Add super to the Sonics

Seattle was deep in last place with a 5-17 record when unassuming Lenny Wilkens (above) assumed command. The team proceeded to win 12 of 15 for its new coach
January 09, 1978

Something even more extraordinary than prolonged sunshine has been gracing Seattle lately. It could be some mystical force emanating from Slick Watts' headband. Perhaps it is a trio of wise men who have rediscovered their youth. Or plain old divine intervention on behalf of a couple of Bible-toting rebounders. Or the figure from the past who has returned to lead the team out of the wilderness. Whatever it is, it began taking effect on Nov. 30. That was the day the Seattle SuperSonics stopped losing and started winning. Religiously.

At that point they were 5-17, another candidate for Worst Team in History status. But on that Wednesday, the meek inherited the team. That is, smiling, beneficent Lenny Wilkens replaced howling, glowering Bob Hopkins as coach. And let anyone try to convince Wilkens he is not a genius. Under his leadership the Sonics are 12-3, including 5-2 on the road. "You always expect a little surge after a coaching change," says the modest Wilkens with a twinkle, "but this is too many wins to be a little surge."

So it seems. Indeed, the entire NBA is flatly amazed by the Sonics. A strange array they were before the winning started—four holdovers and seven oddly assorted newcomers thrown together in Bill Russell's bomb crater. In his four years as coach, Russell twice took the Sonics to the playoffs, but last season the team finished in fourth place in the Pacific Division with a 40-42 record, and Captain Telephone was all but forced to walk the plank.

In fact, Russell moved to his nearby Mercer Island mansion and became a local political columnist and television mogul. In Russell's stead came Hopkins, his cousin and assistant coach. To seven-year Guard Fred Brown, Hoppy would be just another coach. "How many have I played for?" asked Brown. "How many coaches has Seattle had?"

That Hopkins had been named to succeed cousin Bill as Brown's fifth coach on Friday the 13th (of May) could have been an omen, though it must also be pointed out that on the very same day owner Sam Schulman took out an insurance policy by hiring Wilkens as director of player personnel. When he played for the Sonics for four seasons beginning in 1968 and simultaneously coached them from 1969 until 1972, Wilkens was Seattle's MPH (Most Popular Human), a title that would later pass to Spencer Haywood, then to Russell and finally to its holder for the last three years, the impish Watts.

At the time Wilkens was hired it was suggested that Schulman brought him in specifically to set up Hopkins for an early fall and that after Hopkins had a fair chance to prove his ineptitude, Wilkens would move in as coach. This idea enraged the normally placid Wilkens. "How can anyone say that?" he stormed at the time. "My place is in the front office. I just want to help get Hop a team."

Hopkins needed a lot of help. In the off-season the Sonics had sent Tommy Burleson and Bobby Wilkerson to Denver for a couple of tired oldtimers—Paul Silas and Willie Wise (since cut)—plus 7'1" Marvin Webster, still unproven after two seasons and still appearing emaciated from his celebrated rookie year case of hepatitis that prompted the Nuggets to try to void his contract, or worse, trade him to the Baltimore Claws. Even now, Fred Brown refuses to call Webster by his college nickname "The Human Eraser." He insists on "Starvin' Marvin."

Seattle's grab in the college draft was 6'11", flaxen-haired Jack Sikma, of whom you may not have heard even though he was a two-time NAIA All-America at Illinois Wesleyan. At the very least, by joining Webster, a devout Baptist, Sikma, a strong member of the Reform Church in tiny St. Anne, Ill., vaulted the Sonics to the NBA lead in fundamentalism.

Teaming with Silas (34) and Brown (29, looks 40) on the Geritol squad was another craggy veteran, Forward John Johnson (30, looks 45), who had gone from Houston to Boston in the preseason, then back to Houston when Red Auerbach did not like his contract. Houston had no use for him, so Seattle picked him up for a song and two second-round draft picks. Nor did Portland have much use for second-year Forward Wally Walker a bit later on. Always room for one more at Seattle Salvage, though Walker cost a first-round pick.

Another arrival was 6'2" Gus Williams, 24 years old, a free agent from Golden State, who joined an already crowded backcourt that included Brown, Watts and second-year man Dennis Johnson. Williams had enjoyed a sensational rookie year with the Warriors but in his second season he fell out of favor with Coach Al Attles. Seattle grabbed him for a mere $240,000 in compensation—an absolute steal.

With this motley crew, Hopkins shoved off into shark-infested waters. He said he wanted his offense to revolve around the big men, primarily Webster and Forward Bruce Seals, of whom Hopkins once said, "He reminds me of Rick Barry, only he can pass better." This strategy did not sit well with Brown and Watts, last season's leading scorers.

"If Hoppy had his way, there wouldn't be no guards," said Watts. "He wants to make mules run like Secretariat. He thinks Marvin is Bill Walton."

The Sonics lost seven of their first eight games. Hopkins grew panicky and took to publicly criticizing his players. Confidence waned and losses piled up.

"Hoppy was always howling." says Webster. "Everyone was confused, pointing fingers," says Silas. "We were a calamity of misfits," says Brown.

An unlikely goat was Watts, who was irked by Hopkins' insistence that he stop trying to score. Even his once adoring fans booed him. "People say, 'Slick, what's wrong with y'all?' " said Watts. "I say, Ask Hoppy. I'm only 6'1". I'm just a passenger.' "

A fan, quoted in The Seattle Times, said, "They are playing on public property. They should be investigated for consumer fraud." An ad appeared in the Post-Intelligencer that read: 28 PAIR SONIC TICKETS, VALUE $168, WILL SELL FOR $125.

Schulman was concerned enough to fly to Seattle from his Palm Springs condominium. A 99-96 home-court loss to the Nets, of all teams, on Nov. 27 iced it. Two nights later, after yet another loss, this one at Denver, the 17th in 22 games, Wilkens went to Kansas City to take over the Sonics.

"The team was badly in need of confidence," says Wilkens. "Mentally they were whipped. They were in a bottomless pit. I told them they did have talent. That I had confidence in them." That night, the Sonics beat the Kings 86-84. It was their second road win in 12 tries.

With a day off in Boston, Wilkens set about to change the offense, or more correctly, to install one. He moved Webster from the high to the low post, where he would do more offensive rebounding and less passing. He installed John Johnson at small forward, and Sikma at big forward. Williams would henceforth run the offense, and 6'4" Dennis Johnson, a quick defender mostly ignored by Hopkins, would play the other guard position. Watts, Silas, Walker, Seals and Brown would come off the bench. Sikma would move to center to spell Webster.

The following night Seattle beat Boston by 22, and then won nine of the next 10 games, four of which were on the road. Williams scored 29, 26 and 33 points in consecutive wins over Buffalo, Atlanta and Milwaukee and in his last 17 games has averaged 20 points and five assists. Sikma grabbed 17 rebounds and scored 24 points against the Bucks. At Detroit, Silas pulled down 14 rebounds while Williams (37 points) and Brown (20) scored 36 of Seattle's last 40 points.

For a time last week, things looked a little shaky again. The Sonics lost at home on Christmas night to Los Angeles and on Tuesday played their worst game of the year, a walkabout in Phoenix which the Suns won 131-105 without Center Alvan Adams.

But on Friday night the magic was back for a capacity crowd of 14,098 in the Seattle Center Coliseum. The Sonics got 24 points from Dennis Johnson, 18 from Walker, 14 each from Brown and Williams, 18 points and 18 rebounds from Webster and beat Phoenix 121-110.

The sun even appeared on Friday and it was a happy day for everyone but Slick Watts. After having missed the previous four games with a bruised thigh—bruised ego?—he played just six minutes against the Suns and no one seemed to miss him.

Wilkens has made it clear that Watts is expendable, and Slick has made it clear he wants to go. In the Coliseum concession stands, Slick Watts T shirts were marked down from $5 to $3.50, and sales were none too brisk.

"I told him," said Wilkens, " 'Slick, winning makes everyone a star.' " Not the least the coach.

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