BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 07/12/2018

Thiel: Lonnie Shelton, the most formidable Sonic

A genial guy off the court, the late Lonnie Shelton was the menace of the 1978-79 NBA champions, quick as he was strong, yet willing to defer for the greater good.

Sonics star Lonnie Shelton blows past the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Kingdome./ Networthroll.com

Working out at the Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island in the summer of 1978, Wally Walker recalled getting acquainted with the Sonics’ new power forward.  At 6-8 and 280 pounds, Lonnie Shelton, 23, already established his reputation in two years with the New York Knicks as a gent sufficient to make mean men quiver and fast men falter.

“To get in shape, we’d play one-on-one, full-court,” said Walker, a 6-7 forward on the skinny side. “It was a great test. But I discovered he was quicker than me. And he had me by 70 pounds.

“It was unfair.”

Jack Sikma described Shelton another way: Presence.

“I never played with someone who impacted space, both his own and taking out his guy, like Lonnie,” said Sikma, seven times an All-Star in his 14 seasons. “My best rebounding years were because of him. There were so many to get because his man was never to be found.

“Some of it was laying wood and boxing out, but a good portion of it was his guy wouldn’t even try.”

Demoralizing as he was to an opponent, Shelton’s formidableness energized the Sonics to a championship. The 1978-79 NBA title was Seattle’s first in its modern pro sports history.

Now that the Sonics are 10 years gone and Seahawks drama gobbles up attention locally and nationally, recollections fade. Youngsters and newcomers are oblivious.

So upon Shelton’s death Sunday at 62 from problems following a May 5 heart attack, it seems worthy to pull up a stool and revisit the NBA before there was Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and before more than one game a week was nationally televised.

Dwelling in Northwest obscurity and muffled by his own deferential personality, Shelton and the Sonics had been on the margins then, and now are artifacts. But at the franchise’s first peak, when they reached consecutive Finals against the Washington Bullets in 1978 and 1979, losing the first and winning the second, they had eye-catching performers who blended seamlessly.

Shelton was a revelation. Acquired as league-dictated compensation for the loss to the Knicks of free agent center Marvin Webster — a system well worth a re-visit — he gained the starting lineup in December when center Tom LaGarde went down with a season-ending knee injury. Sikma moved into the post, Shelton opened at power forward and in six months, the Sonics were champions.

Asked for a contemporary comparison to Shelton, teammates Sikma and Walker, who’ve stayed involved the game since, in separate phone interviews went right to the top: LeBron James.

Both understand that Shelton’s 10-year career with three teams produced modest career averages of 12 points and six rebounds, along with a single All-Star Game appearance. But Shelton played with the same overwhelming physical prowess as does James, particularly on defense, where the late-70s Sonics excelled under coach Lenny Wilkens.

“He was a guy who had no on-court weaknesses,” Sikma said. “He could shoot, put the ball on the floor, rebound and play defense. He had an explosive first step; he’d get the slightest edge, and he was by you.

“On defense, he had plenty of fouls, but he always got his money’s worth. He kept the refs’ attention on him and freed the rest of us a little. He could get double-figure scoring every night, but we might have needed his defense on a particular matchup, and he always provided.”

Walker remembered a night when Shelton was all offense, but only because his teammates felt obliged to provoke him. In Boston against the Celtics and their legendary front line of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, Walker, knowing Shelton would be matched against McHale, began humming loudly on the bus the theme song from the goofy 1960s’ TV sit-com McHale’s Navy.

Soon most of the bus picked up on it, and began singing.

“Lonnie kept getting madder and madder, but he never said anything,” Walker said. “We got off the bus at Boston Garden and he was in a rage. He killed McHale with 37 points and we won.”

For the opponent, provocation was never wise. During a game in the Kingdome, Steve Mix irritated Shelton sufficiently for him to throw the ball at the enforcer for the Philadelphia 76ers.

“You know the sound a pumpkin makes when it hits the concrete?” Walker said. “That’s what it sounded like when the ball hit Mix in the back of the head, only it went 20 feet in the air.

“Mix turned around to confront the thrower, but when he saw it was Lonnie, he dropped his hands and said, ‘OK’.”

Shelton’s main vulnerability was a lack of personal discipline. He was sometimes late for practices and planes, provoking fines and suspensions. Belying his court menace was a genial, humorous nature that included an inability to say no to people who deserved it.

His weight was a lifetime issue. He was traded in 1983 to Cleveland, where he spent his final three NBA seasons trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to stay under 300 pounds.

“He was  good-hearted, generous guy — maybe to a fault,” Walker said.

Over the past 30 years, the Bakersfield, Calif., native and Oregon State star was rarely seen in Seattle, even when one of his five sons, Marlon, played for the Washington Huskies from 1998 to 2003. In 2004, Walker, who was president/CEO of the Sonics at the time, invited Shelton to the 25th anniversary reunion of the title team. Shelton declined, saying he wasn’t comfortable.

Now he will miss the 40th anniversary party next year. All-Star guard Dennis Johnson, 52, died in 2007. John Johnson, 68, credited with the development of the point forward position, died in 2016.

“It’s too bad that death has to be why these fond memories come up, but that’s the way it is,” Sikma said. “It is still amazing how we went from 5-17 (the record in 1977 when Wilkens replaced Bob Hopkins as coach) to two Finals and a championship.

“I think most of the league liked us as a team. We didn’t have one dominant player, we  worked together well. Lonnie was the epitome of that. When some guys suck the air out of a room, he did his job and asked no questions.”

The league did indeed like the Sonics, only not enough to keep them in Seattle. Would that it could come to pass that Lonnie Shelton once again had a ball in his hands and David Stern in his sights.

 


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YourThoughts

  • DJ

    Thanks Art! Great memories for sure!

    • art thiel

      Glad you enjoyed.

  • Kimball

    I was hoping all week you were going to give Lonnie his due!
    Thanks

    • art thiel

      Had to get in touch with a couple of his teammates while they were traveling.

  • Parts

    Thanks Art, as someone who grew up in Oregon, I always loved Lonnie.

    • art thiel

      He was a man among boys in Corvallis, yes?

      • Parts

        Absolutely!

  • ll9956

    Great closing to this piece, Art. And great historical research, too. A tip o’ the hat.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. Sad story, but I enjoyed the chats with Jack and Wally.

  • Tian Biao

    Thanks for the memories Art, much appreciated. like a lot of people on this site, apparently, I don’t watch the NBA much anymore, but it seems like the generalist, ie the Lonnie Shelton or the John Johnson, Dennis Johnson too, I suppose, the player who could score, pass, rebound, and play defense, a little of everything, whatever is needed, is a thing of the past. And yes, the ’78-’79 sonics may be an artifact, but they’re our artifact, and we’ll always remember them.

    • art thiel

      I’m not sure that there’s a lot more specialists in the NBA now, as much as analytics have proven that the 3-pt shot is a more valuable tool, and nearly all players have to have it in their game.

  • Husky73

    Thank you, Art. Four stars. One of your very best. Oblivious indeed to the young and the new, Shelton was the perfect final piece to that team. His arrival allowed Sikma to play his natural position, with Shelton, JJ (king of the flat shot), the Airplane (I can see Lenny staring….) and Gus…and Downtown coming off of the bench (whose defense was described by Bob Blackburn as “playing the passing lanes”). As Tian has posted, I am not an NBA watcher any more either, and I do not miss the NBA in Seattle one iota. I do miss the Sonics and the league from a generation ago. Those were special nights when Wilt, Kareem, Elgin, Jerry West, Pistol Pete, Bob McAdoo, Dr. J and the Iceman strode into the Seattle Center Coliseum.

    • art thiel

      It was a great team, and having gotten to know them as individuals a bit, good people. And don’t forget one of the best dudes of all, Paul Silas.

  • woofer

    Shelton was indeed something special. Among current players Draymond Green might be cited as comparable. But it’s not saying very much to relate he was quicker than Wally Walker. The Sonics ended up in OKC largely because over too many years too many people were quicker than Walker.

    • art thiel

      Green’s a good analogy, and a better shooter from distance.

      Howard Schultz was the guy with the quicks. As soon as the going got tough . . .

    • jafabian

      I’d point the crooked finger at Mayor Nickels, Clay Bennett, David Stern, the Seattle City Council and the Thunder ownership group well before pointing it at Wally. He resigned from the Sonics right when Clay’s group came on board.

  • David Freiboth

    I was a college student at Central during those magical years. When we beat the Bullets for the championship Student Village erupted. It was unbelievable as we all thought that when we lost Webster the year before after coming so close that it was over. We didn’t know Shelton but it didn’t matter because we didn’t have a center and we were headed back to obscurity. Coach Wilkins simply moved “Young Sikma” (as that insufferable Brent Musburger insisted on calling him) to the “high post” (my dad’s term he taught it to me in PeeWees) and we kept on winning. At the beginning of the season it seemed like a “make do” formation and we never thought it would keep the previous year’s championship momentum going … but it did.

    • art thiel

      Losing Webster and Tom LaGarde (injury) and winning the title remains one of the greatest feats in Seattle sports history.

  • David Freiboth

    In reading some of the other comments I too don’t watch the NBA anymore and don’t miss the Sonics. But that’s more about the NBA than a lack of civic pride. Might be a story there, Author. The old school Sonic fans who have quite the NBA. Just a thought …

    • art thiel

      I know many Sonics fans of a certain age feel as you do. But there’s a whole lot of new, affluent people in town who don’t care about the history, and just want the NBA bling.

  • Jay Holzman

    A therapeutic basketball toss at David Stern’s head……if we could only get him to join in a game of dodgeball, that would be awesome. Of course when making the teams, Stern would be the last one picked.

    • art thiel

      Maybe I should open a therapy shop and pay Stern an appearance fee, to be covered by Sonics fans.

  • jafabian

    Lonnie used to occasionally swing over to the small forward slot when Paul Silas or James Donaldson would come off the bench. Or he’d play center when Lenny would go with a three guard lineup. Few player could be so versatile. He was the consummate professional who never complained about his role even though he could have easily been another Buck Williams. He’s for the Knicks what Jay Buhner is for the Yankees.

    • art thiel

      Good recall on Shelton’s versatility. He was the little guy in the Sonics front line of Donaldson and Sikma, a k a the Winnebago Wall.

  • Chambers Bay Walker

    I was very sorry to hear about the passing of Lonnie Shelton. I graduated from WSU in 1977 and I’ll never forget when Lonnie played for Oregon State against the
    Cougs. I just couldn’t believe how quick and agile Lonnie was for a big guy. He
    had such smooth moves around the basket – his performance is still vivid in my
    mind 40 years later.

  • Jason Lane West

    Sweet, lovable Lonnie….as obscure as Shelton, WA…..opponents simply did not mess with the man or his massive swinging elbows….Here’s another story from a fan of a certain age who no longer follows the NBA: The season after we won the title, my dad took me to a Sonics game at the Kingdome (a time when father and son could slip behind the artificial seats and run the length of the football field like Dave Brown returning an interception)….The game starts, 0-0, we lose the opening tip….first possession, people are still finding their seats…..Can’t remember who we were playing, but their first shot misses, Sikma with the rebound, outlet to Gus, fast break….Shelton sprints down center court, gets the feed in stride at the free throw line, one giant step later, he thunder dunks it, holds on, and bends the front rim out of shape (this is before the introduction of springy, snap back rims)….Play is stopped to replace the hoop….For 45 minutes the scoreboard reads: Sonics 2, Away 1 (after the technical foul shot for hanging on the rim)…..Best part is that Lonnie’s wife had given birth earlier that day so now he’s passing out cigars in the locker room and getting royally razzed and congratulated by teammates.