Time didn't necessarily begin for the NBA 30 years ago, but it sure did pivot. If one were to designate epochs in a B.C. and A.D. sort of way, everything up through June 1979 might commonly be known as B.B.J., and each season since then as A.L.M. That is, Before Bird and Johnson, and After Larry and Magic.
It was a simpler and more innocent time then, as different from today's NBA as Fortran punch cards are from Blackberries. Sure, there were superstars back in the league's dark ages, a constellation's worth, but they were players rather than icons and their names rarely went on the marquee distinct and separate from their teams. This was small ball in a marketing sense, which made the 1978-79 Seattle SuperSonics -- the last NBA champions before Showtime, the Celtics' resurgence, the ascension of commissioner
"The NBA always has been a star-driven product, but that team's balance meant it wasn't one single name that carried us," said
Nostalgia can't obliterate all the pockmarks: This was the era of Finals games televised on a tape-delayed basis on weeknights. Some critics saw the NBA as drug-ridden, defensively lax and even "too black" to assure long-term appeal. Finances were shaky, too; Walker remembers that, for the first month of the 1977-78 season, rosters were reduced to 11 players to cut costs (the WNBA has done that this year for the same reason).
Still, the quality of competition was good, the players had skills and personality, and Seattle's run to the championship -- beating Washington one year after the Bullets had defeated the Sonics in a rare Finals rematch -- was a happy story. It was the first major sports championship in the city's history and, in this big, round anniversary year, it remains so.
And that makes the franchise's move from the Pacific Northwest before the just-completed season sting that much more. With all due respect to Oklahoma and the commitment of fans there and Thunder staffers, swapping SEA for OKC has to rank as one of the worst trades in NBA history, in terms of disappointment and bitter aftertaste.
"Seattle was a little different city 30 years ago," said
The Sonics, in fact, planted the big-time flag when they bought in to the NBA for a $1.75 million expansion fee prior to 1967-68. They came in with the San Diego Rockets, the NBA's 11th and 12th teams, and had a better inaugural record (23-59 to San Diego's 15-67). They got to .500 faster (47-35 in 1971-72) but took eight years to the Rockets' two to reach the playoffs (thank you, No. 1 pick
It wasn't until the Sonics started building around
By then, Webster was gone, signed away in a move that was supposed to deliver an NBA title to New York. Instead, the compensation paid by the Knicks per free-agency rules then -- sending burly forward
No Sonics player finished among the NBA's top 20 in scoring or in the top 10 in assists or blocked shots. Sikma's 12.4 rebounds ranked fifth among individuals, Williams' 2.08 steals eighth. Seattle's offense averaged 106.6 points -- fourth from the bottom in what by then was a 22-team league. But at 103.9 points allowed, it had the stingiest defense by nearly a point over Golden State (104.8) and more than three over any other clubs. The Sonics were one of only two teams with a winning road record (21-20) and tied for second with a 31-10 home mark. Williams' 19.2 points made him the team's high scorer, but six regulars averaged in double figures. The assists leader was "point forward"
"It was a real smart team," said Walker, who still resides in Seattle, overseeing a hedge fund. "We would make a lot of adjustments during games. Lenny gave the players a lot of leeway."
At 52-30, Seattle reached 50 victories for the first time, won the Pacific Division, earned a bye in the playoffs' first round, breezed past the Lakers in five games and went up 2-0 on Phoenix in the conference finals. Losing the next three, though, brought into focus the challenge facing the Sonics: Anything less than a return to the Finals and a championship, this time, would be failure. Not to worry: They won at Phoenix by a point, then gave up only six points of their 112-104 lead in the final 16 seconds of Game 7.
"The pressure was on that team," Sikma said. "I remember it was almost a sense of relief when we got back to the Finals. We just wanted that chance again, and we played very well against the Bullets.''
Same opponent, different outcome: Seattle dropped the opener, then won four in a row, including 10-point victories in Games 2 and 3 followed by a 114-112 overtime game in which Finals MVP Johnson had 32 points and four blocks. In the clincher on the Bullets' court, the Sonics erased an eight-point deficit in the second half to win 97-93. Johnson (22.6) and Williams (29.0) scored more than half of Seattle's points in the series.
Title in hand, a parade held for the team a year earlier in appreciation for a good season finally felt deserved in 1979.
"It was a huge deal," Walker said. "There was this great outpouring from the fans. People went crazy. ... That's how it was with the fans and that team."
Now it's more like an
Strong sentiments remain, split between those who were and remain NBA fans and those who rooted for the Sonics and feel betrayed. There is limited talk about luring the league back some day -- Microsoft CEO
Lots of residents understandably feel bitter. Bitter toward Starbucks entrepreneur
"I can't believe 30 years have gone by," Walker said. "I can't believe the Sonics aren't here. This is still a great city. Just not as good."