Seattle is located down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on Puget Sound, west of the Cascades, east of the Japan Current, nestled in Boeing's pocket and, at present, in the apple of Charlie Finley's eye. It is the largest city in the Northwest, 19th in the nation, with a metropolitan population of more than a million and a half and one new major league franchise—the Seattle SuperSonics, or Sonics or SuperBabies, as they are also, affectionately, known. For the first time, the National Basketball Association has moved into virgin territory ahead of its football and baseball competitors.
The NBA accepted Seattle and San Diego as expansion teams for this season. Both are fresh new franchises in burgeoning Pacific areas, operating under bright, able leadership—the San Diego Rockets are in the capable hands of General Manager-Coach Jack McMahon—but there is one big difference between them. The Rockets are one of seven established major league teams in the Los Angeles- Orange County- San Diego corridor, an area hardly the size of Delaware. The Sonics, on the other hand, are the lone big-league franchise in the entire northwest quadrant of the nation, an area stretching north from San Francisco and west from Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Seattle represents the final frontier for expansion, so it is witnessing one of the last of those wonderful, childish times of innocence and pride that have touched so many U.S. cities in the last 15 years—when our city finally got in the major leagues, when our ball club first came to town. It all began that breezy April morning in 1953 when the Braves came down Wisconsin Avenue into Milwaukee. The parade ends at last, now, under the Space Needle in Seattle. The time is over. All the country has majors now. There are no more wide-open spaces left.
Curiously, unlike most of its expansion predecessors, Seattle made little effort to get the franchise. But once the city woke up to find it did at last have one, it began to embrace the team properly. In April, six months before the season would start, excitement was at such a pitch that a coin flip between Seattle and San Diego—to determine which would draft first—was broadcast live back to Seattle from San Francisco. Presumably, this was a first for coin flips and, burdened with the responsibility of reporting this historic occasion, Hank Greenwald, the incisive and witty San Francisco announcer, broadcast it all in the phony death whisper that usually distinguishes golf broadcasts. Seattle lost the flip.
Still, the interest grew, undaunted. A booster club, the UltraSonics, was swiftly assembled. Club officials were invited to speak all over the state. Season tickets were pushed. The newspapers reported scores of the practice "horse" games that groups of the Sonics played against each other.
To preside over the club's black-tie opening-night ceremonies on October 20, a civic group that calls itself, descriptively, Seattle Welcomes The SuperSonics Committee, was also formed. In its enthusiasm, this organization proposed a half-time show that, calculated conservatively, would have lasted for 2� hours. The climax would have been a Hollywood star ("preferably female") descending a red carpet stretched down the aisles from the top of the Coliseum to mid-court. Reaching that point, she (preferably) would lead the assembled 13,000 in the singing of Hello, Sonics. (What this country needs is federal legislation outlawing any more versions of Hello, You-know-who.)
The Sonics are run by a triumvirate. Don Richman, a TV writer from Studio City, is the general manager; Dick Vertlieb, a stockbroker from Los Angeles, is the business manager; Al Bianchi, a former journeyman guard, who spent most of his career in Syracuse, is the coach. Bianchi is described by Richman as a "quality dead-end kid" or a "quiet assassin." The players under his command are the usual band of kids and very-nears and Al Bianchi-type hangers-on who make up expansion teams in every sport. The biggest names are Tom Meschery, a poet, who is on leave of absence from the Peace Corps to play two years with the Sonics, and Walt Hazzard, who lost his job with the Lakers when his tenant, Archie Clark, beat him out.
On the surface, it might appear that the two guys in from L.A.—the TV fellow and the Merrill Lynch hotshot—are on the scene to try a quick fleecing of the locals. But this is not the case. Richman and Vertlieb came to Seattle at a considerable financial and emotional cost. They had to uproot their families, and they both left far more lucrative jobs. "I was making a lot of money," Vertlieb says, "but I found I just wasn't satisfied. We're both frustrated athletes and sports nuts, and the more Don and I talked about this the more I knew we had to try it. I gave up my stockbroker's license. This is it. If we didn't do it, we knew we'd spend the rest of our lives wondering why we didn't take the chance."
They got their backing from Eugene Klein and Samuel Schulman, the San Diego Chargers' owners, who took about 70% of the Sonics, which cost them $1,750,000. The rest is held by smaller stockholders. Richman and Vertlieb have what they describe as a "participating" stake in profits. Both have been associated with sports before. Vertlieb coached in high school and was an assistant at USC, where Richman worked as sports publicity director. Richman also ran the Chargers the one year they were in Los Angeles, and his public-relations firm served as a consultant for the Lakers. Then he got into TV scriptwriting. He wrote for The Donna Reed Show, Gidget, The Farmer's Daughter, Hank, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, Gilligan's Island
(in which Hazzard once appeared) and Green Acres. "Then," Richman says, "warmth was out, so I had to go to action." He did Rat Patrol and Tarzan and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. His favorite script was one for U.N.C.L.E., but it never made the air. NBC rejected the story as too "morbid."
Here is the way it went. A character, described by Richman as "Gandhi-like," falls into the clutches of an evil arms magnate who has a bomb planted inside Gandhi-like when Gandhi-like thinks he is just having an appendectomy. The evil one can send radio messages to the bomb, and he plans to activate it when Gandhi-like addresses a conference of the world's disarmament leaders. Luckily, however, the signals from the radio are picked up by the fillings in the teeth of a girl from Newport News, Va. She lets on about this to the man from U.N.C.L.E. The way it all was to work out, she is in the dentist chair, intercepting the signals, when Gandhi-like gets up to speak to the conference (and, unbeknownst to him, get everybody blown up). But the man from U.N.C.L.E. crosses signals, and when Gandhi-like opens his mouth the sound of the Beatles emanates from it, because that is what the girl from Newport News, Va. is listening to while she sits in the dentist's chair.