BY Todd Dybas 11:59PM 07/29/2011

Dybas: Hawkins’ fit gave the ’96 Sonics a booster shot

The 1995 trade for Hersey Hawkins was the key move that pushed the Sonics to the NBA Finals. In town for the Sonics Celebration, he talks about the season, and a Game 6 miss he can’t forget.

Hersey Hawkins was back in Seattle Friday night for the Sonics reunion, skillfully presented by the Mariners. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Flanked by a menacing Alonzo Mourning and versatile Larry Johnson, Hersey Hawkins figured he had it good in Charlotte.

The Hornets won 50 games in 1994-95. Hawkins shot a preposterous 44 percent from 3-point range. Following the season, he sat down with general manager Bob Bass, who informed Hawkins he was going nowhere. A couple of weeks later, he was traded to Seattle along with David Wingate in exchange for Kendall Gill.

“I was disappointed because I liked Charlotte,” Hawkins said Friday at Safeco Field, in town for the Sonics Celebration night. “It was way across country. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Whenever you visited Seattle as an opposing team, it was most of the time raining. It was like, ‘OK, what am I getting myself into?’ Of course, things turned out great.”

Yeah, not bad — a trip to the Finals after 64 regular-season wins in his first year. Gary Payton, the team’s poster child, and Shawn Kemp, the team’s posterizing child, are the seared images of that 1995-96 Sonics team that lost to the Bulls in the Finals. But the quiet, precise Hawkins was crucial.

“I think Hawk made the pieces fit,” former coach George Karl said Friday, when he was joined by two other former coaches, Lenny Wilkens and Nate McMillan, and 13 former players invited by the Mariners to the first civic celebration of the Sonics legacy since the franchise was moved to Oklahoma City after the 2008 season.

A pre-game highlights video preceded the players’ field introduction. Wilkens and Karl threw out the ceremonial first pitches. Sonics jerseys and memorabilia were seen throughout the stands. The ceremony was a huge hit, unlike the rest of the evening for Seattle fans who suffered through an 8-0 loss to Tampa, the Mariners’ 18th in 19 games.

Karl felt Gill, a talented guard, wasn’t tough enough. Though the trade made for a downgrade of athleticism, there was an upgrade in fundamentals and balance.

In Hawkins, the Sonics were delivered a shooter who smoothed his stroke at Bradley under Dick Versace. Hawkins spent hours alone refining his release in college after receiving his first shooting advice from a childhood chum in Chicago, where he grew up.

In Seattle, Hawkins preferred to be out of the post. He was fine with Payton handling the ball as much as he wanted. His spacing allowed Payton to do what he did best, then added the safety of a career 39.4 percent shooter from 3.

“I think our games sort of complemented each other where they were so opposite,” Hawkins said. “We didn’t step on each other’s feet as far as what we were really good at.”

Hawkins in his first Seattle season flirted with the shooter’s Holy Grail of 90/50/40. That’s 90 percent from the free throw line, 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3. Hawkins finished 87/47/38.

He missed 255 3-pointers that season, including the playoffs. One of them he cannot forget.

After falling down 0-3 in the series, the Sonics won twice at home and were bidding to tie in game six in Chicago.

In the fourth quarter, Hawkins stood wide open in front of the Bulls’ bench, ready to cut the lead to two with a 3. Hawkins put it up, not in. Chicago closed out the Sonics to win the championship.

“That’s the one thing that you do well and that you’re paid to do,” Hawkins said. “Just short-armed it. I can see that shot that clearly and thinking . . . I can’t curse.

“At that moment, at that time, to have that shot, and to miss it, was like . . .I‘ll think about that shot sometimes just in the middle of the night. Just laying around, sitting around. Thinking about basketball, my career and that shot comes to mind.”

It’s been 15 years and Hawkins has yet to watch a game from that series. He reviewed game tape, but he’s never sat down to watch it since.

“I thought we were better than the Bulls and we should have won the championship,” Hawkins said. “It’s sort of heartbreaking to think about.”

Hawkins has since reassembled his ticker and is working for the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s director of player programs and on the player development team. Essentially, he helps players navigate things on and off the court.

“I have sort of the best of both worlds now. I’m considered management, so you get the business side of it, but I also get to work with them on the floor,” Hawkins said.

He’ll decide in the next year or two if his future is in coaching or business.

Karl, coach of the Denver Nuggets, has battled throat cancer. Considerably trimmer than his Sonics days, he says he is drinking more water than beer, and eating organic food — was there a prop bet in Vegas those things would ever happen? — and Friday was in patriarchal mode.

“Our lives get big, and our lives get too busy and we forget about celebrating the good times,” Karl said.

Like when it was time 15 years ago to feed the Hawk.


YourThoughts

  • SeattleNative

    Will never forget Marques Johnson cheering to, “…feed the Hawk. ” Thanks for the post Todd. Excellent piece. Brings back some good memories. And thanks to the M’s for recognizing the Sonics value to this community. Think the Hawks and Paul Allen would celebrate the Supra? Don’t think so.

  • SeattleNative

    Will never forget Marques Johnson cheering to, “…feed the Hawk. ” Thanks for the post Todd. Excellent piece. Brings back some good memories. And thanks to the M’s for recognizing the Sonics value to this community. Think the Hawks and Paul Allen would celebrate the Supra? Don’t think so.