Sonicsteria, which you may have heard about if you have been anywhere near a floating bridge, an aircraft plant or the Wonderful World of Brent Musburger, goes something like this: the good people of Seattle blow their lungs out over a team they call the bionic SuperSonics. A stocky child, who refers to himself as "the black kid with freckles and bags under his eyes," puts the clamps on the opposition's legendary hero. Then an elderly, bent-over codger with a goatee enters stage left to hurl the ball into the basket from the unlikeliest places—Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, you name it—and Sonicsteria advances into the NBA finals.
That is about what occurred last week when 23-year-old Dennis Johnson and 29-year-old Fred Brown combined to bring the Seattle SuperSonics to the brink of the most spectacular turnaround from disaster since, well, since Sonicsteria's first cousin, Blazermania, was invented in the same Pacific Northwest a few thundershowers ago.
On Nov. 30, 1977, Seattle had a 5-17 record and was looking for the fastest tugboat to Alaska. Last Friday, May 12, 1978, the SuperSonics whipped the Denver Nuggets for the third straight time to take a three-games-to-one lead in the Western Conference playoffs and put themselves in prime position to proceed forthwith—along with the Eastern Conference Sixer-killers, the Washington Bullets—to the championship round.
That confrontation ran into a slight delay last Sunday, when the Sonics rolled over and yawned during the fifth game of a series they appeared to have locked up.
They had done the same thing a couple of weeks before. Leading Portland by 3-1, Coach Lenny Wilkens' troops were destroyed on the enemy court and had to come home to win in six. On Mother's Day in Denver, they were beaten again when the Nuggets' David Thompson burst out of a shooting slump to score 35 points, Dan Issel ran Seattle Center Marvin Webster into the floorboards with 27 more and Denver prolonged the series with a 123-114 victory.
"We were lackadaisical, or whatever you want to call it," said Webster, who stayed awake long enough to block seven shots but whose first-half loafing contributed to a 11-31 Seattle rebounding deficit, which, in turn, resulted in a 61-44 Denver lead.
The Nuggets, who finally realized Thompson would need some picks and screens to hide from Dennis Johnson, led by as many as 19 points in the second half, before a late Sonic rally cut the lead to 113-108. But then Seattle called time out, during which Denver set up a little play for Thompson and he hit a double-pumping, high-arching shot from the key to put the Nuggets out of danger.
"David moved better and used his screens," Johnson said. "He's the influential player in the whole thing. When he gets going, the rest of the Denver team moves up the track."
Through the first four games of the series, Johnson played an average of 44 minutes a game, stopping Thompson as no one in college or the pros had been able to. While everybody is supposed to recognize Sonics such as Webster, Downtown Brown and even rookie Jack Sikma, Johnson, a second-year man, is a relative unknown. His background includes very little action as the "11th man" at Dominguez High in Compton, Calif. ("Mexican school?" he was asked. "Black Mexicans," he answered.) Then his jumping ability surfaced; he was nicknamed "Airplane" along with the expectable "DJ," and he progressed through Harbor Junior College and one year of defensive stardom at Pepperdine before leaving as a hardship case to join the Sonics.
"Dennis is strong and quick and tough," Thompson finally admitted one day. "His timing on the jump is uncanny." Indeed, though Thompson averaged 27.2 points and shot .521 during the season, in the three Seattle victories he was outscored by Johnson 71-64, and held to six points below his average and .142 under his shooting percentage. This while DJ was scoring 11 points above his average of 12.7.