The NBA is a cult of personalities: It is all but written into the league's bylaws that any team without a superstar cannot be a contender for the championship. Three of the four conference finalists in the 1992-93 playoffs—the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, the New York Knicks with Patrick Ewing and the Phoenix Suns with the league's 1993 Most Valuable Player, Charles Barkley (he was scheduled to pick up the award on Tuesday)—fit the formula. But when the Seattle SuperSonics reached the Western Conference finals with a 103-100 overtime win against the Houston Rockets last Saturday, the Suns found themselves faced with an exception to that rule.
Think back to past champions, from the Bulls (with Jordan) to the Detroit Pistons (Isiah Thomas) to the Philadelphia 76ers (Julius Erving) to all those Boston Celtic-Los Angeles Laker battles when the league revolved around the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson axis. No team has won the NBA title without a headed-to-the-Hall-of-Fame star since, well, since the last time the Sonics won the championship, in 1979, when they were led by Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma. So as the underdog Sonics opened their pursuit of the Western Conference title with a 105-91 loss on Monday in Phoenix, they were battling not just the Suns, the league's best team during the regular season, but also the force of history.
"There's nobody from the Dream Team here, nobody with a bunch of endorsements," says forward Shawn Kemp, the Sonic most likely to eventually earn a spot among the elite. "Everybody says we don't have that one guy to carry us down the stretch. Well, we carry each other."
The difference between the Suns and the Sonics was evident in the way each reached the conference finals. Phoenix did it largely by climbing on Barkley's broad back in Games 5 and 6 of its semifinal against San Antonio. He produced a fourth quarter in Game 5 last Thursday so brilliant—14 straight Sun points over one stretch—it should be put in a time capsule; that outburst brought the Suns back from a 10-point deficit for a 109-97 win. Two days later Barkley converted a series-clinching 20-footer in the final seconds of Game 6, for a 102-100 win.
"The play was, Give the ball to Charles," said Phoenix coach Paul Westphal afterward, "and everyone else go down to the baseline."
The Sonics have no such play in their repertoire. In their Game 7 victory over Houston, they got key late baskets from Kemp, center Sam Perkins and guard Ricky Pierce. "The Suns know who their go-to guy is," Sonic center Michael Cage said. "With us it changes from game to game, quarter to quarter."
One constant for the Sonics is their abundant supply of big men, and that's an attribute that can give Phoenix problems. The Los Angeles Lakers threw a first-round scare into the Suns largely because 6'11" Elden Campbell, 6'9" A.C. Green and 6'9" James Worthy harassed the relatively short Phoenix forwards, 6'5" (more or less) Barkley and 6'7" Richard Dumas. Seattle will throw a similar group at the Suns, including forwards Kemp and Derrick McKey, both 6'10", along with Perkins and Cage, both 6'9". "I'm taking home a lot of tape on them," said Cage, "and a lot of it is from that Laker series."
The Sonics' two playoff series before meeting Phoenix may have taught them more than any tapes about how to contain the likes of Barkley. "We went to school against Utah and Houston," Kemp says. "We've defended against Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon in the post for the last 12 games. There's no one in this league tougher to guard down low than Olajuwon." The Sonics did that fairly well, even though Olajuwon's statistics against Seattle in the series (an average of 23.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.3 blocks) were routinely superb. Sonic coach George Karl ran fresh bodies at Olajuwon and sometimes double-teamed him, daring the Rockets to hit the outside shot.
When the Rockets went to Olajuwon in the closing seconds of overtime in Game 7, Perkins nudged him far enough away from the basket that he couldn't shoot his patented turnaround jumper; he was forced instead to pass to guard Vernon Maxwell, who took and missed the potential game-winning shot. Against Phoenix the Sonics will try to force the ball into the hands of anyone other than Barkley. But they will have to double-team judiciously because the Suns, with shooters like Dan Majerle and Danny Ainge and penetrating point guard Kevin Johnson, can make them pay for that strategy.
Chances are, though, the series will ultimately rest in Barkley's hands. After all, hasn't this season simply been one long effort to discover whether Sir Charles would finally earn the championship he has wanted so long?
But the Sonics, too, have weary veterans: Johnson (a 12-year man) and Pierce (11 years) have yearned for a ring longer than Barkley has (nine years), and, like Barkley, neither player has ever reached the NBA Finals. When Pierce was asked on Saturday how it felt to be the latest obstacle in the path of Barkley's title pursuit, he said quietly but forcefully, "He doesn't want it any worse than we do."
At best the Sonics are a mix of youth and experience. At worst they are made up of players perhaps slightly past their prime (Johnson and Pierce) and players who have not yet reached their prime (Kemp and second-year guard Gary Payton). It is an odd mix but an effective one. "No one ever talks about our competitiveness," Karl says. "We're fighters. We fight each other, we fight the opponent."
That's a trait that the Sonics are determined to portray. "Don't draw too many conclusions from whatever happens early," Cage said of the Sun-Sonic series. "This series is going to take a while."