Current and former Seattle Times staffers share their memories
For current and former Seattle Times staffers, the loss of the team has elicited many recollections. Here are some of our favorites.
Picking one memory from nearly four years of covering the Sonics is indeed a test. Which should I choose?
• The association with interesting coaches such as Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens?
• The Sonics who called me E.F. Hutton because I always seemed to blab about investments?
• The ascension of Wilkens, much to the dismay of the fired Bob Hopkins, and Wilkens leading the Sonics to the brink of the NBA championship in 1978?
• The enormously electric, and occasionally flawed, effervescence of Slick Watts?
• The cool, calm and extraordinarily talented Jack Sikma?
• The clever and occasionally sharp-tongued Fred Brown?
• The major snowstorm around New York, forcing all of us to ride a bus from New Jersey to Boston, where tipoff had to be delayed? Or the Buffalo snowstorm that cut the crowd to fewer than 1,000?
• The Voice, Bob Blackburn, the unbelievably organized man and eternal friend who had his share of nervous moments?
• Rick and Nancy Welts, the two Sonics public-relations aces who grew up on Queen Anne?
• What about general manager Zollie Volchok who, among many, many other things, organized a Mickey Mouse Club in Portland and brought the Beatles to Seattle?
• What about Hairy Allper, Bruce Seals, Dave Watkins, Frank Furtado, Gus Williams, Marvin Webster, Lonnie Shelton and the hundreds and hundreds of others sewn into this 41-year-old fabric?
• What about when I played at halftime of a Sonics game? What about when I "tried out" for the Sonics and appeared in a rookie game against the Trail Blazers?
For me, all of that is memorable. But I also like this. The late Dennis Johnson and I didn't see eye to eye. His manic personality was difficult to pierce. As the Sonics captured the 1979 NBA championship in Landover, Md., I was handed a ballot to select the most valuable player. DJ and Williams each had two votes. I cast the fifth and final vote for ... DJ. I still don't regret it.
Greg Heberlein, former Seattle Times Sonics beat reporter, 1975-79
As the beat reporter for The Seattle Times covering the Sonics in the first three years after their NBA championship, I sat so close at center court I could smell the friction of their shoes.
It was basketball at its finest. In the 1979-80 season of 56 wins, 40,000 fans rattled around in the cavernous Kingdome for games.
Among my favorite memories: Sitting next to wizened forward Paul Silas for three hours on a plane for a firsthand education of the Boston Celtics championship years.
You walk a tenuous line as a beat reporter. You're with the players 12 hours a day on the road but you can't be for them. Part of my job was to relay occasional criticism, bucking the tide of adoration.
Basketball tends to be an inner-city game, which some people said made the players open to differences. As the first woman in that position, I always wondered: What did they think of me?
One night while trying to make a deadline — the eternal pressure — I was reprimanded for delaying the team's departure from Philadelphia to New York City. Dennis Johnson, who was also often in the doghouse, squeezed my shoulder as he walked through the darkened bus and whispered, "It's OK, Sherry."
In Milwaukee, one of two cities in those ancient days that didn't allow women reporters in the locker room, the mercurial Gus Williams swept me along as he dashed in late from a radio interview, telling the guards, "She's with us."
The players under coaches Lenny Wilkens and Les Habegger always behaved well toward me, but the locker room was a challenge. To be respectful, I'd ask the security guards where key players were dressing and then stare down at my notebook all the way there.
Whether they noticed was answered late in my tenure, when the team held a roast in which two players imitated a Johnny Carson routine of psychic Carnac the Magnificent. Giving the answer first — "Nike, Adidas and Converse" — they blew open the envelope to find the question:
"What does Sherry Stripling see in the locker room?"
Sherry Stripling, former Seattle Times Sonics reporter, 1979-82
The Sonics are my hometown team. I actually delivered The Seattle Times so I could buy tickets to their games. My Cleveland High School yearbook was full of "looking forward to reading your Sonics stories in the Times" sentiments. During my childhood I'd become accustomed to the faces of Lenny Wilkens, Rod Thorn, Bob Rule, Spencer Haywood, via games or clinics at the community center.
In this age of professional athletes as unapproachable mini-corporations, it's often easy to forget that NBA players are people, too. But that's what flashes before my eyes, like a 17-year news reel, as the Sonics flee for OKC: The people moments.
Like Nate McMillan calling me during a personal crisis and asking about my youngest daughter, Mika, who'd had complications at birth. Or McMillan, Gary Payton and I discussing how to attack Michael Jordan during the very minutes leading up to Game 6 in Chicago during the 1996 NBA Finals. I was in the locker room after the NBA-allotted access time and a security guard told me to leave, but McMillan and Payton told him, "He's with us."
I remember shooting baskets at the backyard hoop of Jack Sikma's Medina palace. Beating the X-Man, Xavier McDaniel, at "my" gym at Seattle University's Connolly Center, by sinking a shot from mid-court and one from behind the backboard. Or discussing race issues with McDaniel, Dale Ellis and Kevin Williams in the back of the Sonics team bus, on the way to games on the road.
Oh yeah, for many of my 17 years on the Sonics and NBA beat, the writers traveled with the team — on commercial flights and from airport to hotel, and hotel to arena and back on the team bus.
That's how I'd figure out with Tom Chambers and Danny Vranes where in Dallas or Miami we were having dinner. Or how I arranged to go Christmas shopping with the Big Smooth, Sam Perkins. Or hunting for clothes with Ellis in New York City, with him picking up the dinner check afterward.
Vince Askew once placed a scratchy call — from a cruise ship, where he was vacationing with his new wife — to inform me that he'd been traded. James Donaldson and I took a spectacular walk with his golden retriever at sunset along the beach near the La Jolla, Calif., coves. I once was spellbound as Maurice Lucas first explained the stock exchange, then how to jam an elbow into a posting opponent without the referees noticing.
The front office was full of memorable people, too. Lorin Miller and the late Gary Wortman schooled me in player evaluation. Les Habegger and Wally Walker sprung for plenty of breakfasts and just plain talk up on Queen Anne Hill. Frank Furtado booked me time in the team's hyperbaric chamber, which helped me overcome a severe ankle sprain. Tom Newell still is a friend, as is Bob Kloppenburg, who also was an indispensable coaching mentor, along with Ernie Woods.
Then there is post-Game 7 of the 1996 Western Conference championships when, with the confetti raining from the roof of a celebrating KeyArena, I stole a look at Frank Brickowski. I'd covered Brick when he was just a Sonics rookie out of Penn State and he'd always been a source of comic and human relief for me. A veteran who helped the Sonics beat Utah to advance to the league-championship round, Brick's face was contorted with unbridled joy. For those fleeting seconds, it was as if he were a kid again. It was a poignant reminder, one that stays with me, that these, after all, were games.
Glenn Nelson, former Seattle Times Sonics/NBA reporter, 1982-1999
I was sent to cover games. Instead, I found characters.
X-Man, the honest enforcer. Tom Chambers, the soaring cowboy. Dale Ellis, the smoldering sniper. Nate McMillan, the gifted politician. Detlef Schrempf, the creative engineer. Michael Cage, the new-age mechanic. Derrick McKey, the reluctant star. Avery Johnson, the general-in-wait. Shawn Kemp, thunder for our rain. GP, serial noise polluter.
That's what I'll remember of the Sonics, the actors who painted the Seattle winter in colors other than gray. Was there a more interesting space anywhere in the region than the Sonics' locker room? All those robust personalities in one windowless bunker, trying to come together at a time when the top NBA salaries were escalating wildly.
I was surprised at how often they found their collective groove. One time, we were listening to Bernie Bickerstaff give his postgame debrief when a clamor erupted down the hallway. It was the wives of Ellis and Alton Lister, kicking and punching — Big Al had just gotten a big contract and Dale deserved the love. But when the players were alerted to the ruckus, both were cool. Hey, maybe they thought it was good theater.
OK, so X-Man and Ellis once fought in the street outside the Sonics' offices. It wasn't all Kumbaya at the coliseum. But when these guys brought it together, it was easy to get behind them.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once told me that Seattle had the loudest fans in the NBA. That base has now been silenced, and I now know too much about the arena-financing game to advise any city to woo David Stern with more taxpayer dollars. But it was good while it lasted. The Supes brought the drama to Sea-Town.
Tom Farrey, former Seattle Times Sonics reporter, 1987-1990
When I started on the Sonics beat for the Times, the financial gap between players and reporters was much smaller, and there was a sense that each season came to a distinct end, unlike the current NBA. It was hard, but not impossible, to get completely away from the NBA when I was covering the team. Now NBA beat writers are on call 24/7/365.
For most of the time I covered the Sonics, the team's on-court performance was "perfect," at least as perfect was defined by the late Jack Smith, who was my counterpart at the P-I. Jack said the perfect NBA team to cover is one that flirts with .500 all season, has an all-star or two then just misses the playoffs.
During my time the money and the coverage of the league metastasized — all of the players, not a handful, became millionaires, teams started flying on chartered planes and media scrutiny went to DEFCOM 5.
Back then, beat writers traveled with the team, flying on the same commercial flights, staying at the same hotels and riding the team bus to the hotel, airport and practices. I can't imagine current beat writers getting the same kind of access.
I saw a lot great (and even more not-so-great) basketball, stalked trade rumors, sweated through frantic finishes. I worried about getting scooped, wrestled with deadlines, and, when I wasn't tired or bored, marveled that I had a front-row seat for one of the world's best athletic spectacles.
However, if forced to identify my most vivid Sonics memory as a beat writer it would involve an event I did not witness. I was enjoying a day off as training camp ended. None of the regular writers covered that day's practice. I was driving in my car when I tuned in the "Robin and Maynard Show" and they were joking about a lopsided fight between Xavier McDaniel and Dale Ellis at the practice I was missing.
At first I thought it was a joke and I laughed heartily for a few moments as the visual of that encounter soaked in. Then beads of sweat began to dot my brow. What had I missed? I switched to KJR, hoping they weren't taking about "X vs. Dale," but they were repeating and amplifying the story.
I raced home and called my editor.
John Peoples, former Seattle Times Sonics reporter, 1991-93
I was a rookie NBA beat writer in 1994, the season the Sonics had it all, the best record in the league and arguably the strongest starting five. The team was not perfect, and those imperfections would bleed in the wash during the playoffs as the team was beaten in the first round by the Denver Nuggets. For that spectacular defeat, the season and that team will always be remembered.
But most of what I remember are those occasional moments that could not be measured or recorded, the emotion and humanity, the moments born of accidental proximity.
I remember George Karl's remarkable ability to pour his heart out when he was away from the court, especially on the road when he, like the rest of us, had nothing in particular to do after practice but sit around and ruminate. Once, in the lobby of the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, he sat on a sofa for hours holding court on the subject of coaching in the NBA.
The intimacy is what set apart the beat. My prior experience was in covering football, which was like covering a large corporation or a large-scale military campaign. By comparison, covering the NBA was like covering a dysfunctional family full of exceptional talent and tender egos.
As successful as the regular season had been, fret and insecurity was abundant. Karl felt underappreciated and misunderstood. So did Gary Payton, by extension, Karl's ego on the court. It seemed obvious the players were more teammates and less friends. I expected but never saw much joy in the locker room. The group had more gravity than chemistry.
Ricky Pierce, the man with the permanent scowl, had an ongoing feud of words with a reporter from a rival paper. Sometimes playful, sometimes angry, the battles erupted without warning in the locker room after games. For all the fun and winning they were supposedly experiencing, the players were, on balance, tense and reserved.
Nate McMillan, the future coach, then sixth man, once pulled me aside to take issue with something I had written. I had referred to him using the metaphor of a medicine cabinet. He felt slighted; I told him the line was meant to point out his ability to play through pain.
One day, I played pool with Payton. During the season, he hosted a billiards tournament at a local restaurant and bar. The proceeds from the tournament went to one of his charities. The Seattle Times gave me a check for Payton's charity, in exchange for the privilege of playing a game against him. I wrote about the match, and Payton's charity got a donation.
He was a decent pool player but a far better basketball player. I beat him. Mostly because I got lucky. He bet me push-ups that I wouldn't make my final shot. I made it. He never did the push-ups he owed me. I let it slide.
Hugo Kugiya, former Seattle Times Sonics reporter, 1994-95
It was a mix of personalities in the two full seasons I covered the Sonics, 1995-96 — the year they went to the NBA Finals against the Bulls — and 1996-97, when they lost in the Western Conference semifinals to Houston.
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were the stars and invariably had the biggest impact on the games. But they were tough to deal with, moody and recalcitrant after games. They often ducked out the locker room back door as the media entered the front. Kemp once threatened to break me in half, but that's a memory that doesn't need retrieving.
Fortunately, there was a balance of just wonderful guys on those teams, such as Hersey Hawkins, Nate McMillan and Craig Ehlo, and approachable coaches, Dwane Casey, Bob Weiss, Terry Stotts and even George Karl. But my favorite player of all was big bear Sam Perkins, one of the most likable guys of all-time.
He had this great ability of bouncing off the bench cold and getting hot. He was a big guy who could shoot the three-pointer, an enormous threat for Karl to use to draw out the defense.
I decided to do an in-depth story on the technical aspects of the three-pointer. Part of it was Perkins' perspective on lining it up, his form and feel for the shot and part was a University of Washington professor's breakdown on the elements of the shot, gravity, trajectory and pace.
Perkins wanted to do the interview over a two-hour lunch at Salty's with a huge spread across the table and one of his posse keeping autograph-seekers at bay.
So the article appeared on the front Sports page of the Times on Jan. 15, 1997. The Sonics had a home game that evening against Toronto. In that game, Perkins scored a season-high 26 points, including going 8 for 8 from three-point range. That tied the then NBA record for most three-pointers without a miss. The record is now nine.
As Perkins ran off the court, he pointed at me and said, "It's all because of your article." As much as I would like to take credit for it, that was his only miss of the evening.
But it didn't stop there. That week I talked to people at the NBA offices in New York about whether Perkins would be an unorthodox but intriguing candidate for the Three-Point Shootout at the NBA All-Star in Cleveland a few weeks later. They gave it their full consideration and ultimately Perkins was one of the eight selected.
My anticipation was that he would dazzle. But he fizzled. He exited in the first round, finishing last with eight points, three points behind second-last. I believe he won $1,000 for his participation, just about enough to cover the Salty's lunch.
Bob Sherwin, former Seattle Times Sonics reporter, 1995-97
The enduring image that resurfaced last week was of George Karl in a blue tie — with a green delineation of the Space Needle — that stretched to his belly button.
I have some vivid memories from covering the Sonics for five seasons, starting in 1997. But nothing encapsulates the experience — and the occasional magical moments — like Karl's return to KeyArena on Jan. 29, 2000 as the Milwaukee Bucks coach.
Before the game, I stood by the visitor's locker room and witnessed Karl bump into Gary Payton — Junior. Karl rubbed the shaved head of the 7-year-old, and asked about the Glove. Karl, smiling through grizzled beard, said: "Well, I hope he has a bad game. I hope he misses every shot because we're going to double team him every time." Soon, the little one ambled toward the Sonics locker room, presumably to inform dad about the touching — if peculiar — encounter.
When Karl stepped on the court minutes later, spectators thunderously applauded. Karl's roiling emotions could be detected on his face as he paced the sidelines during the up-and-down game.
In the third quarter, Payton's right knee severely twisted after Sam Cassell fell on it. I cringed — with the 15,839 fans — watching the replay on the big screen. The seemingly indestructible guard was carried away by three teammates. But as they entered the tunnel, Payton instructed them to let go. The decibel on that raucous night reached its fever pitch when Payton returned to the court.
On nights such as Karl's return, almost no NBA arena — regardless of profit-generating accouterments that Key lacks — could match the deafening noise of Seattle's home.
For Seattle's final possession, Payton slithered past two Bucks for a layup over 6-foot-11 Ervin Johnson to tie the score. Karl, grimacing, called timeout. The drama was punctuated by Tim Thomas's buzzer beater over Vin Baker for a 101-99 Bucks victory.
As Karl swung his fist several times, KeyArena turned quiet except for some murmurs: Doug Lo — a season-ticket holder who sat behind press row — groused about Baker's lethargic defense on the final play, and asked me for the millionth time when the forward would be mercifully dealt.
Meanwhile, Bucks players knocked over the visitor's bench. Karl — tie askew with matching navy jacket and light blue shirt — led a mad dash to midcourt for a celebration concluding the night.
Nunyo Demasio, former Seattle Times Sonics reporter, 1997-2002
In many ways, I never felt like a beat writer covering an NBA team but rather a caretaker of a community asset charged with telling the stories, explaining the nuances and examining the lives of individuals who entertained us for more than 40 decades. It was more than just sports. And more than just games. I realize this now.
Picking a favorite memory is impossible. There are just too many. I will miss the people, the ushers, vendors and gameday operations crew who rarely get publicity. I will always admire and never truly understand the dedication of fans who arrive hours early and stay late for games. I will miss the feeling of covering a big game at KeyArena. The energy inside that place crackled like oil on a hot skillet.
As a young reporter, I established relationships with players and learned more about them during candid conversations in the wee hours in the morning than I did in the short interview sessions before and after games. As I grew older and the players entering the league became younger, I found myself gravitating to the coaches and assistants, many who were former players.
I enjoyed the pre-game meetings with the coaches. George Karl, Nate McMillan and Bob Hill taught me more about the game than my high school basketball coach. Karl and Hill are gifted storytellers. McMillan once joked: "I talk to you guys everyday for half of the year. What are y'all going to do when I'm gone?"
What are we going to do?
Percy Allen, Seattle Times Sonics reporter, 2002-2008
I walked into the Sonics locker room for an assignment in 1999 and was looking into Gary Payton's locker when an ESPN story pinned to the wall caught my eye. The writer ripped him and from the adjacent training room, I suddenly heard this barrage of cursing ending with, "And you better not ever write anything like that!"
Ah, my first GP encounter after years of watching him play on a 19-inch TV poolside in Arizona. I was home, back in the basketball world.
Payton turned out to be cool for me to deal with, along with every other Sonic. That made the 45 minutes of media availability on game day my favorite part of covering the Sonics and one I'll miss the most.
Even though the players are notorious for pranks, there were some real moments then. Ray Allen would talk for what seemed like hours about anything you asked about, even serenading me once about some fishnet stockings I brazenly wore (he likes fashion.)
Earl Watson and I always baited each other when his UCLA played my Arizona (he usually won). And as Kevin Durant grows into the star he's projected to be, I'll cherish my weekly rookie chat with him last season.
I'll still be around basketball with the Storm. But as with everything, women are different from men. So, I'll miss those small moments when it wasn't about the money or game, you were just talking with someone who loves basketball as much as you do.
Jayda Evans, Seattle Times Sonics and Storm reporter
My best Sonics memory involves the worst basketball game I've ever seen.
It was March 30, 2008. A 13-point loss in a joyless slog. Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley later called it an "assault on the integrity of the game."
Except this was the first Sonics game for my son Oscar. He is 6. So he is unbound by the limits of the adult world.
Such as: The NBA's extortionist business model. The lies of the Sonics' owners. The no-care Sonics defense that night.
He saw none of that. He saw beauty.
It took us half an hour to get to our car after that depressing game because Oscar stopped at every trash can. To pretend-dribble left. Fake right. Then whirl and arc a shot over the arms of the outstretched No Parking sign to ... swish!
Fingers pointing skyward. Dancing on the street. As if we'd just won the title instead of being crushed by lowly Sacramento.
So goodbye, Sonics. He never learned your names. He doesn't even know you're gone. But there's a little boy in Seattle who will miss you more than you'll ever know.
Danny Westneat, Seattle Times staff columnist
When I first met Gary Payton, he was a freshman at Oregon State, his chin out, ready to go at it. Nobody ever denied his toughness on the court, then or later as a Sonic.
Off the court, he was friendly, even polite to this female covering his team and invading the locker room. And that held true in April 1994 when we asked him to write a column for The Seattle Times during the playoffs. The Sonics had just finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA, 63-19. Everybody was rolling, especially Payton.
He didn't actually sit down and write the column; instead I met him after practice with a tape recorder and he spoke his mind and I transcribed it. After the first one was published, our beat writer back then, Glenn Nelson, suggested we spice it up, that it was too boring for a personality like Payton's. Glenn's suggestion? Ask him about sex.
So I did. And this is what Payton said:
"People ask me what I do to prepare for games, even if I have sex. You all will ask anything! Well, let's get that one right out of the way, like I did that SI jinx. I don't believe in that stuff that says you have to abstain 24 hours before a game or whatever.
"People say it tires you out. Not true. I think it's OK to have sex even an hour before a game. I take vitamins. Value packs.
"They tell me that when you do these newspaper columns that you try to get folks' attention right away. Are we there yet?"
We're there, Gary.
Cathy Henkel, Seattle Times sports editor, 1990-2008
In the Sonics' glory years of the late 1970s, my wife and I owned a one-third share of two season tickets. We sat in pretty decent seats for the now-hard-to-believe price of $5 apiece.
We went because pro basketball players could do things ordinary humans could not. Gus Williams could seemingly change course in midair as he drove to the hoop. Dennis Johnson could get a hand up to block a shot from anywhere on the court. And Downtown Freddy Brown, coming in off the bench, could hit a jumper from, well, downtown.
But the Sonics memory that haunts me is from a night years earlier, when I was still in my teens, and a friend showed me how to scramble up a Coliseum ramp and get into a game without paying. Could it be that the two admission charges the Sonics missed that night somehow snowballed over time, eventually leading to the team's demise? I shudder at the thought.
Jack Broom, Seattle Times staff reporter
I was a rookie reporter covering my first pro basketball game, a Sonics exhibition in Ellensburg, in the fall of 1976 when I got my first glimpse of a skinny, freckle-faced kid from Pepperdine.
I've long since forgotten the opponent and score, but I've never forgotten Dennis Johnson. He wasn't a great shooter or ballhandler, but he played smothering defense, could out-jump players a half-foot taller and never stopped hustling.
DJ never did things the easy way. He was a late-bloomer who sat on the bench as a 5-foot-9 high-school player, caught the attention of a junior-college coach, received only two college scholarship offers and applied for the NBA draft as a hardship case. The Sonics saw something in the 6-4 guard who jumped center, drafting him in the second round, and not even a 22-year-old reporter covering NBA players for the first time could miss his greatness. Two seasons later, DJ and Gus Williams formed the backcourt that would lead the Sonics to their only world championship.
DJ and I were almost the same age, so I was shaken when he died Feb. 22, 2007 at only 52. To me, he was almost a metaphor for the Sonics franchise — an overachiever who would move on to another NBA city. And his death foreshadowed the shocking loss of NBA basketball in Seattle 16 months later.
Don Shelton, Seattle Times assistant sports editor
You know all those stories that have been written about New York kids growing up in the 1940s and '50s drifting off to sleep as they listened on a transistor to Red Barber and the Dodgers or Mel Allen and the Giants?
That same story played out with me in the '70s in Richland, only it was Bob Blackburn and the Sonics on KALE-AM, which helped plant the seeds for my eventual career. Many a night I stayed up after my parents turned off the lights, listening to a Sonics win (or more often in those early days, a high-scoring loss) and then a postgame interview with Lee Winfield or Don Kojis.
We'd make trips two or three times a season to Seattle, where relatives lived, planning it around a Sonics game — the best was the times they had two games on a weekend and we could see them both. After one of the first games I attended, we bumped into center Don Smith (who later became Zaid Abdul-Aziz) in the parking lot, my first autograph and still one of my most indelible sports memories.
My sophomore year of high school, my dad was transferred to Bellevue just in time for us to attend 15 to 20 games of the championship season — I plotted with some friends to camp outside the ticket office for entry to Game 6 of the Finals as the Sonics fell behind in Landover that Friday night, only to watch happily as Fred Brown led a rally that made that game unnecessary.
I later covered 100 or so games in the Kemp-Payton era, but in my heart, the Sonics will always be Lenny Wilkens in his player-coach days, and Tom Meschery and Dick Snyder and Garfield Heard and Rod Derline (whose jumper I spent many an hour trying to replicate) and Kennedy McIntosh, and even Butch Beard (hey, it wasn't his fault).
Clay Bennett can steal the team, but he'll never take that away.
Bob Condotta, Seattle Times staff reporter
Ray Allen's layin sealed Seattle's playoff series victory over Sacramento in 2005.
It was Jerome James' backhanded shot at the Sacramento Kings in 2005, however, that remains my most memorable moment in my three years covering the team as a beat writer.
James paraded around the court wearing a black trash bag around his neck as if it were a cape, a nod to the tale he told of stuffing the contents of his locker into a garbage sack after the Kings cut him in 1999.
It was an absurd celebration that marked the high point of an absurdly improbable season. No one saw this coming in the 2004-05 season. Not the 52 regular-season victories. Not the division championship. And most certainly not the 17.2 points and 9.4 rebounds James averaged in five games of Seattle's first-round playoff series victory.
The year began with coach Nate McMillan, Ray Allen and at least five more players in the final year of their contracts and when the Sonics were blown out by the Clippers by 30 points in the first game of the season, the question was how long until the team came apart.
Instead, the Sonics came together. They won the next nine in a row and after each game gathered at center court in a huddle that became the signature for the bond they shared. The first-round victory over Sacramento remains the team's only playoff series victory in the past 10 seasons.
Now, Allen has won a championship with the Celtics and McMillan is coaching a burgeoning powerhouse in Portland. Even James punched his ticket, getting more than $30 million from the New York Knicks.
Three years later, the Sonics are on their third different coach since then and headed out of town. Maybe James' plastic trash bag is still lying somewhere at KeyArena to help pack up.
Danny O'Neil, Seattle Times staff reporter
Athletes and coaches use different methods to get ready for big games.
Nate McMillan prepared for his first game at KeyArena as the Sonics' coach by running a lint roller through his hair.
McMillan, who had been named coach after Paul Westphal was fired, was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation before the game. Then his Sonics beat the Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers by 33 points.
Afterward, McMillan was in a good mood when he addressed reporters for the first time at KeyArena as the team's coach.
"I think I was really nervous before the game," he said. "I rolled a lint roller across my head. I was brushing my suit and just rolled it over my head. But I did get the lint out."
Bill Reader, Seattle Times assistant sports editor
The first — and only — Sonics game we attended was the last game the team played in Seattle. The crowd was filled with mixed emotions and a lot of protesters were angry about the sale, but it felt like all that was put aside in the final minutes of the game. It wasn't about where the Sonics would be playing in the future or who owned the team — it was just about basketball and an exciting comeback finish.
But as soon as the game was over, the focus of most fans returned to Clay Bennett. As we left KeyArena, we talked about how much fun the game had been and how glad we were that we went — but also expressed regret at not appreciating the team more while we had it.
If we're lucky enough to get another NBA team in Seattle, we'll definitely not make that same mistake.
Mary Cauffman, Seattle Times page designer; Leah Culler, Times desk editor; Tim Harville, Times project analyst
From the time I was 6 in 1969, I was hooked on the Sonics, and particularly listening to Bob Blackburn. I would turn the radio on before I went to bed, and never fell asleep until the game were over. I loved the Duck (Dick Snider), Woody (Spencer Haywood) and even forgotten guys like Don Kojis, Pete Cross and Lee Winfield.
My favorite memory was when I was 10, on March 23, 1974. I was enjoying a rare televised game while my parents were hosting a little card party for friends.
When Fred Brown reached 35 points early in the second half, I interrupted the party to tell my dad, who wasn't nearly as thrilled as I was by Brown's accomplishments, and told me not to bug him unless it was really important.
When he reached 50, I interrupted again, and that must have been the magic number, because my dad left the game with the his friend to watch Downtown Freddy score his final eight points of the game, for a team-record 58 that was never broken.
It was an amazing performance that I will always remember, and I knew it had to be big if it was bigger than the card game.
Scott Hanson, Seattle Times desk editor
Having been born a year after the Sonics won their only NBA title, I've never been able to experience an NBA championship in Seattle during my lifetime.
However, the first time it almost happened was the 1996 Sonics team, that lost to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. The duo of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton will always be my favorite one-two punch this city has seen, with the two of them constantly being featured on SportsCenter.
The way Sam "Big Smooth" Perkins could easily drain three-pointers with his eyes half closed and his feet barely leaving the ground amazes me to this day.
Detlef Schrempf and Hersey Hawkins defined dependability, and even the bench was made up of hardworking players like Vincent Askew, David Wingate, Nate McMillan and yes, even Steve Scheffler.
And even though they were going through their forest green-burgundy-yellow colors phase, that version of the Sonics was the best-looking team that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing play basketball in the Northwest, and will continue to be the standard of professional sports in Seattle, until I am able to attend a championship parade in this city.
Henry Han, Seattle Times news assistant
Talk about a childhood dream come true. I was just a rookie and already in the NBA Finals, in front of nearly 36,000 screaming Sonics fans in the Kingdome.
It was Game 3 of the championship series in 1979 and I was there as a first-year photographer for The Daily Record in Ellensburg. The small paper 110 miles east of Seattle rarely ran anything about the big city, but that year the Sonics changed all of that. The team had captivated the state. And got my photos on the front page.
I wasn't much of a photographer and my camera was small and cheap, but there was nothing bigger than the Sonics that year. I could have scrawled some stick figures and called them "J.J." and "DJ." and the paper would have run them.
And being part of that huge mob at the game was an amazing feeling for someone who grew up in Seattle and went to those early Sonics games when the crowds were so small that the ushers would allow us kids to sneak into courtside seats, just to have someone there.
Now I actually was on the court and shooting a shoving match between Jack Sikma and the Washington Bullets' Wes Unseld, one of the strongest, toughest, meanest-looking guys in the NBA. At one point Unseld turned around and glared at my camera. He was just a few feet away. My hands were trembling. The photo was shaky. But it got in the paper.
A few nights later, after the Sonics clinched the title in Landover, Md., Seattle celebrated as if it were 1945. I was in Ellensburg, where we played hoops until about 2 a.m. on a crowded playground lit by nearby streetlights, mimicking the moves of our favorite Sonics. They made all of us feel like stars that night.
Bill Kossen, Seattle Times desk editor
Erik Lacitis, a Seattle Times reporter, was a local columnist for the paper in 1996, when he wrote this column as the Sonics prepared to take on the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
The headline read, "It's time again to see dancing in Seattle's streets."
Hey, kid. Let me tell you what it was like, that day in June when this town woke up from a deep slumber.
If you're 25 years old, and have lived in Seattle all your life, you'd have only the foggiest of memories about something that happened in 1979. Back then you'd have been 8, more concerned with cartoon shows on TV than anything else.
On the evening of June 1, 1979, the Seattle SuperSonics won the NBA championship. Remember how crazy this town went last year over baseball, when the Mariners won in their division?
You don't know crazy — happy crazy, fun-to-be-alive-and-here crazy — until your home team wins the whole thing, the championship.
They say we put too much emphasis on sports in this country, and it's true. More people watch the Super Bowl, or the Final Four, or the NBA championship games than a year's worth of newscasts. College sports long ago lost its priorities and turned "student-athletes" into just so much fodder. Great books languish while Dennis Rodman churns out some very random thoughts and they become an instant bestseller.
That's all true. But it is only a sports team, on a quest for a championship, that can unite a city across racial, income and education differences.
As much as greed has subverted sports, with seemingly only mean-spirited, avaricious individuals allowed to buy franchises, the moments of purity still remain in the games: That great home-run hit, that wonderful pass, the astounding move to the basket.
You can be talking to someone with completely different political views, and you can find common ground in going over last night's game. In talking about the game, you might find other common ground, too.
Seattle is not a town that likes to show excitement. I've come up with the explanation that it's our Scandinavian heritage, making you feel guilty about being too happy.
The late Bill Speidel, one of Seattle's historians, once explained to me the town's personality.
"I think there are a lot of people here who are afraid to laugh because of what I call the 'Christer' element," Speidel said. "See, Seattle has always had a split personality — the swingers and the Christers. I don't think many people know that the first industry in this town was a whorehouse run by Madame Damnable ...
"Do you know that 87 percent of the city budget [in 1892] was paid for by gambling, prostitution and liquor? I guess the swinging went a little too far, because, then, in 1907, we got the blue laws that made illegal anything that was fun. We've spent the last ... years trying to recover from those laws. We behave something like when you visit a maiden aunt. You always watch your language."
But on Friday night, June 1, 1979, playing away from home, the Sonics beat the Washington Bullets 97-93 and the championship was theirs.
I drove around the town that night. Nobody ever went downtown on any evening, but I decided to see what was going on. Hundreds of others had decided the same thing, and downtown suddenly came alive.
Cars honking, people yelling, "No. 1!" people waving, people just jumping up and down in glee, people rollerskating. On KJR, the disc jockeys played over and over again a disco tune about the Sonics, and the tune reverberated from one car to another, as the parade kept going through downtown.
It was all quite innocent. I remember seeing cops out in the streets, but since nobody was causing property damage or getting in fights, they stayed on the sidelines.
I remember watching the crowd at midnight at the intersection of Broadway and Denny. In the middle of the intersection, some 300 people had decided to start dancing, and kept dancing until I don't know when.
Maybe they danced until the next morning, when 15,000 showed up at the airport to greet the team. I remember some cynics later asking if it really was 15,000 people who had made the trek. This was Seattle, after all.
Yes, it had been 15,000, although soon enough, we returned to our muted ways.
Hey, kid. I wanted to tell you a little of what it was like, that championship year. You never know. Sure seems it's time again to see some dancing in the Seattle streets.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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