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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

May 14, 2014 at 11:06 AM

Sonics reporter recalls roots of Seattle’s first modern pro championship

BY GREG HEBERLEIN

You could make the case that the Seattle Seahawks’ ascension to their lopsided 2014 Super Bowl conquest was launched in Atlanta a year earlier. That 30-28 last-minute loss to the Falcons now appears a logical impetus for the Seahawks’ sensational champagne season.

An excellent precedent exists. Thirty-five years earlier, the SuperSonics captured the NBA title – Seattle’s only other modern professional championship. The season before, the Sonics lost in the seventh game of the best-of-seven series to the Washington Bullets. Facing the same team at the end of the 1978-79 season, they thrashed the Bullets to win the series in only five games.

In pro basketball, certain teams can dominate the league for multiple seasons. The Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, and these days the Miami Heat are exhibits A, B, C and D.

But once in a while, a sleeper busts through, a smaller-population center that catches lightning in a bottle. Portland, just before the Sonics’ success, set the example for Seattle.

In 1978, Seattle suffered a galling Game 7 loss on the Sonics’ home court. The Bullets of Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld shocked them, 105-99. Defeat was snapped from the jaws of victory.

But even the Bullets’ coach, Dick Motta, hinted at the Sonics’ coming success.

“I feel bad for the Sonics,” Motta said after the final game. “But they’re a very young ball club.”

You remember Motta, the man who popularized the adage, “The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings.”

The Sonics’ loss ultimately propelled them to basketball heaven 12 months later. Time and again, coaches and players talked of avenging the heart-breaking 1978 finale.

In the 1978 postgame Sonic locker room, veteran Paul Silas said, “It’s a disappointment, but I’ve been through a lot of these before. The guys know now how defeat feels. I’ve been through defeat before, and victory. It takes one to know the other.”

From the fall of 1977 to the end of the 1979 season, the Sonics were as in command as any team before or since.

Under new Coach Bob Hopkins, the gears never meshed. Seattle started the 1977-78 season in a 5-win, 17-loss abyss. Owner Sam Schulman, witnessing a crowd count of less than 10,000 in the Seattle Coliseum, sacked Hopkins.

Lenny Wilkens, soon to be the miracle-worker, was hired. With largely unknown talent, Wilkens guided the club to a remarkable 42-18 record the rest of the 1977-78 season.

Then came the Bullets in the final series, trashing that mark by erasing Seattle’s home-court advantage in Game 7.

Over the offseason, defying his normally sunny personality, Wilkens was beset by depression.

“I was down for the first time in a long while,” Wilkens said. “It took me a long time to get over it. I wanted it so bad I could have died. The chemistry was right. Everything was right.”

Things got even better in the second season. Center Marvin Webster emigrated to the New York Knicks. Young Jack Sikma moved from forward to fill the middle. Undersized for the position, the 6-foot-11 Sikma demonstrated what desire can overcome.

The team was a perfect mix of youth and experience. None among Sikma, Dennis Johnson, Lonnie Shelton and Wally Walker had played three NBA seasons. Gus Williams was preparing for his fourth. Fred Brown, John Johnson and Silas were long-time pros, none in the league less than seven seasons. Silas was starting his 15th. He was like a master of kung fu – the guiding force who through deeds and words set the course, both on court and off.

In the offseason, bridging 1977-78 and 1978-79, the Sonics’ head coach sensed what was about to come.

“As the summer progressed, I began to anticipate this season,” Wilkens said shortly before the new campaign. “Now I’m excited about it. There is an anxiousness to reach the playoffs again. It is in Les (Habegger). I can see it. It is also within me. I will have to temper it. It is up to us to contain it.

“When you’ve been there, you know you belong. You want to be there again.”

Lenny and Habegger, his able assistant coach, were about to embark on a second Cinderella season. The Sonics’ record wound up at 52-30. Over the two seasons with Wilkens in the cockpit, the SuperSonics streaked to wins in two of every three games.

Portland coach Terry Stotts recently put such phenomena to words: “Teams that play together beat those teams with superior players who play more as individuals.”

In the 1979 title series, Seattle dropped Game 1, 99-97, then ran the table – four straight to abruptly end the series. Only one second prevented a series  sweep.

In Game 1, Seattle stunned the Bullets by erasing an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie at 97. But Washington guard Larry Wright broke free and, near the Sonic free-throw line, elevated to release the game’s final shot. Dennis Johnson, swatting at the shot, was called for a dubious foul. Wright’s two free throws turned out to be the Bullets’ sole bright spot in the series.

DJ, the most valuable player of the championship series, would build a reputation as one of the league’s fiercest defenders. Many thought veteran referee Ed Rush’s call was a bad one. The Los Angeles Times’ Ted Greene appropriately called it “the Rush to judgment.”

The small-market team had produced big results. It was an extraordinary feeling. Just ask the Seahawks.

Greg Heberlein covered the Seattle SuperSonics for The Seattle Times and was the only reporter to see all games – preseason, regular-season and postseason – of the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. Opinions expressed are those of authors, and The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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