BY Steve Rudman 07:39AM 03/25/2011

Top 5 List: Fabulous Sonics soap operas

Ackerley era punctuated by highs, lows & boobery.

George Karl punctuated his tenure in Seattle with an on-going spat with Wally Walker / Wiki Commons

Barry Ackerley, who owned the Seattle SuperSonics from 1983 until 2000, died earlier this week in Rancho Mirage, CA., at the age of 76 (see Art Thiel’s column on Ackerley’s passing). Ackerley often drew the wrath of fans — and sports writers — for some of his decisions, but his tenure was not only marked by great success (four Pacific Division titles and an appearance in the 1996 NBA Finals), but became the most colorful in franchise history. In addition to wins and losses, great players (Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp) and busts (Jim McIlvaine and Vin Baker), the following constitutes our favorite Sonic soap operas during Ackerley’s ownership (this Top 5 list features three bonus entries).

  • 8

    Barry Ackerley vs. Art Thiel, 1989: Ackerley ordered the arrest of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist if he (Thiel) ever entered a private area of a hotel ballroom reserved for media at a Sonics draft-day function. Seems Ackerley was upset (don’t know why, unless Ackerley just lacked a sense of humor) with Thiel for a line in a column which said, “I’d rather sleep in a bed of broken light bulbs than make a business deal with Ackerley.”
  • 7

    Barry Ackerley vs. City Trees, 1987: Ackerley Communications owned most of the billboards in Seattle (the company’s major profit center). The Sonics owner drew the public’s ire and stern rebukes from local politicos after his company cut down a number of city-owned trees so that his billboards would be more visible to passers-by.
  • 6

    Ricky Pierce vs. Gary Payton, 1994: During the playoffs, Payton got into a major harangue with Pierce and threatened to pull a gun on him (both players were given to intermittent bursts of moronic behavior) at halftime of a game, and coach George Karl took the threat seriously. “The players told me they had guns in their bags — it was, ‘I’ll kill your family.'”
  • 5

    Barry Ackerley vs. Sam Schulman, 1986: With the Sonics floundering, they hired Bob Whitsitt as president of the club. For former Sonics owner Sam Schulman, this development represented the last straw in what he perceived to be a dysfunctional franchise. Said Schulman, after summoning the media, “I wanted to leave the team in good hands. I want to emphasize to the people of Seattle that it was an honest mistake, and I wish I could undo it,” he said.
  • 4

    Barry Ackerley vs. Bob Whitsitt, 1994: The ill-will between the Sonics’ owner and his team president and GM grew so rancorous that Ackerley not only placed Whitsitt on administrative leave, he had Whitsitt’s office stripped of its computer terminal, telephone, VCR, television set and fax machine, making it impossible for Whitsitt to function. Said Ackerley’s son, Bill, the president of Ackerley Communications: “We didn’t feel it was appropriate for Bob to be using company assets when he has been placed on a paid administrative leave.”
  • 3

    Monique Ellis vs. Bobbi Jo Lister, 1988: On March 1, Monique Ellis, wife of Sonics guard Dale Ellis, and Bobbi Jo Lister, wife of center Alton Lister, became embroiled in a fight outside the Seattle locker room 10 minutes after the Sonics beat the Lakers 114-100. The fight began when Nadia Gordon of Bellevue, claiming to be the sister of Monique Ellis, kicked and punched Bobbi Jo. Bernita Horton of Seattle tried to stop Gordon and was kicked and punched by Monique. “As far as I’m concerned, I was mugged,” Horton told Seattle police. “I just tried to stop a fight and Monique attacked me.” The rift between the wives apparently began when Alton Lister signed a $4.2 million contract while Ellis could not successfully renegotiate the final year of a contract worth $325,000 per year. Earlier in the season, Monique and Bobbi Jo had engaged in a hair-pulling incident in the Coliseum parking lot.
  • 2

    Dale Ellis vs. Xavier McDaniel, 1990: On Nov. 21, the Sonics stars engaged in a full-blown donnybrook that drew blood in front of the team’s offices at 190 Queen Anne Ave. N. When Ellis emerged from an elevator in the building’s lobby, he spotted McDaniel standing in front of the building. The two argued heatedly and punches were thrown while a Sonics’ employee tried to restrain the pair. As they went at it, the fight moved up the street. When it ended, the Sonics suspended Ellis for five days with no pay, but took no action against McDaniel, who said, “We’ve played seven games without him and God knows how many more we’ll have to play without him. All his practice shots are short anyhow.”
  • 1

    George Karl vs. Wally Walker, 1994-98: Whether it was because Walker was a Virginia grad and Karl was a North Carolina Tar Heel, or the fact that Walker was buttoned-down and Karl was opened up, the two feuded early and often after Walker’s ascension to the Sonics president/GM job in 1994. Walker resisted some pressure to fire Karl after the top-seeded Sonics lost to No. 8 Denver in the first round of the 1994 playoffs, and the tandem helped the Sonics reach the NBA Finals in 1996. Still, after the 1997-98 season, Walker refused to renew Karl’s contract, despite a winning mark of 70 percent over six seasons. Walker said he could no longer trust his head coach to keep quiet about team business. Karl launched into a series of criticisms of Walker that got him fined $25,000 by the NBA for making “disparaging remarks” and $50,000 for “negative remarks” about Sonics management, specifically Walker. Said Karl: “My recommendation would be to blow up the management and keep the team.”


  • Started: Oct. 15, 1983
  • Purchase Price: $22 million
  • Ownership: Ackerley assumes $8 million in liabilities, reducing the net purchase price to about $13 million. Schulman owned 38 percent of the Sonics’ parent company’s stock at the time of the sale.
  • Ownership fact: During the Ackerley ownership, the Sonics had three seasons in which they won at least 60 games.
    Ownership Highlights
  • 1984: After attendance falls for the fourth consecutive year, the Sonics engage in a major overhaul of their roster, trading Gus Williams to Washington and releasing Fred Brown, leaving Jack Sikma as the only player remaining from the club’s championship year.
  • 1985: The Sonics promote Wilkens from general manager to vice-president.
  • 1985: Group W drops telecasts of Sonics games, claiming that the team’s poor record makes broadcasts unprofitable.
  • 1985: The Sonics exit the Kingdome and return to the Coliseum, signing a 10-year contract with the city of Seattle.
  • 1985: The Sonics use their No. 1 pick on Xavier McDaniel of Wichita State.
  • 1986: A game between the Sonics and Suns on Jan. 5 at the Seattle Coliseum is “rained out” due to a leaky roof.
  • 1986: Ackerley threatens to move his team outside the city limits if the city doesn’t improve his year-old lease at the Coliseum or provide a site for a new basketball arena.
  • 1986: The Sonics trade Jack Sikma to the Milwaukee Bucks and send Al Wood to Dallas in exchange for forward Dale Ellis. Wilkens resigns his front office post to become head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
  • 1986: The Sonics finish last in the NBA in attendance.
  • 1987: The Sonics host the NBA All-Star Game at the Kingdome, and Tom Chambers wins the MVP award.
  • 1988: Chambers leaves the Sonics as an unrestricted free agent and signs with Phoenix.
  • 1989: The Sonics use the second of two first-round picks on Shawn Kemp.
  • 1990: The Sonics use their No. 1 pick on Oregon State guard Gary Payton.
  • 1992: The Sonics fire head coach K.C. Jones and replace him with George Karl.
  • 1993: The Sonics sell out a franchise-record 26 games.
  • 1994: With Payton and Kemp leading the way, the Sonics win a franchise record 63 games, but get ousted from the postseason by Denver, marking the first-ever win by a No. 8 seed over a No. 1 seed.
  • 1995: During remodeling of KeyArena, the Sonics move to the Tacoma Dome.
  • 1996: Sonics win a record 64 games and reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1979, but lose to the Chicago Bulls
  • 1999: Sonics miss the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
  • 2001: On Jan. 11, Ackerley sells the Sonics, the WNBA Seattle Storm and Full House Entertainment, the business arm of the two franchises, to Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz for $200 million.


The Rotation’s weekly schedule:

  • Monday: That Was The Week That Was — A snarky, day-by-day review of the week just ended.
  • Tuesday: Wayback Machine — Sports historian David Eskenazi’s deep dive into local sports history, replete with photo eye candy.
  • Wednesday: Nobody Asks But Us — We ask, and answer, fun and quirky questions nobody else is asking.
  • Thursday: Water Cooler Cool — Art Thiel takes on the weekend for the benefit of the more casual fan.
  • Friday: Top 5 List — The alpha and omega of Northwest sports, at least as far as we’re concerned.


  • Dave J

    I said it then, and I’ll say it again – George was right!

  • Bob Bobberson

    Ackerley must have insulted you too Steve.

    To write that without mentioning any of the successive franchise destroying moves by Walker that resulted in the sale to Benedict Arnold Schultz is revisionist history at best.

  • John Fabian

    I always thought it spoke volumes when X and Dale got in a fight and X wasn’t suspended. Never should have traded him.

  • Anonymous

    “Karl launched into a series of criticisms of Walker that got him fined $25,000 by the NBA for making “disparaging remarks” and $50,000 for “negative remarks” about Sonics management, specifically Walker. Said Karl: “My recommendation would be to blow up the management and keep the team.”

    To be fair, though, he was right…