BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 06/03/2019

Thiel: 40 years after Sonics title, void screams

The Sonics had themselves a day at the ballpark, celebrating a championship from 40 years ago. The absence of a place and and a franchise made it all the more poignant.

The 1979 NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics. / David Eskenazi Collection

There was a time in Seattle when the SuperSonics were the biggest deal. Now they are no deal.

So when the time came Saturday for the 40th anniversary of Seattle’s first modern major sports championship, melancholy nibbled at the edges.

To be sure, many cheers and laughs pickled the one public celebration, when coach Lenny Wilkens and six players made it to a pre-game ceremony at T-Mobile Park to have a go at the ceremonial first pitch.

The Mariners’ marketing people did their usual splendid job of hitting the high notes of sentiment in the ceremony and video. A crowd of 28,128 cheered robustly, even though many under 45 probably spent some time wondering which guy was the one Dad said was his favorite player.

After the players came off the field into the tunnel, the argument began over who threw the best pitch. Trash talk flew. Old times back.

Finally, Fred Brown sought out an impartial observer.

“Gary!” he commanded to Gary Payton, who had been a guest on the field with Slick Watts, neither a part of the title team but still part of the fabric of pro basketball here. “Who threw the best pitch?”

You did, Fred.”

“Thank you!” Brown said, and he began that slope-shouldered lope, bearing a semi-scowl, a familiar profile back in the day after he made a shot from his immortal Downtown habitation, where he made a living long before it was cool.

For youngsters and newbies, we offer a glimpse at the way it was.

Former Huskies great Bob Houbregs was GM when the Sonics drafted Fred Brown out of the University of Iowa in 1971. / David Eskenazi Collection

Brown was a first-round draft choice (sixth overall) in 1971 out of Milwaukee via the University of Iowa. Cocky and contentious, he always had a comeback. In 1975-76, he was fifth in the NBA in scoring at 23 points a game. If the three-point line had been a part of the game then, he might have averaged 30.

Brown was also diabolical. He delighted in having burly forwards Lonnie Shelton and Paul Silas as his primary screeners before he freed up to launch.

“The (defenders) I liked, I’d run them into Paul,” he said, smiling. “He might pick them up (off the floor). The defenders I didn’t like, I’d run them into Lonnie. He’d step on them.”

Brown, who spent his 13-year career in Seattle, was also a guy who swallowed his pride in 1977 and took a seat on the bench. After Wilkens became coach when Bob Hopkins was fired after a 5-17 start, he asked Brown to become sixth man, to make way in the backcourt for Gus Williams, a blindingly fast free-agent signee from Golden State, alongside Dennis Johnson. Brown didn’t like it, but it worked. Williams was two-time all-league choice and led the champs in scoring.

Wilkens busted a few more moves that made a champion.

He’d seen play a skinny, white farm boy with an unblockable shot launched from behind a flaxen-haired head that topped at seven feet. Didn’t matter that Wilkens’ boss, team owner and Hollywood mogul Sam Schulman, had no idea about Illinois Wesleyan University or Jack Sikma.

Hell, nobody else did, either.

“You remember the headline in the paper?” Wilkens said, arching an eyebrow at his inquisitor. “‘Jack Who?'”

The basketball world learned. And will re-learn again, when Sikma in September is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., 25 years after his retirement as a player.

In 1977-78, Sikma flourished as a rookie power forward next to 7-1 center Marvin (The Human Eraser) Webster, who averaged 14 points and 13 rebounds a game. With 6-6 John Johnson at a newly evolving position of point forward, the Sonics after Wilkens’ takeover won 11 of their next 12 games. They finished 47-35 to make the playoffs for the third time in club history.

After beating the Lakers, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in the first round, they beat the Blazers, led by Bill Walton, in the second round, then topped Denver in the Western Conference finals, electrifying a city with its first experience at modern pro sports glory.

In the Finals against the Washington Bullets, they came up against some hard hombres in Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. A close series went seven games before the Bullets prevailed, 105-99 at the Coliseum.

These days, Williams says he doesn’t recall long-ago game details, but he hasn’t forgotten the ache of that summer when he went home to Mount Vernon, N.Y.

“That was the worst feeling,” he said Saturday. “The worst. All summer, back in New York. Man . . . we lost. At home. Then we lost Marvin.

“But by next year, we were prepared. Not just happy to be in a championship.”

After Webster left in free agency for the New York Knicks, NBA rules then required compensation. The Sonics were awarded Shelton, who was the quickest 6-8, 270-pound athlete the NBA had seen.

To fill in for Webster, Wilkens traded a first-round pick to Denver for 6-10 center Tom LaGarde. But when he was lost 23 games into the season with a knee injury, Wilkens moved Shelton into the starting lineup at power forward and moved Sikma to center. The Sonics won the West with a 52-30 record.

Assistant coach Les Habegger, left, coach Lenny Wilkens, Fred Brown and Dennis Johnson celebrate during Game 5 in Landover, Md., in 1979. / Seattlepi.com

The playoff climb was only two rounds, beating LA 4-1 and Phoenix 4-3, before a Finals rematch with the Bullets. The Sonics’ league-best defense, led by series MVP Dennis Johnson, was never better, smothering the Bullets’ guards. After a first-game loss, the Sonics took the next four in a row, including the 97-93 finale June 1 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., for Seattle’s first modern pro sports championship.

A few days later, more than 300,000 took to downtown streets to celebrate. The city had welcomed the NFL Seahawks in 1976 and the MLB Mariners in 1977. And on Jan. 2, 1978, coach Don James took the Washington Huskies, for the first time in 14 years, to the Rose Bowl, where they beat Michigan, 27-20.

Good times. The championship signaled Seattle was a big-time sports town.

Then, pro basketball changed.

The simultaneous arrivals of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1980 transformed the NBA. It became a league of megastars and TV hotness. Pulled apart by age, injuries and money, the Sonics in two years fell to to 34 wins, at the time the steepest fall of a champion in NBA history. To this day, the 1979 title remains the most recent for a Western team that isn’t in California or Texas.

The NBA’s lust for more revenues led the city to fund in 1995 a $100 million remake of the Coliseum into KeyArena, which in a few years became the NBA’s smallest venue and economically obsolete. After the wildly entertaining George Karl-coached teams of the 1990s pulled apart as the league endured labor travail, the club was sold in 2000 to local bean baron Howard Schultz.

Downtown was packed for the Sonics victory parade June 5, 1979. /  Seattle Post-Intelligencer

When he completely misread the sport, hometown politics and his own fraudulence, Schultz panicked in 2006 and sold the franchise to Oklahoma City businessmen. By 2008, abetted by the complicity of Commissioner David Stern and the cravenness of city politicians, the franchise was taken from its 41-year home and relocated to the Midwestern prairie.

Which brings us back to Saturday.

The Kingdome, where the Sonics played the 1978-79 season, and the following year led the NBA in attendance, is gone. KeyArena, under makeover for an NHL expansion franchise, is unavailable. Only by the good graces of the Mariners — and the luck of having a home game on the anniversary — was there a venue available to salute one of the milestone achievements in Seattle sports history.

The insistently damnable shortness of life claimed three starters on the title team — Shelton, Dennis Johnson and John Johnson — and made more poignant the gathering Saturday, which also included Wally Walker and Dennis Awtrey.

Awtrey, a bruising center hired halfway through the season mostly to clobber Abdul-Jabbar, runs with his wife a B&B on the Oregon coast. He thoroughly enjoyed the week and his fleeting place in Seattle sports history.

“Tough team with a lot of depth and character,” he said. “We got along real well.”

Watching the first-pitch ceremony at tunnel’s edge was John Stanton, Mariners majority owner, Seattle-area lifer and sports lover.

Where were you 40 years ago, John?

“I had just finished a year in grad school in Boston, and on my way home stopped to visit my grandfather at his home in Green Bay,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten that day.”

Sports fans usually can cite date, place and time of such climax moments. The marker  becomes even more important when that history is disrupted, then consigned to a closet in Oklahoma City.

From left, Jack Sikma, Gus Williams, Fred Brown, Wally Walker, Tom LaGarde and Dennis Awtrey at T-Mobile Park Saturday for the 40th anniversary celebration of the Sonics NBA title. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

 

 

 


SPONSORED POST

Support SportspressNW

The idea is simple: Want to help? Please, and thank you. Don’t want to help? Please and thank you for continuing to read. Our content is free to all. No paywalls. No tricks. See the ways you can support SportspressNW.

YourThoughts

  • DJ

    Thanks Art! It’s always a treat to have you reminisce those good old times. Hard to believe it’s been 40 years.

    Back when Lenny was our player/coach, he was my favorite player, and my Mom and I were really upset when he was traded away. We were obviously more than delighted to see him come back to coach and knew he’d turn things around. Didn’t take him long – what a great basketball mind!

    Here’s a fun time with initials: Back during the Championship time, I worked at DJ’s Sound City and JJ would come in, sometimes with the young DJ in tow. We’d treat JJ to promo albums, the live-sized cardboard cutout of Christopher Reeves’ Superman for his son, etc. In return, JJ would comp us tickets to Sonics’ games. We went to one of the Championship games against the Bullets in the Kingdome – no idea which one. I booed the heck out of Wes Unseld! I just remember getting my Sports Illustrated magazine in the mail afterward and was sorely disappointed that the article on Our Big Win was instead all about how the Bullets lost – an early learning point on East Coast bias. I’ve still got my Sonics’ Championship mug, sitting right next to my Seahawks’ Championship mug, and my “11-0” Huskies mug!

    • art thiel

      Good to hear about J.J.’s response. I think that happened with a lot of the Sonics of an earlier era. They lived in town, shopped, ate, drank and hung out with regular folks. For a variety of reasons, including safety, interactions like that are far fewer now.

      • bevdog

        You are right about JJ he was a great guy and always a gentleman. He said he was thankful for easy practices as a Sonic because Wally Walker always had to guard him! Also, if it wasn’t for Dick Snyder and Dennis Awtrey I do not believe we would have gotten by the Lakers.

        • art thiel

          Good point about Snyder and Awtrey. And be happy you didn’t have to deal with J.J. on the court.

  • Kevin Lynch

    “The insistently damnable shortness of life”. An unimproveable line.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for noticing.

  • Effzee

    Fixed it for you: “After the wildly entertaining George Karl-coached teams began to fall apart under the continued meddling of the lame-brained Wally Walker, the club was sold in 2000 to local bean baron Howard Schultz, who knew nothing about the sport and promoted Walker, allowing him to continue senselessly dismantling a once proud franchise. Walker alienated Karl, Kemp, Payton (and others), plundering and pillaging the previously passionate fanbase until the local politicians could use the lack of support to justify a pompous and defiant “citizens for more important things” stance. When Schultz’s wife discovered his philandering nature, he panicked and was forced to sell his “toy” in order to save his reputation and marriage.”

    • art thiel

      It’s always good to have an editor with a keen eye for subtlety and nuance.

      You forgot to blame Wally for not getting Kemp convinced to settle for 15-foot jumpers in the ’96 Finals, for which the Bulls had no answer. Kemp does that, Sonics dethrone Jordan and the course of hoops history in Seattle changes dramatically.

      • Effzee

        Oh, I totally agree. And yes, I’m also aware that Kemp’s problem with the drinky-drinky helped pave his way out of town, but trading one alcohol problem for another (Vin Baker) wasn’t exactly a stroke of genius. I’ve taken it upon myself to make sure that the Wally never gets to escape without his share of the blame. We don’t have the Sonics. It remains inexcusable to this day.

        • art thiel

          On the other hand, the Karl Sonics were a spectacularly combustible outfit, fated to flame spectacularly in the upper atmosphere before turning to dust. No human intervention could have altered the physics.

          • Effzee

            So true. So very, very true. Not only that, but George Karl never made it onto David Stern’s “allowed to win the championship” list. This is the main reason that I’m not begging at the NBA trough for them to return to Seattle. You know…. Sonics/Suns, Lakers/Kings, Tim Donaghy, etc. Its a crooked league full of NBA-lifers, Stern/Silver sycophants and willing also-rans who happily take their subservient positions of eternal loserdom in exchange for the excitement of being in professional sports as a career.

          • art thiel

            Under Stern, there was a smarminess I couldn’t get past.

          • Effzee

            So you’re saying they were the sporting world’s Guns n’ Roses. :D

      • 1coolguy

        Wow, how true!!! Kemp was never blamed for his genius.

      • rosetta_stoned

        A fully healthy Nate McMillan and the Sonics win the ’96 series.

        • Phil Caldwell

          Yep. That is the untold story. When Nate was on the court, they were better than the Bulls, but nobody knows that other than a few former Sonic fans.

          • art thiel

            A healthy Nate certainly would have helped. But Kemp’s failure to harness his power was the biggest regret of the era.

  • Ken S.

    Them were the days! I was able to get tickets to a couple of both year’s Finals games. It was hot as hell way up in the rafters. What a great time. I went to a handful of games in the Kingdom, that structure only a prison architect could love. It just didn’t seem right to play basketball in such a large venue.Back in the 50s-60s70s was the era of big men. Not so much today.Congrats to Jack Sikma, he earned it. Just look at that elbowed face!

    • art thiel

      The Kingdome worked out when 40,000 seats were required.

      I’ll never forget the floor level was so cold one winter night that Kareem wrapped himself in a blanket whenever he was on the bench.

      • Ken S.

        I remember going to a few games in the ‘Dome’ that were danged cold. I was probably 10 rows up and center court. I was young then, I’d freeze my ass off now.

  • 1coolguy

    Well done Art! Great memories were brought back by another fine column

  • Paul Sherman

    I worked at the Seattle Center McDonald’s and had the honor to comp Jack Sikma and welcome Alton (?) Lister with a free meal. It made me feel good and I’m sure they appreciated the $3. They stood in line like everyone else. Loved the memories. Don’t forget how everyone took to the streets the night of the big win. We were up on Capitol Hill. People were overrunning the streets, honking horns and cheering.

    • art thiel

      If you’re still at Mickey D’s, may I come by for a happy meal gratis?

  • Phil Caldwell

    It’s sad to think about how rabid Seattle was for the Sonics, for so long, only to have the NBA callously rip the team away without a second thought while Stern flat-out lied about why they were doing it to the nation. For almost 30 years it was the Sonics, and every other team a distant 2nd. Today season-ticket holders like me rarely watch the NBA and will probably never forgive them, long-since finding better things to spend my money and time on. Meanwhile the Seattle metro area is predicted to be 6 million + people by 2050, with OKC stagnant at 1.3 million. I guess we can all feel revenge realizing what a completely idiotic business move it was, but … it’s a sad story nonetheless. If the NBA cared about public relations, they not only would award Seattle an expansion team but load it up with lottery picks to make up for the way they treated this city.

    • art thiel

      Keep in mind that Seattle passed Initiative 91 in 2007, which became a law that required any team leasing a facility to meet a revenue minimum. Still the only city in the country with such a rule.

      I’m not excusing Stern or Schultz in the least, but there were many culprits, including us.

  • jafabian

    Both the ‘79 and ‘96 teams share a parallel that they famously got along with one another. A big component to their success. I wouldn’t say it’s a requirement but it sure helps.

    I wish Joe Hassett could have been there. Not sure if he’s still with us but Frank Furtado would be deserving as well. Many Sonics fans remember not only them but the entire roster. Heck, I can even name the Bullets roster, both teams became synonymous with one another. Funny how both Awtrey and Bullets Head Coach Dick Motta both run B&B’s now. Or how Gus eventually was traded to Washington and that Bullets Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff became head coach of the Sonics and Greg Ballard’s career ended wearing a Sonics uniform.

    The franchise and its history may be in OKC but its memories will never leave the Emerald City. Props to the Mariners for always remembering the Green Wave. (Remember when Bob Blackburn would call the defense that?)

    • art thiel

      Fine recall, John. I’ll trust you on the Green Wave.

      Hassett wanted to come, and will be back in town for Wilkens’ annual charity fundraiser.

      • jafabian

        The Sonics had a Green Wave T-Shirt made that I tried to upload its image that I found online but every time I tried I was signed out. If your IT Specialist wants to drop me a line I can give details.

        If you check out Joe’s Twitter account a Boston sportswriter was saying the only people he knew off the championship team was Joe and Lenny. I chided him for not recalling 3 former Celtics in Awtrey, Silas and DJ as well as the rest of the starters. I mentioned how Joe and Gus were notorious for always playing backgammon and Joe loved that comment. Back then we were lucky if half the games were televised so I listened to a lot of Bob Blackburn who always gave backgammon updates. If I miss seeing Joe at Lenny’s fundraiser please tell him I said hello.

        • art thiel

          Good for you connecting with Joe. He’s a funny guy.

  • Airplane Driver

    Great story, as always, Art. As an 11 year old kid in Ballard, nothing was more Seattle than that team. It was the first time I noticed national attention being focused on our city, and it was that great team that was the embodiment of our great city at the time.

    You properly highlight the folly of Schultz, Stern and other enablers who exhibited the worst aspects of modern sports business. Funny how the significance of that team and their bonding with the city couldn’t be recognized by carpetbagging clowns on the city council at the time, like Nick Licata, who stated that the SuperSonics had “no cultural significance”.

    The significance now is that the team is gone and only memories remain. I wonder if that’s enough for Licata and his ilk?

    • art thiel

      FWIW, Licata has subsequently publicly regretted his remark. In fairness, the electeds were placed in a bind by the greed and hubris of Stern and Schultz. The pols were a last line of defense, and they caved and took the money.

  • Hairy Allper

    Wonderful column, Art! Relived some great memories…