BY Steve Rudman 06:30AM 02/05/2014

300,000 loved the 1979 SuperSonics’ parade

The Seahawks will be saluted in a parade through downtown Seattle Wednesday, but it will be hard to top the fervor that greeted the NBA champion Sonics in 1979.

This photograph of the victory parade for the Seattle SuperSonics, taken by staff photographer Bob Miller, appeared on the front page of The Post-Intelligencer June 5, 1979.

The morning of June 4, 1979, a Monday, started gloomily, with thick clouds and drizzle, but the overcast began to clear about 9:30 a.m., a couple of hours before the start of what The Seattle Post-Intelligencer predicted would be “the biggest parade the city has seen since the end of World War II.” The newspaper wasn’t wrong.

By 11 a.m., a throng of 300,000, that figure estimated by Seattle police, lined the 16-block parade route from the Kingdome to the plaza between the Olympic Hotel and the Rainier Bank Building. The biggest swarm, about 100,000, according to Seattle Police spokesman Lee Libby, congregated at Fifth Avenue and University Street, where pennant, T-shirt and pretzel vendors worked the crowd.

A daring fan scales a wall at the Olympic Hotel during the Sonics’ victory parade June 5, 1979.

“They absolutely choked the streets,” Libby told the newspaper.

“This crowd eclipsed the V-J Day parade,” added Lt. Roy Wedlund, who coordinated policing along the parade route. “As far as we can determine this was the largest gathering for a parade that Seattle has ever had.”

The previous largest amassed on the afternoon of Aug. 26, 1932. That day, 200,000 lined Second Avenue to welcome home 19-year-old Helene Madison, fresh off winning three swimming gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

In some ways, the 200,000 that showed to salute “Queen Helene” was more impressive than the 300,000 that showed for the Sonics. In 1932, Seattle had a population of about 310,000 vs. the 493,000 in 1979. Plus, the 1932 parade was held to honor one woman, not a team.

An even larger crowd than 300,000 might show Wednesday when the Super Bowl champion Seahawks — odd how easy that is to say after 35 years of title blankings — parade from Fourth and Denny to CenturyLink Field, starting at 11 a.m. But it’s unlikely that the fervor for the Seahawks will exceed by much (if at all) that which greeted the Sonics, winners of the city’s first major sports title.

On that overcast Monday 35 years ago, hundreds of spectators perched precariously on the edges of building roofs, on window ledges and atop light standards, street signs and traffic-control devices to get glimpses of convertibles bearing Lenny Wilkens, Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, John Johnson, Paul Silas, Downtown Freddy Brown and the rest of the players, who  vanquished Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Washington Bullets Coach Dick Motta, whose slogan throughout the five-game series had been “It Ain’t Over ‘Til The Fat Lady Sings.”

She finally warbled on Seattle’s behalf, and Wilkens elicited wild cheers all along the parade route as he repeatedly hoisted the silver and gold championship trophy. Above him, office workers shredded Ma Bell’s phone books and watched gleefully as Yellow Pages rained down on the parade.

Uniformed police walked ahead of each car to move spectators out of the way so that the caravan could inch its way to a civic victory celebration in the plaza, scene of so many bond sale rallies during World War II that it was called Victory Square.

Wilkens and his wife, Marilyn, and their children rode in the lead car, a 1922 Chandler, with Mayor Charles Royer. In the second car was Sonics owner Sam Schulman, King County Executive John Spellman, assistant coach Les Habegger and General Manager Zollie Volchok. Players’ cars followed, with Dennis Awtrey first and Wally Walker last.

It took nearly an hour for the caravan to reach the plaza, where the press of the crowd was such that it shattered a florist’s shop window, and where the masses whooped it up as each Sonics player was introduced and roundly booed politicians reading proclamations.

An aerial view of the Sonics’ victory parade in 1979 shows some of the 300,000 people who attended. The photo appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer June 5, 1979.

“Crowds assembled on nearly every flat place that surrounded the University Plaza rally,” the P-I reported. “They cheered from atop the Rainier Tower roof, from the United Airlines Building and from the Cobb Medical Center. Some lucky insiders were seated on lounging chairs on the overhang of an Olympic Hotel entrance.”

The victory celebration capped the biggest sports party Seattle had witnessed, one that had been going on since the previous Friday night when the Sonics clinched the series in five games. This is how the P-I described the aftermath:

“From the heart of the Seattle Catholic Diocese on Capitol Hill to nursing homes where octogenarians squealed in delight, to ferry boats and to champagne-showered bars across Western Washington, the human wave of sporting emotion was spontaneous.

“Sweet victory oozed down Pioneer Square streets with honking horns and fingers pointed skyward, indicating that Seattle was finally the championship of something. Firecrackers popped in Magnolia and on Queen Anne Hill. A huge cheer went up as a ferry boat landed in Winslow at 7:30 p.m., just as the Sonics made their victory surge in the fourth quarter.

“At St. James Cathedral, the church bells rang over and over . . . Students in the University District, apparently swept away in a sea of joy, opened fire hydrants and let the pure Northwest water spill out . . . One ecstatic man climbed a streetlight at the corner of First and Yesler and led the crowd in cheers . . . More than 1,000 fans clogged Broadway Avenue East, screaming, drinking and dancing in the streets.”

The revelry went on all night, everywhere. Then, the next day, when “SuperSonic 1” landed at Sea-Tac, 30,000 fans were there to greet the team.

“It could have been Armistice Day,” the P-I opined.

Then, as now, the Seattle School District refused to give students the day off to attend the Sonics’ victory parade. But a telephone survey by the Post-Intelligencer revealed that absentee rates ran between 35 and 40 percent.

“Even a lot of school teachers, plus a couple of principals, bagged class to attend the parade,” the P-I reported.

In his day-after-the Super Bowl press conference, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called for schools and businesses to close Wednesday so that everyone would be able celebrate the Super Bowl win. How much could it hurt? After all, we do this only once every 35 years.

 


YourThoughts

  • poulsbogary

    This will be my first super bowl parade.

  • Davechr

    Great story Steve! Damn I miss the P-I… I was there on 5th Ave in ’79 and I will be somewhere in the crowd today!

  • jafabian

    IIRC, Gus wasn’t at the parade. At least he didn’t fly back with the team when they left Landover, instead wanting to return home to Mt. Vernon NY to be with his family. Looking thru they Sonics ’79 yearbook doesn’t show any pics of him at the parade.

    That was such an awesome time. For a three year stretch the Sonics were the class of the NBA. With four starters 25 and under plus two high draft picks in ’79 I really thought the team stood a great chance at winning another championship. Unfortunately Lenny and DJ didn’t get along, Gus held out for a year, Lonnie missed a year due to injury and wasn’t the same when he returned and the club lost patience with rookies James Bailey and Vinnie Johnson. (ow on that last one) Didn’t help that a couple rookies named Magic and Bird joined the NBA as well. Hopefully the Hawks don’t go down the same path the Sonics did after winning it all.

    • tedsfrozenhead

      Nice recollections J. That team ran into the problems you stated and we never got to see just what they could be. But those were a great couple of teams re built from the ashes of Bob Hopkins 5-17 start and the whole region was taken with the SuperSonics. Those were great times, thx for the memories

  • lsmall

    I got out of 5th grade to go to the parade with my family and best friend. It was AWESOME! Even though DJ didn’t show. Ahhh Sonics please come back.

    • jafabian

      DJ was there. I have the Sonic Boom record and he spoke to the crowd. You might be thinking of Gus who has said if he could do it all over again he’d have been there. Basically he pulled a Marshawn. Just not into crowds.

    • Pixdawg13

      Seattle ‘Times’ ran a pic a couple days ago of the Sonics’ parade, featuring DJ standing and waving to the crowd.

  • tedsfrozenhead

    I was there about 25 feet in front of the stage and loving every minute of it. After it was over and we were making our way back to the car downtown we ran into Dick Snyder and his family down by the Kingdome. Nice guy who chatted with us for a few moments.

    Those were great times.

  • Phil Caldwell

    Hey that crowd looks remarkably like the one yesterday, and yet the one yesterday is allegedly 500,000 people more? Interesting.

    THE reason some of us are a bit skeptical over crowd counts. Seems to be whichever number somebody puts out there. Did anybody actually count EITHER crowd?