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Tuesday, June 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:29 A.M.
By Stuart Eskenazi
Well, not everyone. James Nason, who isn't particularly fond of basketball, doesn't even realize the game is on. He is working with a hole-saw inside the shop of his North Seattle home when the blasted thing disintegrates, shearing off the tip of a knuckle and severing a tendon. Off the rim. No good.
He wraps his injured hand, drives himself to Group Health's emergency room on Capitol Hill and is stunned to find the lobby deserted on a Friday evening.
"Why am I only the person here?" Nason asks one of the docs.
The minute the big game is over, the ER will be overflowing with people, the doctor assures him. Sure enough, by the time Nason leaves for home with a reattached tendon, the celebration officially has begun in Seattle. The lobby is packed.
Twenty-five years ago today, Seattle erupted into a sports-induced hysteria the likes of which we have not experienced since and may never again, at least not in the same way. The Sonics came back in the final quarter of Game 5 to triumph over the Bullets, 97-93, and earn the NBA crown still Seattle's only modern-day professional sports championship.
The Sonics championship drew people together with one common thread: unadulterated, unbridled giddiness. The postgame glee lasted throughout the night with spontaneous partying in the streets from Alki to Pioneer Square, extended into the following day when the team returned to Seattle and climaxed two days later with a ticker-tape parade downtown, hundreds of thousands of people sardined together without fear, their only worry whether their absence from work or school would be declared unexcused.
"I remember thinking during the celebrations, 'It will never be better than this,' " says Charles Royer, Seattle's mayor from 1978 to 1989 and the parade's emcee.
"They say the first one is always the sweetest. There's the risk of growing jaded as you win other ones. Of course, we haven't been allowed to become jaded."
Do we have to bring up the Mariners? Look, the heroics and histrionics of 1995 arguably the closest we've come to the euphoria of 1979 happened nine years ago. And that run ended with defeat in the American League Championship Series, not a win in the World Series. Same goes for the 116-win team of 2001. R.I.P.
The Sonics are so sorry these days that even a darling of the 1979 team, reserve forward Wally Walker, is now vilified as the franchise's president and CEO.
Professional sports in general and the NBA in particular have changed a lot in 25 years. It used to be more of a game, less of a business. Players and fans seemed happy, not cynical. For those of us fortunate enough to have lived with and for the 1979 Sonics, the championship moment is one about which we remain obsessive and possessive.
We can instinctively reel off the key names: J.J., Lonnie, Jack and D.J. The Wizard, Downtown and the Chairman of the Boards. Lenny, Sam and Zollie.
We recall the lesson proffered by Bullets coach Dick Motta, "The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings," and remember how much fun it was when the Sonics forced her to bellow a fitting finale.
Seattle was different then, too. We were small. We were innocent.
We were good.
The phone rings inside a house south of Seattle.
"They won!" is how Tom Dockins answers the call.
"I know!" is how the person on the other end responds.
Kathy Dockins, a sixth-grader, is exhausted and exhilarated after watching the game with her family. Kathy's dad is having an animated conversation on the phone for at least a minute, but she can't figure out who called. Neither, apparently, can her dad.
"Who is this?" Tom Dockins asks.
It is a complete stranger who was so excited, she had dialed the wrong number.
As the NBA's newly crowned champs party the night away in D.C., ninth-grader Judy Harris cruises Alki beach with her best friend, waving a green-and-gold pompom outside the window of her father's Chevy Impala.
"It was crazy and it was fun," recalls Harris, who grew up to become a federal agent instead of following her 1979 plan of becoming the wife of Wally Walker. "It was so fun that I wasn't even embarrassed to have my dad drive us."
The next day, Kathy Dockins is behind a chain-link fence at Boeing Field, holding up a sign that her older sister, Brenda, had drawn in green ink on yellow poster board. Starting forward John Johnson descends from the team's plane.
"It was unbelievable, all these people waiting to be a part of the celebration, showing their appreciation and support," recalls Johnson, who still lives in the area. "The players, we loved it."
"It caused quite a disturbance," Kathy Dockins says. "Everyone knew where I was going and everyone was jealous."
Later, Kathy is propped up on her father's shoulders, catching glimpses of her heroes along with 300,000 of her new best friends, all of whom crammed into downtown for the parade down Fourth Avenue.
"I keep exaggerating the more I tell the story, so I like to say that there were 500,000 people there," says Royer, who rode in the lead car, a 1922 Chandler, with Coach Lenny Wilkens. "It was a young crowd. A lot of parents holding up their kids. Kind of like D-Day."
Johnson is riding in another antique car, farther down the line.
"I had never seen so many people in one place in my entire life," says Johnson, reminiscing about the scene. "You couldn't move. People were throwing confetti out of windows."
'People remember champions'
The connection between fan and player isn't as strong today as it was then.
"The city had a real feeling of ownership with that team," says Kathy Dockins, now a Battelle Research supervisor and part-time student living on First Hill.
"These days, players go back and forth between teams so much, there is no longer that sense that they belong to us or we belong to them."
Seattle native Joe Guppy, a psychotherapist and former writer and cast member of the local comedy-TV show "Almost Live," still gets a charge when he recalls the championship year.
"Why do I feel better because Lenny Wilkens, Jack Sikma and Freddie Brown won an NBA championship 25 years ago?" Guppy asks. "Why, when I think about them, does it still put a smile on my face and lift me up a little higher? Is that crazy?
"No. I think it's a good thing. We project ourselves onto our heroes as they represent us and go out and do these grand accomplishments. It makes us feel like we've accomplished something. That's the essence of sports. It's a nutty but fun part of life."
Strangers still come up to Johnson and tell him they skipped school to attend the parade.
Johnson tells his son, Mitch, who helped O'Dea High School win this year's Class 3A state basketball championship, that people won't remember you for averaging 25 points a game.
"People remember champions," he tells him. "When you are a champion, you establish a special place in their heart."
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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