Turns out all these Seattle SuperSonics needed to finally win the NBA's Western Conference was a little help from a frog, a 3 a.m. wake-up call, a soapy hound, 48 minutes of rabid defense and what may or may not have been lucky underwear. Whatever. They'll take it. After an unexpected delay of anywhere between five days and two years, depending on whom you ask, Seattle finally reached the NBA Finals with a 90-86 win over the Utah Jazz in Game 7 of the conference final on Sunday. Yes, that sound you heard was the Pacific Northwest breathing again.
Nothing comes easy in Seattle, where recent history suggests that behind every dark cloud there is a darker cloud. Thus, after running up a 3-1 series lead, these Sonics were forced to endure nearly a week in postseason purgatory. On May 28 they lost Game 5 in overtime in their home gym, and last Thursday they suffered a 35-point humiliation in Game 6 in Salt Lake City. Those bitter defeats created a sense of impending Sonic doom.
It is said that bad news comes in threes, and so it was that before Game 7, the Sonics stared squarely at the possibility of their first three-game losing streak since they were upset by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the '95 playoffs. That collapse occurred one year after Seattle had lost three in a row to the Denver Nuggets and was shockingly dismissed in the opening round in '94. These dubious playoff meltdowns spawned so much talk of exorcising demons before the deciding game against Utah that you half expected Linda Blair and a cleric to show up at Key Arena.
Last Friday afternoon 8,000 Seattle fans turned out in a downtown park for a pep rally. Sonics guard Hersey Hawkins stood on a balcony above the throng and yelled, "Are we ready to kick some butt on Sunday?" The crowd stood dumbfounded for a moment, perhaps wondering if this was a trick question, and then roared its encouragement.
One fan wrote to The Seattle Times informing the general public that he had bathed with his basset hound in the name of good karma. Sonics forward Detlef Schrempf took less drastic action. "I wanted to wear my lucky underwear, but I couldn't remember which pair it was," Schrempf explained. "I thought, Is it the boxers or the briefs?"
Advice came from every precinct. Hawkins received a phone call in the early hours of last Saturday morning from his friend Johnny Dawkins in North Carolina. Hawkins, Dawkins and Utah guard Jeff Hornacek had been teammates together in '92-93 with the Philadelphia 76ers, and Dawkins was calling to give Hawkins a few pointers on how to handle Hornacek with physical play.
Sonics coach George Karl, who studied a little psychology at North Carolina, called upon his counseling training to convince his players that they had the Jazz exactly where they wanted them: at Key Arena for a seventh game. Karl put up a good front. Little did his troops know that minutes before Game 7 their coach petted his lucky porcelain frog and decided against carrying a "magic" marble in his pocket.
Each Sonic having discovered his source of confidence, Seattle controlled much of the game with a balanced team effort. Shawn Kemp led the scoring with 26 points as five Sonics finished in double figures. On the defensive end, Seattle cranked up the pressure, double-teaming power forward Karl Malone, forcing point guard John Stockton to give up much of the Jazz ball handling and causing Utah to shoot 44.9% from the field. Hawkins bullied Hornacek into 3-of-10 shooting and his lowest output of the series (10 points).
Still, Utah kept the game close, and Karl, exploiting his most decisive advantage, called for the ball to be pounded down low to Kemp repeatedly in the fourth quarter. Twice in the final 1:17, Kemp was fouled on moves to the basket, and he converted all four clutch foul shots. With 8.2 seconds left and the Jazz trailing 89-86, Malone was hacked but missed his two free throws, sealing Utah's fate. For all of his heroics during the series, the Mailman did not deliver on Sunday, scoring 22 points on only 8-of-22 shooting from the field. Still, as soon as the game ended, Kemp tracked down Malone and complimented the Jazz's resilience.
Indeed, even in defeat, Utah's valiant effort brought the Jazz some overdue recognition. This team, which did not merit a single national appearance on NBC during the regular season, erased that 3-1 series deficit with guts, a minimum of trash talk and plenty of class. Malone even spoke to the crowd over the public address system at the Delta Center after Game 6 and dedicated the Utah victory to a young Jazz fan with leukemia. "We're America's Team," said Jazz president Frank Layden. "It's just that America doesn't know it yet."