The 1979 Sonics faced in the NBA Finals the defending champion Washington Bullets, led by Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Good foe, not a great one. The 2013 Seahawks in the Super Bowl went up against the Denver Broncos, the then-highest-scoring team in NFL history, led by QB Peyton Manning. Very good, not great. The Seahawks returned to the Super Bowl next year against the New England Patriots, led by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Outstanding, not the greatest.
In the 1996 NBA Finals, the Sonics drew the greatest: The Chicago Bulls that included Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, coached by Phil Jackson. It was the pinnacle moment in the 41 years of a beloved franchise that no longer exists in Seattle.
That was 25 years ago.
Life in a time of many accelerations already makes 2020 seem distant. But the ’96 Finals remain vivid to me.
Abetted by the TV documentary last year, Last Dance, underscored by the recent success of former Sonics hero Nate McMillan, now the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and reminded by current talk about the Phoenix Suns being in their first NBA Finals since 1993 — that moment due to the unforgettable hijacking of game seven of the West finals by the officials to help vault Charles Barkley’s Suns (64 free throw attempts!) over the Sonics and into the TV-dream matchup with Jordan’s Bulls — inspired in me a nostalgic hoops re-visit.
At their historic apex behind young stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, and coached by the volcanic George Karl, the Sonics won 64 regular-season games. That was eight fewer than the Bulls, who set the regular-season record and also were at their historic apex. The Bulls were dismissive of the benchmark. Their popular T-shirt slogan explained it: “Don’t mean a thing without the ring.”
The charisma, swagger and intimidation of the global sports icons radiated. As a columnist for the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I traveled with this pandemonia for its six games. I remembered being struck by how the Bulls mostly won the series before it started. And it wasn’t just because of Jordan’s almost murderous will to win.
I’m sharing here part of a column I wrote after Game 1, a 107-90 Bulls triumph in Chicago that looked at how Rodman exerted his power over the Sonics:
As a three nose-ring circus, the Dennis Rodman Freak Show is about one bearded lady shy of its own late-night cable TV gig. Why a mainstream guy like George Karl would get exorcised over a tattooed, multi-hued Eddie Haskell is a little hard to fathom.
But there he was yesterday, standing at a podium at United Center, telling a 100-deep crowd of national and international media why Rodman is a scourge to all that is right and good about basketball, and life its ownself.
It was exactly the kind of response Rodman seeks to provoke, and exactly the kind of thing the Sonics were warned to avoid as they entered the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls’ calculating, clever provocateur.
At least Karl isn’t out on the floor playing. But if there ever were a time for sarcasm, or silence, or witty banter . . . Instead, Karl took seriously a man who would have his hair done by an Earl Scheib shop on dope.
“Here’s a guy who’s laughing at the NBA, laughing at basketball,” said Karl, voice rising. “The referees should be trying to handle that. He taunted our bench, he flopped (to draw Sonic fouls) all over the court, got four (foul) calls. . . . When he does that, he laughs at everybody. He laughs at his teammates, he laughs at the referees.
“He laughs on national TV at them, and they still kiss his butt.”
As he reads Karl’s comments this morning, Rodman will laugh even harder. Rodman gets a magnum hoot out of disturbing the wing-tip crowd, and the non-wing-tip crowd loves him a little more each time.
“It’s silly to give him any credibility for what he does out there,” Karl said. “He’s a helluva player, he’s a great rebounder, does a great job. But taunting and laughing at basketball is ludicrous.”
Unfortunately for Karl, it is his condemnations that provide Rodman credibility. Like most bullies, Rodman would tend to go away if he were ignored.
Karl’s little tirade did have a tactical point as well, and that had some legitimacy.
“He pushes and grabs and fights as much as anybody in the NBA,” Karl said, “and then he gets bumped, he flops, and draws a flagrant foul.”
Karl was attempting the age-old tactic of planting pre-game issues with referees whose vision is at least acute enough to read a newspaper. Rodman is a virtual black belt in the art of faking a foul. His quick feet, well-controlled body and phony head snap combine to make Rodman the perfect foil for opponent fouls.
It can be extraordinarily annoying. It is also within the rules, and no Sonic can say he has never flopped.
The Sonic error in the 107-90 loss in Game 1 was in going at Rodman crudely. Early in the first quarter, Rodman picked up a technical for complaining. In the second quarter, the Sonics dispatched Frank Brickowski to see if a little mayhem would induce a second “T” and send Rodman back to the paint shop for a do-over.
Explaining the confrontation that induced Brickowski into a flagrant foul, two quick technicals and an ejection, a flurry worth three points and no further backup for Shawn Kemp, Rodman yesterday all but delivered a lecture on Passive Aggressive Basketball 101.
“I just told him that he just came into the game for one reason — to try to kick my butt,” Rodman said. “I said, ‘You gotta understand something. I’m here, and your butt is walking off the court.’
“I said, ‘You don’t have to do all that to play with me.’ He said, ‘I put you on your butt.’ And I said, ‘That’s great. But I got two free throws.’
“Next thing, I go by him, and I said, ‘I don’t know why you come out here and do what you do. Maybe your game is diminishing so bad you gotta do that.’ ”
Yikes. Rodman wins the Emmys for screenplay as well as actor in a comedy series.
I’ve always remembered Rodman’s explainer in the way that martial arts talents might have regarded a guest lecture by Bruce Lee.
The Bulls won the next two games for a 3-0 series lead. The Sonics defied gravity with a 21-point triumph in game four and an 11-point win in game five. But the Bulls won game six at home on Father’s Day, 87-75, with Rodman the difference-maker with an NBA Finals record 19 rebounds.
In the post-mortem, Karl, in his disarmingly candid way, recognized that the Bulls had gotten into their heads.
“The hesitation in the first three games was bothering everybody,” he said. “I couldn’t even figure out why on film. Whether it was being in the Finals, Chicago’s defense, our poor reactions, poor coaching . . . I don’t know why we were hesitating. All year long, we shot the three, now we were hesitating. All year long, we wanted (opponents) to double-team us. When Chicago did, we acted like we’d never seen it before.”
So what did you say before game four?
“I told them to go out and play wild and crazy,” he said. “We’re better when we’re out of control.”
I didn’t take Karl literally, but I certainly get his point. The Sonics played three games all clenched up, partly because of Rodman.
Imagine if Karl started the series saying Rodman was a great American whom kids should emulate. Karl could have said he was going to get a tattoo of Rodman on his shoulder while in Chicago.
Would have changed the series outcome? Probably not. But it would have relieved some media pressure and locker room tension. Playing wild and crazy from the start would have increased their chances to take advantage of any Bulls slippage.
Imagine how different sports in Seattle would be today if 25 years ago the Sonics had wiped the smug off Jordan’s face and ended the talk of greatest team ever.
Would then-Commissioner David Stern have the guts in 2008 to throw away an NBA champion’s history?
I say no.