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2020 in Review: The Wizards and the NBA said goodbye to many important franchise and league-wide figures this year

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern, first round pick and Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan, franchise legend Wes Unseld, former team owner Irene Pollin and former head coach K.C. Jones died in a year that we would like to forget. And even though he never played for Washington, Kobe Bryant also died.

Chicago Bulls v Washington Bullets
Jerry Sloan, a 1965 first round pick for the-now Washington Wizards and Wes Unseld, their first round pick in 1968 both died this year.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Today, I was going to post highlights from last night’s game against the Chicago Bulls. But I’ll pass up on that opportunity now and take a look back at the calendar year that almost was. So let’s take a look at 2020.

The year 2020 will be remembered by the world for the coronavirus pandemic. But even before Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on Mar. 11 which forced a four-month league-wide suspension, the NBA was hit hard by two January deaths. On Jan. 1, NBA Commissioner David Stern died after suffering a brain hemorrhage a few weeks earlier and retired NBA superstar guard Kobe Bryant.

Losing Stern was tough. He was the Commissioner who turned the NBA from a national into a worldwide brand. He had the vision to found the WNBA and ensure it would never fold, let alone under his watch. And as our commenters in that post mentioned, he also played a major part removing the stigma of HIV, when then-Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson tested positive for it in 1991.

Losing Bryant was tough as well. Though he never played for the Wizards, many current players look up to him as a model for their work ethic. And speaking about the WNBA (I see you DCrez since I have to stay on brand!), he made the orange hoodie a cool thing!

... except that Ted Leonsis wore it too in the WNBA Finals a few months before.

2019 WNBA Finals - Game One
Ted Leonsis is ahead of his time with his fashion style. Just saying.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

This isn’t a post about the WNBA, and I’ll focus that in a different piece. But I’m just saying.

Stern’s and Bryant’s deaths were shocks to the NBA. And little did we know as Wizards fans that death would hit some of the franchise’s most notable figures hard later in the year.

On May 22, Jerry Sloan, the Wizards’, or more accurately, the then-Baltimore Bullets’ first round pick in 1965 passed away. Sloan only played one year for the Bullets before playing the rest of his career with the Chicago Bulls where he would become a two-time All-Star. He even was their head coach from 1979-82.

But if you’re a millennial, like me, we are most accustomed to seeing Sloan as the Utah Jazz’s head coach from 1988-2011. While Sloan never won a championship, he did come close twice in 1997 and 1998 when the John Stockton and Karl Malone duo were at their peak. Still, once a Wizard, always a Wizard.

Right as the NBA was still reeling from Sloan’s death, Wes Unseld, the GOAT of the Wizards franchise, died on June 2. The Bullets/Wizards franchise is the only NBA team that he ever knew, where he played, coached and ran the front office for them during his career. During his career, he was one of only two players to be a Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season back in 1968-69! And Unseld was one of the key players behind the then-Bullets’ only championship in 1978.

As the summer went on, former owner Irene Pollin died on July 28. She, along with her husband, the late Abe Pollin, were part of the Wizards franchise through their triumphant days in the 1970s, the Bullets’ name change in 1997 and also through the late 2000s when the team went through the gun incident back in 2009. She also represented the team when the team won the rights to draft then-franchise player John Wall in 2010. Losing Unseld was bad enough, but losing Pollin with him was a double gut punch.

And finally, K.C. Jones, the Bullets’ head coach from 1973-76, died on Christmas Day this year. While he is better known as a former star point guard and head coach for the Celtics in their glory days, Jones still led the Bullets to the 1975 NBA Finals, when Unseld was the man in the middle and the Pollins owned the team.

Wow, this was a rough year for us, not just as basketball fans or as NBA fans, but as Washington Wizards fans. 2020 couldn’t end soon enough.