The Age of Ackerley
The team defended its World Championship admirably during the 1979-80 season, finishing with a then franchise-best 56 wins. But Seattle fell short of reaching a third consecutive Finals, succumbing to rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals -- a pinnacle that would elude the team for the next 12 seasons.
That’s because the 1980-81 season ushered in a number of changes that kept the team in tumult throughout the first half of the 1980s. First, well-regarded guard Dennis Johnson (1954-2007) was traded to Phoenix for Paul Westphal (who, in 1998, became the SuperSonics’ head coach). Then, in 1983, Sam Schulman sold the team to billboard magnate Barry Ackerley, a transplant from Iowa who was not immediately embraced by the Seattle sports community.
At the end of Ackerley’s first season as owner, “Downtown” Fred Brown, captain of the 1979 championship squad and arguably the most popular player in franchise history, announced his retirement. It had been a great run for Brown, who retired as the SuperSonics’ all-time leader in games played and points scored and had his No. 32 jersey immediately hoisted to the rafters of the Coliseum. The year after Brown’s retirement, the team struggled to 31 wins, its lowest total in more than a decade.
But the biggest change was the removal of Lenny Wilkens from the head coaching position (he made the time-honored sports migration “up to the front office” to take over duties as vice president and general manager). Wilkens remained with the team in an executive capacity for one season before moving on to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks, with whom he notched his career 939th victory, an NBA record. Wilkens is currently (2004) head coach of the New York Knicks.
Seattle struggled in its first year with new coach Bernie Bickerstaff at the helm, again winning only 31 times. Bickerstaff’s second year – 1986-1987 – wasn’t much better, yielding 39 regular season wins, but it was enough to qualify the team for the playoffs. The season was also remarkable for the fact that three Sonics – Dale Ellis, Tom Chambers, and Xavier McDaniel – averaged more than 23 points per game each, the first time in NBA history three teammates had done it.
Cinderella Story Begins
The lightly regarded SuperSonics shocked everyone when, after losing the first game of the first round of the playoffs to Dallas by 30 points, they won the next three games to advance to the conference semifinals vs. Houston. The Cinderella story continued as the Sonics beat the Rockets in six games, including a double-overtime marathon in the decisive contest. Seattle’s fairy tale run came to an end against Los Angeles in the conference finals, but clearly the team had reason for optimism.
And indeed, the team improved over the course of the next few seasons. The 1987-88 campaign saw the team post 44 wins, then 47 in 1988-1989 en route to a second-round ouster at the hands of – who else? – the Lakers. The following season was a disappointment as Seattle notched a 41-41 record and Bickerstaff was fired. His replacement, Boston Celtics legend K.C. Jones, didn’t do any better in his first season, also guiding the team to a .500 record.
Cinderella Story Ends
Part of Jones’ problem was that he was forced to rely on a core of young players. Gone were veterans such as Chambers, Ellis, and McDaniel, replaced by talented but inexperienced players such as Derrick McKey (drafted in 1987), Shawn Kemp (1989), and Gary Payton (1990).
Jones’ second season (1991-1992) started out much better as the SuperSonics won seven of their first 10 games, but the team quickly reverted to its mediocre ways. Jones was fired midway though the season with the team’s record at 18-18.
His replacement was George Karl, a veteran of an unremarkable five-year ABA career with San Antonio and brief head coaching stints in Cleveland and Golden State. Relying on Karl’s unconventional, rule-bending defensive scheme and an up-tempo offensive philosophy, the SuperSonics surged in the second half of the season, going 27-15 under their new coach to snare a playoff spot. Seattle parlayed its late-season rally into a first round upset of Golden State before losing in the second round.
A Thrilling Series for the Supes
The positive momentum carried over to the next season. With Kemp and Payton maturing and leading the way on the court and Karl orchestrating on the sidelines, the Sonics posted their best regular season record in 13 years, 55-27, easily qualifying for the postseason. In the playoffs, the Supes played three thrilling series: knocking off Utah, three games to two, in the first round; beating Houston, four games to three, in the second round; and taking Phoenix to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals – one game from the NBA Finals – before losing Game 7, 123-110. The game was played in Phoenix and Sonics fans were especially bitter about the loss, claiming that the referees favored the Suns and their superstar, Charles Barkley.
Even with the tough loss to Phoenix, Seattle’s basketball faithful had high hopes for the 1993-1994 season, expectations that were met early on. Seattle cruised to a franchise-record and league-best 63-19 regular-season record on the strength of Kemp and Payton’s production (18.1 ppg and 16.5 ppg, respectively), key contributions from players such as Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins, and Kendall Gill, and smothering team defense (three Sonics ranked in the top-15 for steals). The team’s excellent regular season assured it a No. 1 seeding in the Western Conference playoffs and a meeting with a seemingly overmatched Denver Nuggets squad.
Dreams and Nightmares
But Seattle’s dream of winning the second championship in team history quickly turned into a nightmare. The SuperSonics jumped out to a two-game lead in the best-of-five series, but Denver rallied to win the next three games and bounce the SuperSonics from the playoffs. Seattle’s Game 5 loss to Denver at KeyArena was not only the most disappointing loss in team history, it also marked the first time a team seeded No. 1 in its conference lost to a No. 8 seed.
Seattle suffered through a nasty déjà vu the following season. Once again, the team enjoyed a successful regular season, accumulating a 55-27 record, good for fifth in the NBA. But in the first round of the playoffs, though they were matched against a much younger and inexperienced Lakers squad, the Sonics collapsed again, losing three straight games after winning the series opener.
It appeared that this SuperSonics team was incapable of winning when it counted most. Impressive regular season records were no consolation for fans that expected playoff victories. Adding to the frustration was the fact that Michael Jordan, whose Chicago Bulls team had won three consecutive NBA titles from 1991-93, had retired from basketball before the 1994 season, opening the door for less dominant teams to win the title. But in late 1995, Jordan announced he was returning, and hoops pundits predicted a return to supremacy for Chicago.
When Seattle finished the 1995-1996 season with an eye-popping 64-18 record, no one really paid them much mind. For starters, the Bulls (with Jordan back) had amassed an NBA-record 72 wins. Secondly, these Sonics had cried wolf before -- a great regular season had not translated into a trip to the finals for more than 17 years.
A Hint of Hope
But SuperSonics fans got a hint that things might be different in the first round playoff series vs. the Sacramento Kings. After losing Game 2 at KeyArena to the visiting Kings, the Sonics won the next two games on the road, vanquishing both their playoff demons and Sacramento from the postseason.
With the monkey off their collective back, the Sonics rolled past the defending-champion Houston Rockets in the second round. In the Western Conference Finals -- Seattle’s first since 1980 -- the Sonics took on the Utah Jazz. After jumping out to a 3-1 series lead, Seattle had to fend off a Utah rally, eventually putting the Jazz away in Game 7 to earn a trip to the finals vs. Jordan and the Bulls.
While the Sonics seemed content to just be in the finals, the playoff savvy Bulls seemed to be on a mission, winning the first three games by an average of more than 14 points. But Seattle showed signs of life in Games 4 and 5, beating the Bulls by 21 points and 11 points, respectively. But the SuperSonics couldn’t pull off the comeback; in Game 6, Jordan scored 22 points and the Bulls won 87-75, securing their fourth trophy in six years.
With their sights set on a return to the Finals in 1996-97, the SuperSonics made few moves during the offseason, except for the controversial signing of unproven free agent center Jim McIlvaine to a multimillion-dollar contract. For the fifth year in a row, the SuperSonics ended the regular season with at least 55 wins (in this case 57) and after a scintillating five game series with Phoenix that saw Seattle come back from a two games to one deficit, the SuperSonics were pitted against the Houston Rockets. The Supes fought hard with the aging Rockets squad, but after winning two straight games with their backs against the wall, Seattle finally succumbed in Game 7.
The loss to Houston was portentous. It served to show that the SuperSonics of Payton, Kemp, and Karl could not rule the Western Conference the way team officials had envisioned in 1993 when the young Sonics had been one game away from the Finals.
Not surprisingly, an offseason move was made: Shawn Kemp was dealt to Cleveland in a three-way trade that brought the Milwaukee Bucks’ All-Star power forward Vin Baker to Seattle. Kemp had been under a dark cloud all season, reportedly disgruntled by McIlvaine’s large contract (the unproductive center’s annual salary was considerably larger than the All-Star Kemp’s), and dogged by paternity suits and rumors of a drinking problem.
Baker proved during the 1997-98 season to be an able replacement for Kemp, averaging 19.2 ppg and eight rpg. But Kemp’s departure didn’t turn out to be enough of a catalyst – Seattle won 61 games, beat Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs, but was then eliminated by the Lakers in the conference semifinals, four games to one.
So Sonics management tried to achieve addition by subtraction again in the offseason by electing not to renew Karl’s contract. There were two perspectives on Karl’s dismissal. One held that Karl had taken this team as far as he could and a new coach -- with a different personality and different strategies -- was its only chance of winning a championship. Others argued that, despite early exits from the postseason in 1993-94 and 1994-95, Karl had done what no other coach save Wilkens had ever done for the SuperSonics: taken them to the NBA Finals. They had, after all, lost to the 72-win Bulls, a team considered by many the best of all time.
Rumpled vs. Buttoned Down
Regardless, a replacement for Karl was quickly named: Paul Westphal, the former Sonic, who had been head coach of the Phoenix Suns when they made their Finals appearance in 1993. Westphal was something of an anti-Karl: where the former Sonics coach was emotional, outspoken, and rumpled in appearance, Westphal came across as business-like and buttoned-down. Would this approach be able to get the Sonics over the hump?
It took longer than usual to find out as the start of the 1998 season was delayed when the owners “locked out” the players (management’s version of going on strike). It took until February 5 for the players and owners to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement (which governs salary limitations, etc.) and by then, many NBA players were out of shape from missing the first half of the season. The combined challenges of a new coach, a shortened time frame for new players on the team to gel, and a woefully overweight Vin Baker caused the Sonics to miss the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Given a full season to mold his team in 1999-2000, Westphal was able to steer to SuperSonics into the playoffs with a record of 47-35. Seattle’s stay in the postseason was brief, however, as the favored Utah Jazz sent Payton and company packing after a competitive five game series.
The Los Angeles Lakers eventually won the NBA championship in 2000, thanks to the play of league MVP Shaquille O’Neal, a 7-foot-1, 300-pound center. O’Neal’s manhandling of opposing defenses convinced many Western Conference teams that getting bigger players would be their only hope in challenging for the NBA crown.
With that strategy in mind, the Sonics -- who hadn’t had an effective “true” center since Jack Sikma was traded in 1986 -- acquired 7-foot center and perennial All-Star Patrick Ewing from the New York Knicks on September 20, 2000. The Sonics gave up relatively little in the deal -- forward Horace Grant and Vernon Maxwell were the only everyday players with whom Seattle parted -- so optimism for the 2000-01 season ran high as the team started training camp in October.
The new-look Sonics stumbled out of the gate, however, getting blown out in the first game of the season by lowly Vancouver. Things continued to go badly until, with the team’s record a disappointing 6-9, Westphal was fired and replaced with assistant coach Nate McMillan who had played for Seattle from 1986-98.
The team responded by winning nine of its next 12 games.
Ackerley Sells to Schultz Who Sells to ...
As if this wasn’t enough transition for one season, on January 11, 2001, team owner Barry Ackerley agreed to sell the SuperSonics to an investment group led by Starbucks Corporation founder Howard Schultz for a reported $200 million. Among the other new investors in the team were Sonics general manager Wally Walker, who played on the team from 1978-1982, and VoiceStream wireless CEO John Stanton.
But Schultz emerged as the face of the new ownership, proclaiming at a news conference announcing the sale that "I have a passion for the Sonics. I look forward to doing everything humanly possible ... to bring a world championship back to Seattle."
Schultz could never have predicted the much sadder end in store for the Sonics. Schultz, after being frustrated in attempts to modernize KeyArena, sold the team in October 2006 to a group led by Clay Bennett, an Oklahoma City oilman. Schultz believed that Bennett intended to keep the team in Seattle. Bennett did make several efforts to win public backing for a new arena.Within months, however, Bennett announced he intended to move the team to Oklahoma City.
Seattle fans were outraged. The city filed one lawsuit and Schultz filed another in an attempt to block the move.Yet on April 13, 2008, the Sonics played their last home game in Seattle. The team moved to Oklahoma City for the 2008-2009 season and became the Oklahoma City Thunder, leaving Seattle with only the memories of its championship-winning Sonics.