Thirty-year anniversary of Sonics' title brings bittersweet memories
Sonics won last title before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson took NBA into new era
Seattle had gained NBA team with $1.75M expansion fee prior to '67-68 season
Sonics moved to Oklahoma City prior to '08-09 season, renamed itself Thunder
Time didn't necessarily begin for the NBA 30 years ago, but it sure did pivot. If one were to designate epochs in a B.C. and A.D. sort of way, everything up through June 1979 might commonly be known as B.B.J., and each season since then as A.L.M. That is, Before Bird and Johnson, and After Larry and Magic.
It was a simpler and more innocent time then, as different from today's NBA as Fortran punch cards are from Blackberries. Sure, there were superstars back in the league's dark ages, a constellation's worth, but they were players rather than icons and their names rarely went on the marquee distinct and separate from their teams. This was small ball in a marketing sense, which made the 1978-79 Seattle SuperSonics -- the last NBA champions before Showtime, the Celtics' resurgence, the ascension of commissioner David Stern, the arrival of Michael Jordan and lights on at ESPN -- perfect for their time.
"The NBA always has been a star-driven product, but that team's balance meant it wasn't one single name that carried us," said Wally Walker, a reserve Sonics forward then and later the team's president and general manager. "We had a couple of veteran guys and a lot of guys in their 20s. But it was so well-balanced. And we had a really good locker room."
Nostalgia can't obliterate all the pockmarks: This was the era of Finals games televised on a tape-delayed basis on weeknights. Some critics saw the NBA as drug-ridden, defensively lax and even "too black" to assure long-term appeal. Finances were shaky, too; Walker remembers that, for the first month of the 1977-78 season, rosters were reduced to 11 players to cut costs (the WNBA has done that this year for the same reason).
Still, the quality of competition was good, the players had skills and personality, and Seattle's run to the championship -- beating Washington one year after the Bullets had defeated the Sonics in a rare Finals rematch -- was a happy story. It was the first major sports championship in the city's history and, in this big, round anniversary year, it remains so.
And that makes the franchise's move from the Pacific Northwest before the just-completed season sting that much more. With all due respect to Oklahoma and the commitment of fans there and Thunder staffers, swapping SEA for OKC has to rank as one of the worst trades in NBA history, in terms of disappointment and bitter aftertaste.
"Seattle was a little different city 30 years ago," said Jack Sikma, the blond center of that title team and an All-Star for seven consecutive years. "It was still pretty new to the professional sports scene. Unfortunately, the NBA is no longer there. Now generations of fans won't ever know what a special time it was for the city."
The Sonics, in fact, planted the big-time flag when they bought in to the NBA for a $1.75 million expansion fee prior to 1967-68. They came in with the San Diego Rockets, the NBA's 11th and 12th teams, and had a better inaugural record (23-59 to San Diego's 15-67). They got to .500 faster (47-35 in 1971-72) but took eight years to the Rockets' two to reach the playoffs (thank you, No. 1 pick Elvin Hayes to Seattle's No. 3 Bob Kauffman). Lenny Wilkens (as player-coach) and Spencer Haywood were Seattle's early stars and "Slick" Watts got noticed for his steals, his smile and his (rare then) shaved head.
It wasn't until the Sonics started building around Dennis Johnson and Fred Brown, drafting Sikma and acquiring Paul Silas, Marvin Webster and Gus Williams that ambitions turned serious. They started 5-17 in 1977-78, at which point Wilkens was brought back to coach, replacing Bob Hopkins. Seattle went 42-18 the rest of the way, then beat the Lakers, Blazers and Nuggets in the playoffs. In the Finals, it ran into Washington, led by Hayes and Wes Unseld in its "it ain't over till the fat lady sings" spring (coach Dick Motta borrowed that quote from San Antonio writer/broadcaster Dan Cook). The Bullets trailed in the series 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 before beating the Sonics by 36 in Game 6 and taking Game 7 in Seattle 105-99. Johnson famously shot 0-for-14 in that finale and, upon missing his first attempt when the teams met again in October, reportedly heard Motta holler, "Oh-for-15!"
By then, Webster was gone, signed away in a move that was supposed to deliver an NBA title to New York. Instead, the compensation paid by the Knicks per free-agency rules then -- sending burly forward Lonnie Shelton to the Sonics -- helped bring it to Seattle. Also, Webster's intended replacement at center, Tom LaGarde, got hurt, shifting Sikma from power forward to center, where his unusual reverse-pivot move confounded defenders.
No Sonics player finished among the NBA's top 20 in scoring or in the top 10 in assists or blocked shots. Sikma's 12.4 rebounds ranked fifth among individuals, Williams' 2.08 steals eighth. Seattle's offense averaged 106.6 points -- fourth from the bottom in what by then was a 22-team league. But at 103.9 points allowed, it had the stingiest defense by nearly a point over Golden State (104.8) and more than three over any other clubs. The Sonics were one of only two teams with a winning road record (21-20) and tied for second with a 31-10 home mark. Williams' 19.2 points made him the team's high scorer, but six regulars averaged in double figures. The assists leader was "point forward" John Johnson (4.4).
"It was a real smart team," said Walker, who still resides in Seattle, overseeing a hedge fund. "We would make a lot of adjustments during games. Lenny gave the players a lot of leeway."
At 52-30, Seattle reached 50 victories for the first time, won the Pacific Division, earned a bye in the playoffs' first round, breezed past the Lakers in five games and went up 2-0 on Phoenix in the conference finals. Losing the next three, though, brought into focus the challenge facing the Sonics: Anything less than a return to the Finals and a championship, this time, would be failure. Not to worry: They won at Phoenix by a point, then gave up only six points of their 112-104 lead in the final 16 seconds of Game 7.
"The pressure was on that team," Sikma said. "I remember it was almost a sense of relief when we got back to the Finals. We just wanted that chance again, and we played very well against the Bullets.''
Same opponent, different outcome: Seattle dropped the opener, then won four in a row, including 10-point victories in Games 2 and 3 followed by a 114-112 overtime game in which Finals MVP Johnson had 32 points and four blocks. In the clincher on the Bullets' court, the Sonics erased an eight-point deficit in the second half to win 97-93. Johnson (22.6) and Williams (29.0) scored more than half of Seattle's points in the series.
Title in hand, a parade held for the team a year earlier in appreciation for a good season finally felt deserved in 1979.
"It was a huge deal," Walker said. "There was this great outpouring from the fans. People went crazy. ... That's how it was with the fans and that team."
Now it's more like an Ingmar Bergman movie, a grim tale of angst and divorce. With franchise owner Clay Bennett buying his way out of a lawsuit -- Seattle got to keep the nickname and team colors -- and backing up the moving vans, KeyArena stayed dark this year on nights previously reserved for NBA games. Some team employees left Seattle, others waved goodbye to the team. The Thunder media guide does its duty, chronicling the Sonics' era (18 subsequent playoff appearances after the championship year, a return to the Finals in 1996, the career of likely Hall of Fame guard Gary Payton, the one-season tease of Kevin Durant). But there are no keepers of the flame on staff. Back in Seattle, the Web site dedicated to hanging onto the team (http://www.saveoursonics.org/) shows you the current date but its "Latest News" list has nothing posted since March 2008. It feels abandoned, worthy of someone's attic.
Strong sentiments remain, split between those who were and remain NBA fans and those who rooted for the Sonics and feel betrayed. There is limited talk about luring the league back some day -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was on board to invest in a team and pay $300 million toward arena renovations -- but in April, a bill in the Washington state legislature for the remaining funds failed. Now an economy that, had the recession begun a little sooner, might have stymied the move to Oklahoma is an obstacle for Seattle, even with several franchises in search of buyers.
Lots of residents understandably feel bitter. Bitter toward Starbucks entrepreneur Howard Schultz for selling the team to Bennett, toward Bennett, of course, and toward the league and commissioner for allowing it to happen. The gulch between the NBA in June 1979 and the NBA now, at least in Seattle, never has been greater.
"I can't believe 30 years have gone by," Walker said. "I can't believe the Sonics aren't here. This is still a great city. Just not as good."
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