"One...Two...Three...Four...." It began as a silly ploy, this 10-count stuff, a grating chant by Seattle SuperSonics fans to rattle Utah Jazz forward Karl Mal-one at the foul line during the opening two games of the best-of-seven Western Conference finals. Who knew it would become the Muzak of the series? When the scene shifted to Salt Lake City for Games 3 and 4, Utah players mimicked the 10-count at one of their shootarounds. Then a few surly Jazz fans counted to 10 during Game 3, a 96-76 victory that cut Seattle's series lead to 2-1, and suggested they were tabulating Sonics forward Shawn Kemp's IQ. Finally, after Seattle's 88-86 win in Game 4 on Sunday, which gave the Sonics a commanding lead as the series headed back to Seattle's Key Arena for Tuesday's Game 5, you could hear it again. Sonics forward Detlef Schrempf stood in the shower unconsciously ticking off the familiar digits. He sounded like a boxing ref counting out a KO. He might as well have been.
But throughout all this, perhaps the most significant count was taking place in the hallway outside the Seattle locker room at Key Arena. Taped to the wall was a long scroll on which were printed the numerals 1 through 15. It takes 15 victories to win the NBA title, and after each Sonics playoff win another numeral had been X-ed out. After Game 4, the first 10 numerals had been X-ed.
Examining this paper, one couldn't help but think of a convict's homemade calendar. With each X it seemed more likely that the Sonics would finally be paroled from their prison of underachievement. "When you look at those numbers, you realize just how long a road these playoffs can be," says Seattle forward-center Sam Perkins. "Ten is a long way and 15 is forever. But after the last two seasons we're just happy to still be counting."
Despite winning the Pacific Division title in 1993-94 and finishing second in 1994-95, the Sonics didn't journey past the numeral 2 in either of those post-seasons, getting knocked out in the first round by the Denver Nuggets in one year and the Los Angeles Lakers the next. "We were spoiled children then," Schrempf said last week. "Now we are grown-ups."
"Forget those teams," added Seattle's All-Star point guard, Gary Payton, who averaged 20.8 points, 6.0 assists and 2.0 steals in the series' first four games while outplaying Utah point guard John Stockton, who averaged only 7.3 points. "This is a different team, a happy team. We don't gripe at each other anymore."
In the opening two games against the Jazz these new, grown-up Sonics proved they could win at home, at Payton's place, yet in many ways that only served to transform Salt Lake City's Delta Center into the key arena. Seattle's mission in the two games at the Delta Center was clear and daunting: Beat at least once a Jazz team that owned a 6-0 home record in the playoffs and had trounced its visitors by 22.2 points a game.
The Sonics only boosted the Delta Center's mystique in Game 3 last Friday when they committed 26 turnovers and were held without a field goal for over seven minutes in the fourth quarter. It was their first defeat in 26 days. "Our players don't like the feeling that's in their guts right now," Seattle coach George Karl said the next afternoon.
As a fresh means of inspiration, Karl harked back to the Sonics' only other loss in this year's playoffs, a 90-81 defeat in Game 2 of their opening-round series against the Sacramento Kings. "No matter how many times we said we were O.K., we had pressure on us," Karl reminded his players. "That loss had a lot of viciousness to it. We had to put on our armor to fend off all the attackers. When we got that wrenching, negative mentality out of our bodies, we were really O.K., and it gave us the kind of strength we'd need to win a game in Utah."
In Sunday's game Seattle took a 49-44 lead into the locker room at halftime, but there was still plenty of doubt in the air. "There were a lot of blank stares and a lack of energy in that room," guard-forward Nate McMillan said later. "Sam decided he had to pump us up. He doesn't make many speeches, so when he talks, we listen."
The message from Perkins, 35 on June 14, was simple: Stay in the Jazz's face on defense. Defense will win this game for us.