Sonicsteria, which you may have heard about if you have been anywhere near a floating bridge, an aircraft plant or the Wonderful World of Brent Musburger, goes something like this: the good people of Seattle blow their lungs out over a team they call the bionic SuperSonics. A stocky child, who refers to himself as "the black kid with freckles and bags under his eyes," puts the clamps on the opposition's legendary hero. Then an elderly, bent-over codger with a goatee enters stage left to hurl the ball into the basket from the unlikeliest places—Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, you name it—and Sonicsteria advances into the NBA finals.
That is about what occurred last week when 23-year-old Dennis Johnson and 29-year-old Fred Brown combined to bring the Seattle SuperSonics to the brink of the most spectacular turnaround from disaster since, well, since Sonicsteria's first cousin, Blazermania, was invented in the same Pacific Northwest a few thundershowers ago.
On Nov. 30, 1977, Seattle had a 5-17 record and was looking for the fastest tugboat to Alaska. Last Friday, May 12, 1978, the SuperSonics whipped the Denver Nuggets for the third straight time to take a three-games-to-one lead in the Western Conference playoffs and put themselves in prime position to proceed forthwith—along with the Eastern Conference Sixer-killers, the Washington Bullets—to the championship round.
That confrontation ran into a slight delay last Sunday, when the Sonics rolled over and yawned during the fifth game of a series they appeared to have locked up.
May 21, 1978
They had done the same thing a couple of weeks before. Leading Portland by 3-1, Coach Lenny Wilkens' troops were destroyed on the enemy court and had to come home to win in six. On Mother's Day in Denver, they were beaten again when the Nuggets' David Thompson burst out of a shooting slump to score 35 points, Dan Issel ran Seattle Center Marvin Webster into the floorboards with 27 more and Denver prolonged the series with a 123-114 victory.
"We were lackadaisical, or whatever you want to call it," said Webster, who stayed awake long enough to block seven shots but whose first-half loafing contributed to a 11-31 Seattle rebounding deficit, which, in turn, resulted in a 61-44 Denver lead.
The Nuggets, who finally realized Thompson would need some picks and screens to hide from Dennis Johnson, led by as many as 19 points in the second half, before a late Sonic rally cut the lead to 113-108. But then Seattle called time out, during which Denver set up a little play for Thompson and he hit a double-pumping, high-arching shot from the key to put the Nuggets out of danger.
"David moved better and used his screens," Johnson said. "He's the influential player in the whole thing. When he gets going, the rest of the Denver team moves up the track."
Through the first four games of the series, Johnson played an average of 44 minutes a game, stopping Thompson as no one in college or the pros had been able to. While everybody is supposed to recognize Sonics such as Webster, Downtown Brown and even rookie Jack Sikma, Johnson, a second-year man, is a relative unknown. His background includes very little action as the "11th man" at Dominguez High in Compton, Calif. ("Mexican school?" he was asked. "Black Mexicans," he answered.) Then his jumping ability surfaced; he was nicknamed "Airplane" along with the expectable "DJ," and he progressed through Harbor Junior College and one year of defensive stardom at Pepperdine before leaving as a hardship case to join the Sonics.
"Dennis is strong and quick and tough," Thompson finally admitted one day. "His timing on the jump is uncanny." Indeed, though Thompson averaged 27.2 points and shot .521 during the season, in the three Seattle victories he was outscored by Johnson 71-64, and held to six points below his average and .142 under his shooting percentage. This while DJ was scoring 11 points above his average of 12.7.
"I watch David's eyes to see what he is going to do," Johnson said, a remark that would send a good many high school coaches screaming into the night. "No, really, I don't know if David's pressing or forcing his shots or what," he said. "I can't really watch his game. If I do, I might be amazed."
Long before Johnson's duel with Thompson, however, what Denver loyalists describe as "our annual midspring paranoia" had infected the Nugget camp. After they had blown a 3-1 lead against Milwaukee earlier in the playoffs, the entire organization from General Manager Carl Scheer on down were downcast as rumors surfaced about the viability of the franchise as well as the availability of Larry Brown's coaching job. When Thompson came to the rescue with a 37-point spree in the seventh game and Denver hung on to win and make the conference finals, The Denver Post headlined: NUGGETS GAG BUT DON'T CHOKE.
Which is what they once again seemed ready to do after splitting the first two games at home against the Sonics, winning the first 116-107 and losing the second 121-111. Brown took the occasion to vent some spleen on the referees. The Nuggets had outshot, outrebounded and outscored the Sonics by 17 field goals in the two games, but Seattle had been awarded 111 free throws and converted 82 of them, to Denver's 58 and 47, the result of being charged with 72 fouls to Seattle's 52.
"We're the finesse team, they're the muscle guys, but we can't get a call anywhere," the Nugget coach fumed. "You see any loose-ball fouls whistled against them? You see any rebounding fouls on them? Thompson shot the second most free throws in the league during the regular season and he goes to the line four times in the second game. Jack Sikma can't even dribble, and they're calling blocks on Bobby Jones. Our substitution continuity is gone. My players don't even know how to play anymore."
Seattle's Paul Silas, who experienced the Denver doldrums as a Nugget last season, said, "I would hate to see us complain as much as they do. It hurts concentration and it hurts them with the refs."
Back home in the Coliseum for Game 3, the Sonics continued to unsettle Larry Brown's evenings. By the time he had incurred his third technical foul of the series, with 4:25 left, Webster was dominating Issel off the glass (16 rebounds to seven) and blocking three shots; the Sonics were on a 11-3 streak; and Fred Brown, who had scored 39 in the first two games, had come off the bench again and was in the process of throwing in 11 points, mostly from downtown, or long range. Seattle coasted in with a 105-91 victory.
For a time, much of the Sonics' success and health—specifically the curing of ailments such as Dennis Johnson's dislocated finger and Fred Brown's flu—was credited to Elaine Busse, a Colorado "nutritionist and massage therapist," who last season had helped Webster, then still a Nugget, find the right diet when he was recovering from hepatitis. But when it was learned that Busse had been convicted of manslaughter for advising the reduction and eventual elimination of insulin for a young diabetic patient in favor of prayer and vitamin supplements, the odds on nutrition dropped out of sight.
Actually, in their first two wins the Sonics had simply been wearing down the Nuggets in the backcourt, where Johnson would handle the ball while Brown and Gus Williams would take turns piling up jumpers and breakaway flyers. In addition, the league's second-best defensive team was playing some rather distinguished defense.
"The difference is Seattle stops us down the stretch and we don't stop them," said Brown.
"We plan to keep putting pressure on Denver's offense," said Wilkens.
Which meant on Thompson. Which meant that Johnson—freckles, eye bags and all—would shadow Captain Sky-walker everywhere, force him left, run at his shooting arm and especially—this may be material for Ripley's—jump high enough to compel Thompson to change his shot and to attempt some horrendous off-balance prayers that could not possibly be answered; he hit only 6 of 19 in Game 3.
In Game 4 in Seattle on Friday night, Johnson received help from Webster (19 blocked shots through four games) and continued tormenting Thompson into missing 17 of 27 shots, while scoring a game- (and career-) high 31 points himself. Still, Denver seemed about to tie the series when it took a 78-74 lead early in the fourth period. All that meant was that it was time for Downtown Brown to come roaring out of the bullpen, it was time for Here's Freddy, it was time for Sonicsteria.
Right away, Brown made a steal and fed Johnson for an easy layup Brown danced behind a screen, forced the switch, then fed Sikma for a bucket. Brown went downtown on the left for a one-hander, after which Johnson scored while falling down in the lane, and it was 82-78 Sonics.
Brown's fourth quarter eventually consisted of four baskets, three foul shots and three assists and accounted for 17 Seattle points, including seven straight in the final four minutes to preserve the Sonics' 100-94 victory.
"I've never seen anybody play Thompson as well as Dennis does," Silas concluded. "He was devastating. Freddy? He was, well, just Freddy."
Which was enough to force that other Brown, Denver's Larry, into head-shaking and paroxysms of adulation.
"We hand-check him, we body him, we double up on him in the corner. He still gets the ball away," said Brown, L. of Brown, F. "Sometimes he throws it up there without looking and he gets it down anyway. They all go down. But that's his name, isn't it?"
And so it is. Downtown Fred Brown scored 37 points in the final periods of Seattle's three victories, mostly while jabbering, winking, stroking his chin whiskers and falling into the fifth row. "I'm just doing my job," he said. "But I do own the fourth quarter."
Last Sunday, he didn't. Downtown's jumper took a short vacation way out of town and he made just one of eight shots in the entire game. The Sonics were flat and lucky to own their own shirts after the Nuggets exploded for several hundred fast breaks before most Coloradans had gotten out of their solar beds for the 12 noon tipoff.
Despite the temporary deviation of momentum, both teams knew where they were heading for Game 6. Back to Seattle where the Sonics had won 19 consecutive times. Back to Sonicsteria. Both teams also knew which one of them owned that.