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.
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.
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.
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.