On October 21, 1967, the Seattle SuperSonics, a National Basketball Association (NBA) expansion team, record their first victory, a 117-110 overtime thriller against the San Diego Rockets in front of 5,413 partisan Rockets fans at San Diego International Sports Arena. Walt Hazzard leads the Sonics in scoring with 22 points, and rookies Bob Rule and Al "Twiggy" Tucker spark the victors in overtime after the Sonics blow a 20-point lead in regulation. Coached by Al Bianchi, the Sonics will finish their inaugural season with a 23-59 record. In 1979, they will win their first and only NBA championship.
Seattle Goes Big League
Seattle's NBA team was born on December 20, 1966, when the NBA announced expansion plans into Seattle and one other city (later determined to be San Diego) for the 1967-1968 season. In making the announcement, NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy said the league was sorting through three ownership applications for the Seattle franchise; ultimately, the winning bid was proffered not by anyone local, but by a group of Californians led by a fast-talking sports fanatic named Dick Vertlieb. "Working as a Los Angeles stockbroker, Vertlieb and a USC fraternity brother, Don Richman, somehow persuaded a couple of Southern California businessmen, Sam Schulman and Eugene Klein, to put up the money for an NBA expansion franchise for Seattle in 1967 and let them run it" ("Dick Vertlieb ..."). Vertlieb would indeed run the club for its first two seasons, as its business manager and chief scout. Richman was installed as general manager. Schulman, who owned the team for 26 seasons, controlled the purse strings.
On February 17, 1967, the club adopted the team name "SuperSonics "after sorting through about 5,000 entries in a week-long name-the-team contest" ("Supers Named Sonics"). In March, Richman and his front-office staff moved from temporary quarters at the Olympic Hotel into a permanent office at 158 Thomas Street, next to the Seattle Center Coliseum. Team colors -- Evergreen and Silver -- were announced on March 11. A month later, the colors were changed to Evergreen and Gold. The switch was made, Richman said, because uniforms of metallic silver "don't look good" ("Bulls File ...").
In April the SuperSonics hired Al Bianchi as their first coach. Bianchi was 35, a father of five, and a former player with the Syracuse Nationals and the Philadelphia 76ers. "Al is a very combative guy," Richman told The Seattle Times. "He's perfect for a new franchise. He has tremendous respect from the players, and he knows the game backward and forward. With him, I know what type of club we'll have -- a running club, that's his style. It's great basketball to watch" ("Bianchi Signs ...").
The roster came together easily. Nine players taken in the NBA expansion draft on May 1-2 ended up making the season-opening roster of 12 players. The other three joined the team as rookies via the annual NBA college draft on May 4. Selecting sixth overall, the Sonics took string-bean forward Al "Twiggy" Tucker in the first round, high-scoring left-handed center Bob Rule in the second round, and guard Plummer Lott, from Seattle University, in Round 3. The expansion draft yielded a backcourt of Walt Hazzard and Rod Thorn, both All-Americans in college, and rugged forward Tom Meschery, a popular member of the 1966 NBA champion San Francisco Warriors. Meschery, 28, had told the Warriors that he was quitting basketball to become an associate director for the Peace Corps in South Korea, but the Sonics drafted him anyway and then made him a contract offer he couldn't refuse. Meschery was a sensitive poet, and also a brawler; his fights with Wilt Chamberlain and others would become part of Sonics lore.
Following their preseason training camp at Seattle Pacific University, the Sonics embarked on a 12-game exhibition tour featuring in-state games in Aberdeen, Ellensburg, Yakima, and Bellingham, and one at Fort Lewis, where they hosted the Cincinnati Royals and Jerry Lucas. The exhibition schedule concluded with four games against the St. Louis Hawks, the final two in Alaska.
Fans in Seattle got their first look at the Sonics in an exhibition doubleheader at the Coliseum on October 8. The Los Angeles Lakers, led by former Seattle University star Elgin Baylor, met San Francisco in the first game, followed by the Sonics against the Hawks in the nightcap. A crowd of 5,465 watched St. Louis bury the Sonics 148-129. "The partisan crowd hollered long and loud for the Sonics to make amends," reported the P-I. "Nothing clicked long enough to overcome the 10 to 15 point bulge the Hawks carried most of the night" ("Hawks Ruin ..."). Guard Lenny Wilkens led St. Louis with 23 points.
Stumbling into the Season
In mid-August, two months before the first home game, welcoming festivities for the Sonics were formalized. There would be a luncheon sponsored by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, a halftime ceremony at the October 20 home opener against San Diego, and a postgame gala put on by Greater Seattle Inc. Mayor J. D. Braman declared the week of October 16 to be "Professional Basketball Week." As opening night neared, Richman said the Sonics had sold 1,100 season tickets and had $225,000 in advance sales, third largest in the NBA. A crowd of 7,000 was forecast.
For their NBA debut, the Sonics would have to travel to San Francisco to play the Warriors at the Cow Palace. They returned home with a 0-1 record following a 144-116 drubbing. Bianchi stressed defense for the rest of the week in practice and moved Rule into the starting lineup. Now, if the Sonics could beat their fellow expansion team, San Diego, they could celebrate in style. "The game will be followed by a $27.50 a couple black-tie buffet and reception at the Exhibition Hall," Don Duncan wrote in the Times. "Top figures in the worlds of business, sports and television will wash down with vintage champagne such delicacies as avocado-grapefruit souffle, Parisienne potato balls, miniature lobster tails, roast baron of beef, banana-nut bread and spiced cheese balls" ("Huffing, Puffing ..."). Victor Borge, Bob Crane, and Bill Daily topped the list of entertainers.
Alas, the Sonics fell flat, losing 121-114.. Meschery was ejected in the third quarter after he "used a bit of strong language" in disputing a call by referee Earl Strom. "Black ties went well last night with the mood of the Seattle Sonics," Gil Lyons observed in the Times. "The Sonics, defeated in their home debut in the National Basketball Association, were hard-pressed to grin and bear it during a black-tie reception in their honor at the Exhibition Hall. Neither the Sonics' performance nor the opening-night attendance, a rather disappointing 4,473, were cause for joy among the players or club officials" ("A Grim Sonic Party"). Bianchi's chief concern was aging Rockets forward "Jumpin'" Johnny Green, who befuddled the Sonics with 30 points and 25 rebounds. "I really don't know what we're going to do with him," Bianchi said post-game outside "a deaf-still Sonic dressingroom" ("S.D. Wins ..."). The coach would have to adjust quickly; the Sonics had a rematch with the Rockets the very next night in San Diego.
"It Was a Dandy"
The Sonics finally won that next night at the San Diego International Sports Arena, though few with Seattle ties were there to see it. Sonics co-owner Eugene Klein had planned to fly to San Diego to watch the rematch had the Sonics won the first game. Instead, he went to Denver, where his San Diego Chargers of the American Football League were scheduled to play the Denver Broncos. "I told Al Bianchi that if we won, I'd be in San Diego if I had to fly all night," Klein said. "But we didn't, and a deal's a deal" ("A Grim Sonic Party").
Nor was The Seattle Times represented in San Diego. October 21 was a Saturday, which meant the University of Washington football team was in action, and this particular week's game was a doozy -- the Huskies against the No. 1-ranked University of Southern California Trojans and star running back O. J. Simpson. The Times sent its scribes en masse to Husky Stadium. The Sonics tilt was not televised back to Seattle, and the Tacoma and Everett papers didn't cover road games. The Times hired a San Diego stringer to file a report. Thus the Seattle media contingent consisted of Bob Blackburn, the team's radio announcer, and Mike Glover, an excitable 23-year-old reporter from the Post-Intelligencer. On Sunday morning, P-I subscribers awoke to a barrage of Glover exclamation points under the headline, "Sonics Get First NBA Victory":
SAN DIEGO -- Excitement? Yeah!
A win? Oh, YEAH!!
And that's not all you can say about Seattle Sonics' 117-110 victory over San Diego here last night.
For openers, it was a dandy. It was also the first time the Sonics ever won a game that counted.
The night, Glover wrote, belonged to the group. Hazzard led the Sonics in scoring with 22 points, and six others -- Meschery (19), Rule (18), Tucker (13), Dorie Murrey (13), Thorn (12), and George Wilson (11) -- reached double figures. It was the proverbial team effort: "In this tangle with the Rockets, the Sonics scrambled a little harder, toed the line closer and, generally, put together 53 minutes of scrap" ("Sonics Get First ..."). Most surprising were the contributions from Murrey, a 6-foot-8 backup center who led the Sonics with 14 rebounds and "played a hard-first game in the post" ("Sonics Get First ...").
It seemed the Sonics had the game well in hand with a 20-point lead in the third quarter. The Rockets then began to chip away, finally tying the score at 97-all with 2:33 remaining. The Sonics pulled ahead 100-97, but San Diego's Pat Riley hit a free throw with 22 seconds left to tie it at 100 and send the game to overtime. The extra period was all Sonics. "The Sonics, with rookies Rule and Al Tucker spiking the punch, quickly took command and, for all purposes, put it away with a sailing stuff shot by Tucker that made it 110-103 and salted it away" ("Sonics Get First ...").
One key to the victory was Bianchi's decision to use his "big team" -- burly Wilson and 6-5 guard Plummer Lott joined the starting lineup -- to counteract San Diego's explosive front line of Green, Don Kojis, and John Block. While Block had a huge game with 24 points and 23 rebounds, and Kojis scored a game-high 32 points, Green was held in check and missed 17 of his 23 shot attempts.
It was around 11 p.m. by the time the game ended, too late for Glover to get post-game quotes for the morning paper. At any rate, the Sonics had to hurry back to Seattle for a Sunday evening game against Cincinnati; any celebration of their inaugural victory would have to be brief. Meanwhile, back in Seattle, No. 1 USC had pulled away in the fourth quarter to defeat Washington 23-6 before a record crowd at Husky Stadium. The Sonics' victory would be a footnote back home: Everyone was buzzing about the spectacular O. J. Simpson.
The glow of victory was extinguished the following night in a 106-94 loss to the Royals. A crowd of 4,113 turned out. As The Seattle Times would summarize the expansion Sonics years later, "They weren't very good, as you would expect from an expansion team, winning just 23 games. And Seattle fans must not have been all that excited, with an average of 6,186 showing up at the Seattle Center Coliseum. Whoever was there December 20, 1967, was treated to Wilt Chamberlain going for 53 points and 38 rebounds in Philadelphia’s 160-122 win. Five of them were gone after one season in Seattle, including their best player, guard Walt Hazzard. By the end of the second season, eight were former Sonics, and so was coach Al Bianchi" ("The 1967 Team ...").
The Sonics were vagabonds that first year. They played four "home" games in Portland, three in Tacoma, and one each in Spokane, Olympia, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Two games were played at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the University of Washington campus, and the Sonics were the home team in a game played in Phoenix as part of a doubleheader. Among their dubious statistics, the Sonics yielded 125.1 points per game, one of the worst defensive showings in NBA history.
Yet for as many indignities as the Sonics suffered, the expansion season was remembered fondly by many. Mike Glover, the only local reporter to witness the first victory (and who later changed his name to J Michael Kenyon), recalled a roster of lovable losers: "They were fun guys, a great group of guys. There was just a sense of joy about that bunch. Even as the season went along and it was clear they were going to take their lumps, it was never, 'Oh, here we go again'" ("The Original Ones"). Even Dick Vertlieb, who lasted just two seasons with the club before Sam Schulman fired him, professed no regrets. "It was the best time of my life," Vertlieb said. "I can't think of anything negative about it, except we were such a lousy team" ("The Original Ones").