For the first 11 years of their existence, the Seattle SuperSonics were simply the other team that wore Kelly-green uniforms. Then, in 1979, the Sonics suddenly turned super and ran away with the NBA title. In the championship series, Seattle's little guys—6'2" Gus Williams and 6'4" Dennis Johnson—fast-broke Washington into oblivion. They out-scored, outrebounded and outdefensed their Bullet backcourt counterparts and, in a game so dominated by redwoods, Williams was the series' leading scorer and Johnson its MVP. Ah, those were the days.
These aren't. On Jan. 20, Coach Lenny Wilkens' now less-than-super Sonics stumbled all the way into the Pacific Division basement. At times this season their play has been reminiscent of their expansion days. During last week's East Coast swing, the Sonics blew a 10-point lead in losing to New York 98-97, then crossed the Hudson and fell to the Atlantic Division's worst team, New Jersey, 126-122 in overtime. In Washington they were beaten by the Bullets 103-91, and Sunday they ran their losing streak to five against Boston, 115-106. That left the Sonics 22-29, quite a contrast to last year's 37-14 mark at this point. If any team in the Midworst, or rather the Midwest, besides the division-winner, can finish the year at .500, the former champions probably won't even make the playoffs. And in pro hoops, everybody makes the playoffs.
The Sonics' disastrous slide started with the retirement of 16-year veteran Paul Silas, the team's third-leading re-bounder last season and, more important, its spiritual leader. Then, in the expansion draft, the Dallas Mavericks took the Sonics' solid backup center, Tom LaGarde. Power Forward Lonnie Shelton surprised everyone when on Nov. 12 he ended his season by deciding to undergo surgery that might repair ligament damage in his left wrist. Silas, LaGarde and Shelton gave the Sonics 16.8 rebounds a game in 1979-80. Without them, Seattle is averaging four fewer boards this season, while being outrebounded for the first time since 1976-77.
But the biggest transformation has occurred in that All-Star back-court. During the off-season, Seattle traded Johnson even up for Phoenix Guard Paul Westphal, who promptly suffered an injury to his right foot and had to sit out 25 games. The most conspicuous absentee of all, however, has been Williams, who had led the Sonics in scoring (19.8 points a game) and steals (2.3) the last three years. He hasn't played a minute all season because of a contract impasse.
"Losing Gus cut off our running right off the bat," says John Johnson, one of two starters who remain from the championship team. "Gus was an unusual player in that he was blessed with speed and quickness. He wasn't a great defensive player, but he could jump around and apply so much pressure on you that you wouldn't dare put the ball within two feet of him because he would take it away. I had to stop my pinpoint passes because new people just don't know me like Gus and DJ did. Times were when we didn't even have to make eye contact; Gus and DJ knew that if they made the cuts, the ball would be there."
The other surviving starter from the championship team, Center Jack Sikma, is having his best season ever, leading the Sonics in 11 statistical categories, including scoring (19.6 points) and rebounding (11.4), but he, too, sorely misses Williams. "All I know is that in the old days, when I got a rebound and turned, there was always someone there," he says. "Now there's often no one. I could count the number of fast breaks and easy baskets we've had on one hand." Indeed, in the first half of last Friday's loss to Washington, Seattle was out-scored on fast breaks 25-0.
In Williams, the missing link, the Sonics had more than "a one-man fast-break," as Portland Coach Jack Ramsay once put it. He was also the most popular player among his teammates, the one who kept them loose and a possible successor to Silas as leader. Also, the 27-year-old guard was a key element in the Westphal-DJ swap. Howard Slusher, the lawyer who represents both Westphal and Williams, says, "Paul would never have come here if he thought Gus wouldn't be around."
Williams came to Seattle as a free agent before the 1977-78 season, after contract hassles with his first NBA team, the Golden State Warriors. He signed a three-year deal with the Sonics at $170,-000 a season and proved a bargain, leading Seattle into the NBA finals his first season and to the title his second. Negotiations for a new contract began that summer, a full year before the first was to expire. The Sonics say Williams asked for a one-year deal at $800,000, while they offered a five-year pact worth $2.5 million. The rumor mill began grinding full time this summer when it was reported that the deal included a Rolls-Royce, a Seattle condominium, real estate in San Francisco, stocks, annuities and performance bonuses.
"These were real demands, and they didn't bother me that much," says Seattle owner Sam Schulman. "It's all very good if I could accommodate him with various sorts of deals, but the bottom line was cost. If it was too much, it was too much."
More important than money, however, is the issue of compensation. Through this season, if a free agent signs with another team, the player's original team is compensated (with players, money, draft picks or any combination of the three). Next season, however, under the new right-of-first-refusal terms negotiated by the players' association, compensation will be history. A free agent will have the right to negotiate with any team and obtain the best offer. The original team then has the right to match that offer and retain the player. If it doesn't, the player is free.
But under another clause, if a player were to sit out this season, as Williams might, and then sign with another team next year, his original team would be entitled to compensation. Because the need to provide compensation detracts from a player's market value, it would be advantageous for Williams to sign for the remainder of this season rather than wait until next. Consequently, in early December, Slusher wrote the Sonics that Williams would "unconditionally accept" a one-year deal that equaled the terms in the last year of his previous pact. It was, of course, far less than an earlier Sonic offer. Within a week Williams went to Portland to sign, with the expectation that he would play that night against the Trail Blazers.
In the contract, however, the Sonics took the position that they had the right to fine Williams for missing preseason games and practices and also to deduct [1/82] of his salary for every regular season game he had missed. The Seattle offer also retained for the Sonics the right to future compensation for Williams if the courts decided the team was entitled to it because Williams had sat out part of this season. Slusher advised his client not to sign, Williams capped his pen, and the Sonics haven't seen him since. Telford Taylor, a court-appointed Special Master who decided in Williams' favor in his 1977 contract dispute with Golden State, has now ruled that because of some contract blunders on management's part the Sonics aren't entitled to compensation even if Williams sits out the rest of this season. Schulman is appealing that decision in federal court, and the uncertain outcome could make signing Williams risky for any other team but the Sonics for years to come.
Williams has played the fugitive, avoiding the press and the subject of his contract while skipping back and forth between his mother's home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. and his residences in Redmond, Wash, and Oakland. In New York his brother Ray, a guard with the Knicks, reports, "Most of the time Gus lifts weights or goes fishing. Sometimes he'll go to the local boys club and play ball." In California he's been negotiating to buy several acres of land in Orinda, just outside Oakland, but with a cloudy future, he is hesitant about closing the deal.
Meanwhile, both Wilkens and the Sonic players agree that the Williams situation has been distracting. "That day in Portland," Wilkens says, "we were so down when he didn't sign that we were blown out that night." Says John Johnson, "It isn't talked about, but everyone realizes how vital Gus was. The thing is, we've got to play the season out. You don't get sympathy when you lose. These are the same people we've been stomping for two years. Now, they're coming back at us."
That's a bleak prospect, according to Sikma. "We have a choice," he says. "We can either play hard, get a streak here and there and make the playoffs, or we can face the fact that we're not a very good team. I don't know if we can beat a .500 team down the stretch. I just don't know if we can do it."