Where the Thunder got their Start
Growing up a sports fan in Washington State during the 60s forced some creative loyalties when it came to professional teams. Not only did Washington lack a pro sports franchise of any kind but none of the neighboring states had one either. The closest teams were found in the Bay Area so there were plenty to choose from though following them was done remotely and of course without the internet, watching the games and keeping up with the details of the teams was infrequent. The Oakland A's and Raiders along with the San Francisco Giants, Forty-Niners and Warriors had some good teams in those years so there was certainly some celebration but due to the distance involved the jubilation was a solitary endeavor.
Then in 1967 Seattle was awarded an NBA franchise. The Seattle Supersonics were the first professional team in the area and we now had our very own team! Our local papers carried stories, the games were occasionally on television and we could sit by the radio and listen to each game. I distinctly remember how great it was to be able to share my love for the Sonics with so many of my friends. We would take on the names of our favorite Seattle players when we played ball together and in our imagined league we were always undefeated.
The Seattle Supersonics were one of the best things to happen to our region. They somehow brought a sense of legitimacy to us and provided a source of pride for many years. It was a dark day indeed when in 2008 the Sonics played their last game in Seattle. The team was moved to Oklahoma City amid much controversy and Seattle is now without an NBA team.
In this lens I hope to provide information on the rich history of the Sonics, offer a place for Sonic fans to remember things like the first and only big time championship for Seattle and present a place for us to commiserate our loss and share a hope for a future franchise. Thank you for stopping by.
Oh the Memories
Bob Rule, Dick Snyder, Tom Meshery, Rod Thorn and Al Tucker; not exactly household names, unless your house was in The Pacific Northwest during the late 1960s and you were a basketball fan. These were the names, along with the more familiar Walt Hazzard or Lenny Wilkins, that you'd hear Bob Blackburn repeating three or four nights a week as he described the action taking place at Seattle Supersonic basketball games. I would listen whenever I could via our local Sonic affiliate KALE. Most nights I probably should have been asleep however I would turn the volume on my bedside clock radio down so Dad and Mom couldn't hear it, then listen to the finish. In my mind I could see the court, imagine every move even hear the ball go through the hoop and net. I think our imaginations had an advantage back then that children are missing today.
You can capture a lot of memories in forty years of following a team. Here are the highlights for me:
The news that we actually had a big league professional team of any kind coming to our part of the country was a really big deal. I recall my friends and I being elated. There weren't a lot of wins our first year but things were going to change and little did we know how much when in the summer of 1968 we traded Walt Hazzard to Atlanta for Lenny Wilkins. I can't say that I had heard of Lenny at the time and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit upset that the Sonics had traded our only All-Star. But it didn't take long for Lenny to warm the hearts of every Supersonic fan and before long he would come to represent the Sonics like no other. Bob Rule and Lenny each averaged over twenty points per game in that second year (68/69) helping us to win a handful more games than the previous season.
After the second year the team fired coach Al Bianchi and did something totally crazy by replacing Bianchi with Lenny Wilkins who would coach and play. I'd never heard of such a thing but hey, I was eleven. Rule and Wilkins both made the NBA All-Star squad in that 1969/70 season. But the biggest news took place during the off season when team owner Sam Schulman signed the ABA's rookie of the year, All-Star MVP and regular season MVP Spencer Haywood to play for the Supersonics. Our first superstar! This move was not without it's baggage. The league sued the Sonics for signing an ABA player, the team sued the league for sticking their nose where it didn't belong and Haywood was booed in arenas all around the league. At mid season Wilkins was named to the All-Star team once again what a thrill it was to watch him win the game MVP award going against the very best the NBA had to offer. That was a huge day for the team and we fans. The lawsuit was settled between Haywood and the NBA and Spencer was soon to settle in and show us how to play basketball.
The 71/72 season brought the team its first winning record, finishing with 47 wins and 35 losses. We nearly made the playoffs but injuries to Haywood, Dick Snyder and Don Smith contributed to losses in eight of our last nine games. Lenny Wilkins played amazingly that year and Spencer Haywood became the Sonics first All NBA team member acknowledging him as one of the truly elite players in the league.
The following year Sonics fans took our first major gut punch when Lenny Wilkins was traded to Cleveland. This was the first significant local sports controversy I can remember. We were devastated, just when the team's future looked brightest. Naturally there was a huge descent for the team in the standings by year's end. The Sonics won only 26 games that year. The bright spot was once again our superstar Spencer Haywood who made the All NBA team for a second consecutive year. He averaged a record 29.2-points per game for us and that number still stands for the team.
The Bill Russell era began for the Seattle Supersonics in the off-season of 1973. Russell was a legend and he knew nothing but winning. Management hired Mr. Russell to coach and the move brought hope back to the fans after a year of disappointment. The Sonics didn't play all that well in Russell's first year but the poor record brought us the third overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft. We chose Tom Burleson the 7'2" center from North Carolina State. I remember how excited I was that we finally had a seven footer in the lineup. If Russell knew anything it was how to play center in the NBA and his mentor-ship of Burleson paid off. Haywood was still the teams big star but Fred Brown had come into his own in the years since Wilkins left and we had a fiery guard named Slick Watts that was exciting to watch. This team made the playoffs for the first time in Supersonic history. We beat Detroit in the first round eventually losing to the Golden State Warriors in six games. The Warriors went on to win the ('75) Championship. Spencer Haywood was traded to the New York Knicks that summer, I hated to see him go but the team was still strong. Downtown Freddie Brown rose to the challenge and became our star. He made the All-star team for the first time and was among the league leaders in scoring. Slick Watts lead the league in assists and steals while Tommy Burleson continued to improve his game. The Sonics made the playoffs again losing in six games to the Phoenix Suns. A fan could get used to this winning stuff. The Following year, Russell's last with the team they failed to make the playoffs finishing the season with a 40-42 won-loss record. The upstart and all too nearby Portland Trailblazers won the NBA Championship with Bill Walton as their star. Maybe Championships can be won by small market teams?
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Last Game in Seattle
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Seattle's First Championship
After making the playoffs two of the last three years, the Supersonics hired what to me was an unknown named Bob Hopkins to replace Bill Russell as head coach for the 1977-78 season. The team started the year terribly winning only 5 of their first 22 games and Hopkins didn't last to game 23. Then the most wonderful thing that could happen did, Lenny Wilkins was hired to take over. The team responded immediately by winning 11 of the first 12 games under Lenny and would only lose 17 more during the regular season finishing 47-35.
We were back in the playoffs! In the first round we had to take on the hated (by me) LA Lakers. This was a Lakers team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but had not yet become the "Showtime" Lakers we would soon see in the 1980s. We beat LA 2 games to 1, which put us into the Western Conference Semi-finals against the defending NBA Champion and neighboring Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers premiere player, Bill Walton sustained a foot injury late in the season after Portland had started the year at 50-10. With Walton not fully healthy the Sonics were able to defeat the defending champs in 6 games.
In the Western Conference Finals the Sonics were matched up with the Denver Nuggets and we once again were able to move on after 6 games. Which put us in the NBA finals for the first time, what a feeling. Our opponent was to be the Washington Bullets, a team lead by Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Bob Dandridge. This team was considered a big underdog earlier in the playoffs. The term "The opera ain't over 'til the fat lady sings" was written about the Bullets when they were playing the San Antonio Spurs in the conference Semis and this phrase was heard throughout the Finals against the Sonics. The series took all 7 games to be decided. Seattle had a 3 - 2 lead after 5games but the fat lady didn't yodel until the Bullets had taken game 7.
The following season was filled with optimism. We had an amazing lineup with solid playoff experience. Jack Sikma was our All-star center, smaller than most but able to move around the behemoths most other teams played at the position. Lonnie Shelton was our power forward that played with such clout, we didn't need a giant in the middle. John Johnson was the small forward with a sweet jump shot. Gus Williams was the teams point guard and court general while Dennis Johnson was the shooting guard and defensive specialist. Seattle also had an incredible bench that year with Freddie Brown able to come in and drain three pointers along with Paul Silas who could take over the inside game when needed. All of these guys were All-stars at some point in their careers. No wonder we thought we could take it all, and we did.
The Sonics won the Pacific division for the first time in their history during the 1978-79 season. We beat the Lakers easily in the Semifinals but had to go to 7 games to beat the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. The Suns had us 3-2 after 5 games however we came back strong by winning the last two very close contests. Once again the Supersonics made the NBA Finals and were matched up against the Washington Bullets. We took the series in 5 games. Unfortunately game 5 was in DC but the elation we fans had back in our Washington was implausible. I remember running outside and whooping and hollering with our neighbors then checking back in with the TV to see what folks elsewhere were up to. It was pretty special.
The Sonics had nearly 20 more years in Seattle, though they never repeated as Champions there were some tremendous teams in those years. Many phenomenal players and coaches made for some great basketball in the Pacific Northwest. Tom Chambers was an All-star game MVP; Dale Ellis set records as a three point shot specialist and Xavier McDaniel joined them for some great years with all three of them averaging over 20 points per game in the '87-'88 campaign.
George Karl coached Seattle teams with Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins, Sam Perkins and Nate McMillen all the way to the NBA Finals where they lost to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in 1995-96. This team also won more games in a season than any other Sonic team (64). Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis led a Sonics team to 54 wins in 2004-05 and another Pacific Division title. But that next year we only won 35 games. The poor showing allowed us to secure the number 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, the highest we had ever had. We picked Kevin Durant from the University of Texas and we thought we were back in business. Durant is an exceptional player who won the Rookie of the Year award but Sonics owner Clay Bennett had traded away much of the team and with little support for Durant the team only won 20 games in '07-'08. This of course set the stage for poor attendance and an excuse for Bennett to move the team to his hometown Oklahoma City.
The team has been renamed and rights to "Supersonics" belongs to the city of Seattle so if we are ever blessed with another NBA franchise, the Sonics can be resurrected. Kevin Durant looks like the real deal and maybe there will be glory in his future. For now we have our memories.