Washington Heights

by June 19, 2012

With the Oklahoma City Thunder’s incredible emergence as one of the NBA’s elite teams, it’s easy to forget how things all began for the franchise. Just a few years ago the team left Seattle, which the team called home since 1967, and moved to OKC. The Sonics had fallen on some hard times, but had incredible success with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp-led teams in the 90s and into the 21st century. This story was originally written in 1996 for SLAM 13 about that accomplished Sonics squad. —Ed.


by Scoop Jackson

That Bitch Mitch! A Rich-mon. Droppin’ dollars. Thirty seven of ‘em. It never rains in SoCal, ’cause it’s always raining in Seattle. Sometimes it just reigns. On April 28th, when Mitch Richmond drowned Seattle with 37 points and the SacFly Kings won Game Two of the death round in the playoffs, drama set. Mad thick drama.

Gary Payton, with head in full tilt, walked into the locker room and looked at his team, at the situation, at the drama, and said nothing. He just looked. With nothing to say, two years of unfulfilled promise flashed before him. See to Payton this wasn’t new drama. This was some ol’ shit, some real shit, some déjà-vu shit. No more heroes were going to be made at his expense. No longer were the Seattle Supersonics  going to be the answer to questions about “ Which team didn’t….” In Gary Payton’s eyes you could see his team’s future. Something had to change.

Down 83-75 on Sacramento’s wood, the Sonics finally realized what the true essence of basketball was all about. They’d been in this position before—on the verge of being eliminated in the first round by no-jacks—but the beauty of the game never hit them. Until now. The essence of being challenged, competition. It’s a beautiful thing. How a team sucks up a gut check and realizes that it is always more important to defeat the challenge than to be defeated. So beautiful.

For the last two playoff seasons, the Sonics played not-to-lose instead of to-win. Two years of sleeplessness. Nightmares like Wes Craven. It wasn’t until 5:49 showed on the clock in Arco Arena in the fourth quarter of Game Three against Sacramento that they realized what was really going on. In one minute they cut an eight point lead to two. Four minutes later, they exhaled. Welcome to the inside of a team of destiny. Once the Seattle Supersonics got past the first round.. déjà vu ended.

“Bump that. Forget those other teams in the past. This here is a different team.” Payton knows. There’ s a new feeling of security, a feeling of truth, a feeling that this time he knows what the hell he’s talking about.

The difference between the ’96 Sonics and the ’93-95 versions is the addition of Sam “Arc-Angel” Perkins and the replacement of Kendall Gill with Hersey Hawkins. Throughout the playoffs Perkins stayed vocal. He and Nate “Mac 10” Mcmillian shared the spotlight in vocabing the team’s leadership, leaving Payton and Shawn Kemp along to handle the weight on the court.

“This team has spirit,” says coach George Karl, who worked the last six weeks of the season with a pink slip as his shadow. “ I like my team. There have been very few games this year that the bunker mentality took over. Where you ask yourself, ‘Are you where you want to be?’ I want to be with these guys. They deserve the acknowledgement of what they have accomplished this year.”

In the process of playing the Bulls in the Finals, the Sonics went through the 36 chambers of Shaolin. Twelve incarcerated sacrifices, shadow boxin with liquid swords, in America.  Method Men. They kept it drama filled and never nutted under the pressure. They matured and found definition in who they were as men, as a team, as a Clan.

What was missed in the midst of Chicago’s dominance was the coming of age of an organization once deemed devoid of heart and understanding. Enter the 10 most important post first round victories in the NBA this year. The Sonics zoo—it aint Brooklyn.

Games Two and Four will go down in ball history as classics. In Game Two the Sonics went 20-for 27 from three point range. In a game that switched leads 10 times and was tied 20 times, the Sonics pulled out a 105-101 win and began to notice changes in their game. In Game Four, they watched a 20-point, fourth quarter lead evaporate in 10 minutes, only to win the game in OT. The release of getting past round one made their feet move quicker, made them more confident in holding Hakeem down, made their defense scary.

ESPN began to have field days with Payton’s alternative name, “The Glove.” A crazy little thing called glove. Might as well face it you’re addicted to glove. Stuart Scott was the only one not going out like that. As they advanced to play Utah, it became more noticeab-ill that Payton and Kemp (or at least one of them) deserved to be on Dream Team III.

Behind the scene everything was chill. Spending time with the Sonics during this run made a brotha realize just what George Clinton meant when he sang about getting over the hump: when the syndrome is around don’t let your guard down/all you got to do’s call on the funk. Unguard. Defend yourself.

Hershey Hawkins laughs, looks at me and says “ This is a long way from Westinghouse, huh?”

Up 3-1 in the series they lax and let Utah get a feel for the series. Despite holding John Stockton in check, the Sonics let Karl Malone get all types of disgruntled, let Byron Russell make himself famous and let Jeff Hornacek prove that he is—unquestionably—the baddest white boy in the league.

SUPER BIG GULP. That’s what the headline read in The Seattle Times the day of Game Seven. Drama, part II. Sonics center Ervin Johnson spent the last 10 minutes of practice the day before shooting free throws, screaming “We Believe! You gotta believe!”

The nerves are as undercover as Axel Foley: You see them, hear them, feel them, but no one admits they’re there. As Sam Perkins says, “ This is fun. I think this game is only nerve wracking for the people that watch. For me the nervousness is gone. I think we’re ready.”

As the buzzer sounded, Janet cried and hugged any media person close to her. Every Sonic player, except Payton, ran into the locker room to celebrate. Then all of them went back on the court to celebrate with the people who really made this possible: the fans.

Confetti coming down like rain, the players grabbed wives, kids and parents as they came out of their seats. Sam Perkins being the only member of the team to play in an NBA Finals, took things one step beyond. He adopted 18,000 new family members for a half- hour as he walked around the stadium in the stands and high fived, hugged, kissed anyone who wanted to share the love. Bob Dole should be so diplomatic.

This was a special moment, a very special one. This game was the Sonics’ championship. As Gee Pee screamed one hour later, as we walked arm-around-arm down the corridor of Key Arena (a scream that had Soncs media relations director Cheri White covering Gary’s mouth while video crews completed post- game wrap-ups), “We’re goin’ to the dance!!! Whoooou!”

Cheri: “Gary, please be quiet.”

He took her hand off his mouth. “Hell naw! We goin’ to the daaaannnce!!!” ‘Nuff said.

Sherrell Ford comes to the Crilla (Chicago) and get more love than anybody. Even though he’s not on Seattle’s playoff roster—it’s a rookie thang—he is a West Side native that is glad to be home, still playing basketball in June. The Sonics learn a lot in Games One through Three. They learn that they really didn’t lose game one by seventeen; they shoulda, coulda, woulda won Game Two if it wasn’t for Dennis Rodman, and they got their asses kicked in Game Three.

Earlier in the week Gary Payton found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the words “Mission Impossible” under his chest. Although there were some hectic family matters going on in his life at the time and the magazine wished him luck, Gary knew what was up. So after the 21-point loss in Game Three, Payton walked up to Michael Jordan and straight up asked him, “Dog can I have your shoes?”

Ervin Johnson even went so far as to buy Rodman’s book and send it over to the Bulls locker room to be signed.

Hershey Hawkins grabbed the book and went through the Madonna chapter. “I’m getting a copy,” he said. “He’s my type of player. No X’s and O’s. Get right to the good stuff.

With all the props, respect and admiration being given to the Bulls, the Sonics never once felt defeated. They were beyond that.

“[We] have done a great job of not being concerned with the series, just concerned about the next game,” coach Karl says. “I love my team.”

And love has everything to do with everything when you are down 0-3 to a team everybody is calling the “greatest team ever”. Fear doesn’t set in, no fear does.

As Shawn Kemp, who quietly played himself into all-world status, said before Game Four, “ We’re getting something outta this. A game, two games, three, four. I don’t care. All I know is that I don’t remember who the Bulls beat when they won those other championships. Nobody does. You don’t remember who comes in second. I don’t want to NOT be remembered. You know what I’m say’n’?

Not afraid of getting swept, but more concerned with showing what type of pride they really had, the Sonics simply made the Finals interesting by taking Games Four and Five and busting the bubble of all those who fell for that “greatest ever” noise.

“Hey the league made another 11 million. That’s the way it is.” Dennis Rodman’s words pierced the soul of a game that at some time seems sacred. His comments about the league, the refs and NBC mad sense to everyone except the players in green.

Nobody wanted to give the Sonics credit for doing the impossible in the beating the Bulls two games straight. Making the drama thicker. Everyone was lookin’ at what the Bulls were doing wrong and not what the Sonics started doing right. Even Jordan.

“Are you sure [Payton] was the cause of my frustration?” he spoke. “I had good shots. I don’t think Gary’s defense on me dictated the way I played or the frustrations I had. I just missed some easy shots. [I’ll tell Gary] ‘Bring it on again. ‘ I invite anybody to guard me. But as far as him stopping me, I can only stop myself.”

G. smiled at those words. “If he’s the only one that can stop himself, then we plan on giving him a chance to do it.”

As the Bulls closed out the series in the joy of six, it became evident that the Seattle Supersonics were on to something bigger than what Gus Williams, Freddie Brown, NJ and Jack Sikma were up against back in the day. The elimination of the word “potential” in the description of a once-unsettled team.

In a span of 10 victories, the Sonics went from underachievers to over achievers to believers. They probably gained more by losing in the Finals than any other team in recent basketball history. They learned. Handle the drama, déjà vu. Come together, right now, under Kemp. Destiny awaits. They now know how nice they can be. And often in the heat of competing for rings on the basketball court, that’s all 12 people need to know.