Fax Machines and Popcorn Spills: The Rocky Road to N.B.A. Coaching
Wes Unseld Jr. still has some of the reports he filed as a young scout for the Washington Wizards in the late 1990s. When he looks at them now, he said, they appear so basic. He still has no idea why Mike Brown, one of the team’s assistants at the time, was so encouraging and supportive of his work.
In any case, Unseld has kept those reports as artifacts from the first of eight seasons that he spent combing the United States for prospects and studying opponents. Sure, there were moments when he questioned the general direction of his life. So many late nights. So many seemingly endless road trips. (“You get into Year 8, and you’re like, ‘This is a grind,’” Unseld said.) But from his courtside seat, he was immersed in the game that he loved.
“It helped me enormously, because you’re seeing all sorts of philosophies firsthand,” Unseld said. “You’re watching all these different coaches and teams and how they use certain players: ‘That’s really good. It might work for our guys.’ In the process, you start to formulate your own ideology.”
Now in his first season as the Wizards’ head coach, Unseld, 46, has used his more than two decades of experience as a scout and then as an assistant — first with the Wizards, and later with the Golden State Warriors, the Orlando Magic and the Denver Nuggets — as the foundation for his approach. Specifically, his time as a scout was vital and remains a part of his identity.
“I think you always have that in you,” he said.
Accustomed to challenges, Unseld has a fresh one with the Wizards, who are 27-31 at the N.B.A.’s All-Star break. Bradley Beal had season-ending surgery on his left wrist this month, and the team was active at the trade deadline, acquiring Kristaps Porzingis from the Dallas Mavericks. To get him, they traded away Spencer Dinwiddie, one of the team’s leading scorers. The Wizards have not had a winning season since 2017-18.
“The goal is the playoffs,” said Ish Smith, a veteran guard who played for the Wizards from 2019 to 2021 and rejoined the team this month through a trade with the Charlotte Hornets. “But every day you’ve got to put the work in.”
In Unseld, the Wizards have a coach steeped in the organization: His father, Wes, who died in 2020 and was honored over the weekend as one of the N.B.A.’s top players ever, was the best player in Wizards history and a longtime executive. That connection surely helped the younger Unseld’s career, but he mostly climbed the coaching ladder the old-fashioned way. And it all started on one of the lowest rungs possible.
For two summers, before and after his graduation from Johns Hopkins in 1997, Wes Unseld Jr. interned with the Wizards. (The first summer, he moonlighted as a sales representative for Nabisco.) With the Wizards, he hopscotched among departments, spending several weeks doing fairly standard tasks in each. His father, who was the team’s general manager at the time, emphasized the importance of hard work. So Unseld assembled media guides. He mingled with fans when he was working in community relations. He tried his hand at selling sponsorships and tickets, where he learned an important lesson about the business of professional sports.
“If we weren’t playing well, it was tough,” he said.
Unseld often started and ended each day the same way: by heading to the practice facility to rebound shots for players.
By the end of his second summer with the team, he maneuvered his way into basketball operations, having shelved his ambitions of an investment banking career. The lure of the game was too strong, and his internship soon segued into a full-time role as a personnel scout, which largely involved evaluating high school and college prospects in the area.
Brown, who had joined the Wizards before the 1997-98 season as a first-year assistant, was not sure what to expect when he first met Unseld. Unseld’s father, after all, was basketball royalty and the face of the franchise.
“He was probably the most well-known person in D.C. besides the president,” Brown said.
But rather than come off as entitled, Wes Unseld Jr. was a sponge for information, Brown said. He was always asking questions, always seeking ways to improve and always willing to do the dirty work — no, really. Brown recalled how the coaches were meeting after practice one morning when one of them spilled some popcorn. Unseld practically jumped out of his chair before returning with a broom and a dustpan.
“I knew right then and there that he was authentic,” said Brown, now an assistant with Golden State. “This was a guy who could’ve skipped two or three steps if he wanted to. But he didn’t skip any.”
When the Wizards had an unexpected opening for an advance scout — someone who visits arenas far and wide to watch future opponents and write reports for the coaching staff — Unseld was in the right place at the right time. It was a promotion and an immediate test.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” said Unseld, who leaned on Brown for guidance. “We lived right around the corner from each other, so I’d go over there to spend time, and we’d watch film and he would help talk me through some of the things, like what to look for and how to organize my thoughts.”
Unseld, Brown said, would often visit just so that he could watch him watch film.
“He wouldn’t even want to say anything because he didn’t want to bother you,” Brown said.
At the time, scouting was still in a relative “Stone Age,” Brown said. Laptops? Forget it. The reports were by hand. Unseld had detailed forms that he used to draw up plays and record other minutiae from the games he watched. But that was only half the challenge: In the early days, he needed to find a fax machine so that his handiwork would beat the coaching staff back to the office by 6 a.m.
“You’d find the nearest 24-hour Kinko’s or a grocery store that was within walking distance of the hotel,” Unseld said. “It was a lesson in self-reliance: You found a way to make it work.”
The technology eventually improved to the point where Unseld could email them. But it was painstaking work, and the travel was nearly as incomprehensible as the hours were. He was routinely on the road for 20-plus days out of the month. His personal record, he said, was 28 straight days living out of a suitcase.
He later spent another six seasons as an assistant on the Wizards’ coaching staff. But when he left for Golden State in 2011 — the team had offered him a more prominent position — Unseld doubted he would ever return.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to,” he said. “But it was just one of those things where you think that if there’s going to be an opportunity, it would be somewhere else.”
Hired by the Wizards last summer, Unseld has found that some aspects of his new job were impossible to anticipate, no matter how many years he had to prepare for such a role. He went so far as to cite the team’s travel schedule, which he was responsible for planning before the start of the season.
“When you’re trying to project it, you’re just like: ‘Oh, this is great. We’ll travel on this day, and then we’ll stay over that night,’” Unseld said. “And then, when you’re living through it, you’re like: ‘What the hell was I thinking? This is awful.’ I don’t think you can ever understand the depth and scope of everything that comes with this position until you’re in it.”
It has been an uneven season for the Wizards, who have been hindered by injuries and will finish the season with a new-look lineup. They rank among the bottom third of the league in both offensive and defensive rating, and Beal can opt for free agency this summer. But Unseld said he was excited about the future, describing Porzingis as a “very talented piece” of the puzzle.
Above all, Unseld is learning as he goes, same as ever, back where it all began.
“It’s amazing,” he said, “how it’s played out.”