BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 05/07/2014

20 years ago, Sonics fell in NBA’s biggest upset

The sordid anniversary of the No. 8 seeded Nuggets’ upset of No. 1 seeded Sonics (63 regular-season wins!) helps explain part of why we did, what we did, three months ago.

Former Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo, in 2012, still smiling. / Wiki Commons

One of the most painful anniversaries in Seattle sports history is upon us: 20 years ago, May 7, 1994, the Sonics, the team with the NBA’s best record, lost to the No. 8-seeded Denver Nuggets in the playoffs — the first ouster of a No. 1 lost in the first round in the sport’s annals.

To make the boxcar-sized pill go down easier, think of it this way: The Seahawks avenged the dastardly deed in February by pantsing the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.

Another mitigating thought: The circumstance of a one losing to an eight in the NBA happened four times since: Knicks over Heat (1999), Warriors over Mavericks (2007),  Grizzlies over Spurs (2007) and 76ers over Bulls (2012), and nearly happened again Saturday until the Eastern Conference’s No. 1-seeded Pacers prevailed at home against the no-account Atlanta Hawks in seven games.

None of that really helps, does it?

By the Seattle generations who bore witness, the Sonics-Nuggets sports agony forever will be a bumper-to-bumper scratch on a new Porsche.

The 1993-94 Sonics of George Karl, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp won an NBA-best 63 regular-season games and the first two playoff games against the young Nuggets, at 42-40 just happy to be at the Coliseum.

The dominance seemed a fulfillment of what Karl saw as the team’s potential at the beginning of the season.

“I feel we have a two- or three-year window of opportunity,” he said. “If we don’t win a championship, then there are questions that should be asked.”

That year, the Sonics, which also included newly-arrived Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins, Kendall Gill, Rickey Pierce, Michael Cage and Nate McMillan, were so good, they won by an average of nine points a game and were favored to win the title — in no small part because Michael Jordan skipped out on the defending champion Chicago Bulls to play minor league baseball.

The Sonics won 20 0f their first 22 games, then finished the season with 14 consecutive wins on their home court, where they had lost only four times all season. With 102-86 and 97-87 triumphs in the series’ first two games, the mood was as light colorful as spring blossoms at Seattle Center.

Then came the trip to Denver. The more experienced but smugly overconfident Sonics in game 3 were slapped silly by the Nuggets 110-93,  a rout so persuasive that the Nuggets started to believe coach Dan Issel’s contention that the Sonics were beatable.

After all, the Nuggets had one of the game’s great defensive weapons in Dikembe Mutombo, the 7-foot-2 center who was the NBA’s top shotblocker and would finish the series with 31 blocks — and at least twice that many altered shots. Together in the series, Kemp and Perkins made 40 of 112 field goals.

Mutombo began his famous finger wag in earnest in Game 4, the Nuggets prevailing 94-85 in overtime. The 82 points in regulation was the Sonics’ second-lowest point total of the season.

“It was there for us to win it,” said Kemp.

In two games, the swagger was gone and the pucker was in. The Coliseum, holding its last basketball game before a one-year closure for renovation into KeyArena, was a barn of anxiety.

“That same big group (of fans) that harassed us the entire first two games of the series,” Denver’s LaPhonso Ellis said. “When we walked on the floor (for game 5), you could hear a pin drop.”

“I can’t deny the butterflies,” Karl said, “felt like rocks.”

In the fourth quarter, obscure backup guard Robert Pack scored 10 of his 23 points. The pressure built on the Sonics. Ellis hit a baseline jumper with 15 seconds left for a two-point Denver lead. But the end was momentarily averted with a Gill tip-in at .05 that sent the game into overtime.

The Nuggets felt the pressure too, committing four 24-second shot clock violations in OT. Kemp put the Sonics up 94-93 with 2:29 to play, but the next four possessions went block, turnover, block, block. Ellis hit a bucket and free throw for a 96-94 lead with 1:29 left, and the Sonics world came crashing down.

As the buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read Nuggets 98, Sonics 94. Mutombo sprawled on his back on the floor, laughing and clutching the ball above him, burning indelibly a televised image into the brain of every Seattle sports fan.

“Nightmare,” said Karl.

In the Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists done in 2009 by yours truly, Steve Rudman and Mike Gastineau, the Nuggets-Sonics debacle was ranked second-worst in the list of “Miserable Postseason Meltdowns.”

Believe it or not, the Sonics also owned No. 1 spot — game 4 of the 1980 Western Conference finals against the the Los Angeles Lakers and their precocious rookie, Magic Johnson.

Played at the University of Washington’s Hec Ed Pavilion because the Coliseum was not available, The Sonics were down 2-1 in the series but up 69-48 with 6:36 left in the third of the fourth game. And lost.

The Lakers went on a 24-2 run as the defending world champion Sonics missed 10 of 11 shots. The Lakers won the series and were off to Showtime, and the Sonics were on their way to last place next season in the West.

At the time, it was the biggest second-half lead blown in NBA playoff history. Fourteen years later, the Sonics would own the dubious distinction of being the first one seed to lose to an eight.

And this week, 20 years after Debacle Dikembe, a former Sonics No. 1 draft pick, Kevin Durant, was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in another city (see the video of his powerful acceptance speech) — six years after the Sonics were no more.

I know this dreary recounting of sports agony is not pleasant, particularly after a first round of splendid NBA playoff basketball. But it does help explain why three months ago, 700,000 people chose to skip work and school to stand, shout and scream downtown for several hours in 10-degree weather.

Those people, and their parents, and their grandparents, deserved it.


  • Ron

    — the first time an eight lost to a No. 1 in the sport’s history. Got that backwards,

    • art thiel

      Fixed. Thanks.

  • jafabian

    The chemitry of that team was very thin. They were used to winning all season and Denver was able to shake their confidence. I don’t think Karl helped matters when he brought in Kendall Gill but gave Vincent Askew almost equal playing time. That partly contributed to Gill’s later poor attitude. Interestingly enough, Gill probably had the best playoff performance among the Sonics in that series. Also interestingly, Askew had the same issues a few seasons later when he lost time to David Wingate in the playoffs.

    IIRC, the Soncis were not the #1 seed in 1980. The Lakers were. The Sonics won 56 games and the Lakers won 60. IMO, the Sonics would have at least gone to the Finals if they played on their home court and didn’t just finish a grueling playoff series with the Bucks which is one of the most amazing playoff series I’ve ever seen.

    I’m very happy KD got named MVP. And he has an opportunity to leave OKC in 2016. Sadly, he won’t be coming back to Seattle.

    • art thiel

      Chemistry was thin on every Karl team. Ricky Pierce still can’t figure out why he didn’t get into G4 in Denver, and Karl hated Gill.

      You’re right about ’80, although I didn’t mention seeds. The single-game home collapse was something never seen before in the NBA, although the better team di win.

      • jafabian

        I really don’t get the need to acquire Gill. Sure, he was a better defender than Pierce as well as younger but that wasn’t an issue in the past. IMO, Ricky still had game and didn’t need to be benched. If so, he should have been traded when Gill was acquired. Picking up Askew made for a crowded SG position. Throw in that sometimes McMillan and Payton would play at SG and it became powder keg waiting to explode. And George isn’t the kind of coach to manage that kind of situation properly.

        • LennyLuvsLonnie

          To get Gill, the Sonics swapped aging and overvalued Eddie Johnson along with the short but offensively explosive Dana Barros.

          In other words, they got one guard in his prime for two that didn’t really have a place anymore on their defense-oriented roster.

          Ricky Pierce still got a ton of minutes in ’94, and he’d been Sixth Man of the Year before, with Milwaukee.

          Like a lot of GM Whitsitt’s moves, the trade looked incredible on paper but didn’t work out so well in the locker room. And Gill never developed the reliable outside jumper you need from the two-guard spot to spread the floor for the half-court offense. That Sonics team could only win when running; they got spooked when things slowed down.

          • jafabian

            EJ still averaged 11 PPG for Carolina and Dana became an All-Star in Philly. If the team was kept together I think they would have been like last years Hawks: so ticked off that they got bounced from the playoffs vs Phoenix that they would have pounded the league the next season. George has said he keeps a framed picture of the 92-93 team because its his favorite. it’s probaby the best team chemistry he’s ever coached up until his last year in Denver. Certainly one that I would have loved to have seen match up against the Bulls. George would have put McKey on Jordan and I think that would have been great to see. In some ways the 93 team was better and deeper than the 96 team.

      • LennyLuvsLonnie

        Wow, I was at that painful game 4 in 1980 as a star-struck 11-year-old boy. My dad’s boss had season tickets but couldn’t make it, so there we were in little Hec-Ed. The then-champion Sonics looked so psychologically defeated as they exited the court nearby. Still remember Sikma’s exhausted, steely stare.

        That vivid memory came back a couple years ago when the Stranger suggested we build a new arena on behalf of 11-year-old boys. Sports passions born around that age burn brightly for a long time. It’s no accident that Chris Hansen was 11 when the Supes won the trophy.

    • RadioGuy

      I just finished reading a book about that season (“Full Court Pressure”) written by a guy who traveled with them, and the impression I got was that Seattle won a lot of games in spite of themselves due to sheer talent. Their chemistry was shaky (as you said) and Denver exposed the fact that the Sonics had nobody inside who could deal effectively with Mutombo.

      That certain players on the Nuggets had once-in-a-lifetime games in that series made a difference, too, but it really WAS Seattle’s to win…it was lost before Kemp stepped up to the line.

  • rosetta_stoned

    “It was there for us to win it,” said Kemp.

    Yep. And it was Kemp who missed two free throws that would’ve sealed the game in regulation.

    • art thiel

      I’m sure he relives those FTs once a day.

      • 1coolguy

        I was sitting at that end of the court and it was brutal

  • 1coolguy

    I was there and too was completely stunned. Could not believe the Sonics lost that series, as they had been on such a roll and almost seemed destined to win it all.
    “The one that got away” is a game Sonic fans won’t forget and the players will always regret – it was their chance for the ring and they simply fell short.

    • art thiel

      The game and aftermath was one of the most awkward work experiences I’ve had. Nobody, even the Nuggets a week earlier, saw this one coming. Had the Sonics won, I think they beat everyone else for the title.

      • 1coolguy

        In your locker room interview with Payton, given his burning passion was he even talking?

        • art thiel

          I must admit I don’t remember Gary talking. He might have. Karl was as distraught as he’s ever been, and that is saying something.

          • jafabian

            The NBA mandates players and coaches talk to the media for I think at least 2-5 minutes. IIRC, the Sonics had a rep next to George and he was in a complete daze. Once that time limit was up the rep stepped in and she goes “That’s it. Thank you. We’re done.” KJR likes to play the sound bite every so often.

  • Kirkland

    — Funny how virtually all Seattle and Denver teams have strong ties. In the AFC days, the Hawks and Broncos were fierce rivals; this Nuggets upset; the Rockies were the Mariners’ first interleague opponent in 1997; and the Sounders’ Steve Zakuani breaking his leg from a bad Colorado Rapids tackle. I guarantee, if we get the NHL, we’ll have something going with the Avalanche.

    — Just like how if the Expos might have stayed if they won championships in 1981 and 1994 (don’t mention Rick Monday and the strike to Montrealers to this day) and kept fan momentum, would a 1994 Sonics championship have encouraged local owners to not sell and keep the team here?

    • jafabian

      No. Barry Ackerley would have still sold the team to Howard Schultz who still would have sold them to Clay-Clay. Ackerley was ready to get out when he sold the team.

      • art thiel

        You’re right, J. The Acklerley family was done, and Schultz had an impressive array of local money behind him. But he was intimidated by the political fight to upgrade the key, and quit.