assistant coach for 16 years. What’s life like for an assistant coach in the NBA?
There’s a lot of film study, a lot of player development work. A lot of it is being prepared for practice, being prepared for opponents. Finding ways to build connections and relationships with players. I think the benefit I had was the staffs I worked with gave me tons of opportunities and helped me find my voice. It helps build credibility amongst the players. It gave me confidence to do the job.
It’s a lot of long hours. Not quite as long as mine now, but close.
You interviewed for multiple head coaching vacancies before the Wizards. What did you learn during that process?
Some of them are very direct as far as you’re going to meet the ownership, you’re going to be with the president and GM and that’s it. There’s others where it’s a large group of people and you have to go through a long vetting process. One takeaway is you have to be prepared for anything. What it boils down to is they already know you. You’re just there to confirm what they think they know.
Did you think it wasn’t going to happen for you?
I stopped worrying about whether or not it would happen. I was a lead assistant, I was an associate head coach, making a great living, working with terrific people, unbelievable players on a winning team. So if this is the worst it gets, this is terrific.
What was different with the Wizards? Why was this the right time and fit?
I don’t know. (Laughs.) That’s probably a [General Manager] Tommy [Sheppard] question. A lot of it has to do with the amount of success we had in my previous position (as an assistant with the Denver Nuggets). When there’s a coaching change, you look at the landscape, you’re looking at what everyone else is doing. If a team has had success, you want to draw from that and find some type of commonality. Can we mirror that success here?
Your dad passed away in 2020. What do you think he would say about you being the coach of the Washington Wizards?
I think he would be extremely proud, but he would think I was a bit nuts to jump in and do what he did for a number of years. (Unseld Sr. coached Washington—with limited success—from 1988 to 1994.) It was a struggle for him because I think the mindset of some of the guys he was coaching and his approach were different. He got a lot out of the groups that he had. They were tough, they played physical, they were in great condition, but it’s really hard to win in this league. Him as a former elite player, I don’t know if all the players he coached had the same work ethic, had the same mindset. I think that kind of ate at him at times.
What did you learn last year about being a head coach in the NBA?
There are so many other layers that go beyond basketball. The staffs have gotten much larger. There’s got to be constant communication. Managing the players is one thing, the basketball piece is one thing, but making sure that the messaging is the same, that we’re all pulling in the same direction. We have a terrific staff, hardworking, very good at what they do, but you still have to make sure it aligns with your vision and your direction.
Even the best NBA teams lose a solid number of games. How do you deal with losing?
It’s not easy. The one takeaway is how we lost. If we’re not competitive, if we’re not doing the things we’re supposed to be doing, that’s where the frustration comes. If we did everything right, if the process was solid and you just didn’t make shots, or that team excelled, you know, you’re not going to win them all. But if we’re not playing the right way, we’re not moving the ball, we’re not defending, if there are certain tactical things we’re not doing, that’s when the frustration filters in.
We hear the term “culture” a lot in sports. What does it mean to you, and how do you go about establishing your culture in an organization?
I like the term culture, but I think it’s often overused when it comes to sports.
I think the assumption is that you can just acquire it. I don’t think that’s the case. It takes years to continue to build. Things can collapse in a moment. For me, I look at culture as an accumulation of your habits. If you’re consistent with your habits, if you care enough to do them, that becomes your culture and what you’re identified with. It’s not something you just put a stamp on and say, ‘This is our culture.’
I’m sure there’s a lot of stress being a head coach in the NBA. What do you enjoy most about it?
There is a lot of stress. (Laughs.) Teaching, honestly. When you see that light bulb moment and guys get it and grasp it. That’s probably the most rewarding.
Do you have specific goals for this season?
I do have some internal goals that I’ve not shared with anyone. Bottom line, our goal is to be better than we were a year ago. From top to bottom. Win-loss column, in our efficiency, how we travel, how we practice. Be better in every facet of the game. I think that will help translate to wins. I don’t know what number that is, but I do think that we have a lot of untapped potential.
You live in Potomac with your family. What do you like about living in Montgomery County?
We purchased out there in March and we moved in in June. Just the privacy. We’re in an area that’s tucked away. It’s very peaceful. We’re in a wooded area, so we see deer and fox and animals running around. It feels like a sanctuary. It’s very relaxed. You can step back a little bit from the rat race and relax.
We have plenty of areas for the kids to play. We’ve got a little sport court, a pool, so it’s like their own little park.
What does the Unseld family do for fun together?
We love movies. It was tough getting through COVID because we couldn’t go to the movies. Movie night, whether out or just throwing something on TV and popping some popcorn, all of us enjoy that.
Do you ever have a moment when it hits you and you think, Wow, I’m the coach of the Washington Wizards?
Quite often. There are times when I’m out running errands and people want to stop me and ask for autographs. I’m like, ‘Mine? Are you serious?’ You do sit back and think, There are only 30 of these [jobs] in the world, and I’m blessed to have one of them. I certainly don’t take it lightly. I do understand and realize how fortunate I am.
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.