There is little wonder that Seattle SuperSonic fans have taken a particular shine to their team this year. After a pair of shrewd off-season deals for an All-Star forward, Detlef Schrempf, and a budding All-Star guard, Kendall Gill, the locals have picked up the aroma of an NBA championship brewing right alongside their caffè lattes. But there may be a deeper connection, a recognition by residents that there are parallels between their team and their town. Like Seattle the city, Seattle the team can be a thing of surpassing beauty: When their blend of trapping defense and balanced offense is in harmony, the Sonics are remarkable to behold. And life with the Sonics, like the weather in their hometown, is often anything but sunshine and blue skies—they have to endure more than their share of storms. "We're crazy at times," says Seattle coach George Karl. "We yell and cuss at each other maybe a little more than most teams."
Maybe a lot more. But as anyone in Seattle will tell you, hang around long enough and eventually you won't even notice the clouds. That's a fair approximation of the Sonic philosophy. "If we were all happy all the time, we wouldn't be the Sonics," says point guard Gary Payton. "We let our feelings out, and then we go on about our business, which is winning games." No one can charge that the Sonics don't take care of business; they won their first 10 games before losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers last Saturday 101-90. The most impressive thing about Seattle's record is that with Schrempf (15.5 points per game) and Gill (10.4) still feeling their way, the Sonics haven't even begun to play well consistently. "The numbers might look good now, but wait until about midseason, when we all know each other better," says Gill. "We could be scary."
The Sonics are scary enough now. They are an exposed nerve, their emotions on the surface. And with the combative Karl in charge of this group of talented and outspoken players, sparks are bound to fly. Against the Golden State Warriors last week, Shawn Kemp, Seattle's 6'10" All-Star forward, had the ball in the low post against 6'9" Billy Owens. Instead of shooting over Owens or using his superior strength to back him in, Kemp tried a fancy spin move that earned him nothing but an offensive foul. It was just one display of the unnecessary flamboyance—"sugar," Karl calls it—that sometimes creeps into Kemp's game. "Geez, Shawn, just play basketball," Karl said as Kemp approached the bench during the ensuing timeout. Kemp's response included a few profanities, including a two-word phrase directed at Karl that definitely wasn't "Sorry, Coach."
Karl didn't hear it—he had turned away from the players to huddle with his assistants—but it wouldn't have mattered if he had. The Sonics make no attempt to disguise or deny their flare-ups, and Karl doesn't punish his players for voicing their complaints, even when he is the target. Karl also understands that even if he wanted to, he couldn't completely change his team's personality. Still, when he says one of his goals is for the Sonics to have more fun this year, he's not just spouting a coaching clichè.
"We won 55 games last year, went to the seventh game of the conference finals and didn't enjoy it, not as much as we should have," he says. "Too much bitching and complaining. We're going to try not to allow it to affect us this time around. Even with our success last year, every time I walked in the locker room there were two or three guys angry."
Sometimes Karl was one of them, and he's not above using the dramatic gesture to express his displeasure. Three weeks before the start of the playoffs last season, he pulled Kemp and forward Derrick McKey (who was later sent to the Indiana Pacers, along with forward Gerald Paddio, in exchange for Schrempf) out of the starting lineup for six and seven games, respectively, as a motivational ploy. And although Karl's runins with the fiery Payton aren't quite as frequent as Seattle rain showers anymore, they still happen from time to time. "Maybe I need to listen more," Karl says. "There are guys on this team I should be listening to, smart players like [forward-center] Sam [Perkins] and Detlef and [guard] Ricky Pierce. Gary's a smart player too, although he doesn't always act like it."
It might seem strange that such a volatile team would add to the mix a player like the 6'5" Gill, who was reputed to have an attitude problem last season with the Charlotte Hornets, but, hey, these are the Sonics. The shouting match Gill had with Charlotte assistant Bill Hanzlik after being taken out of Game 2 of the second-round playoff series against the New York Knicks would have been barely a blip on Sonic radar. It was, however, the cap to Gill's turbulent season with the Hornets, during which he feuded with teammates and alienated Charlotte fans, media and front-office personnel. "We do not want to jeopardize our franchise with a player who does not want to be in Charlotte," said Charlotte president Spencer Stolpen when the Hornets traded Gill to the Sonics in September for forward Eddie Johnson, guard Dana Barros and other considerations. Translation: Gill was such a pain in the posterior that Charlotte considered the trade a case of addition by subtraction.
For his part Gill now says that he would have been happy to stay in Charlotte and that the basis for his poor public image was his refusal to discuss his contract status with the Charlotte media—he stood to become a restricted free agent after the 1993-94 season until he signed a seven-year, $26 million deal in August in order to facilitate the trade. He also discounts the perception that his ego was too big to handle being the third wheel in Charlotte, behind center Alonzo Mourning and All-Star forward Larry Johnson. "I have no problems playing with great players," Gill says. "If I did, why would I be happy to be here, with Kemp, Perkins, Detlef and Ricky Pierce? All I want is a championship, and I'm closer to it here than I would have been in Charlotte."
So far the biggest problem Gill has had with Seattle is a recurrence of the cluster headaches that have plagued him since he was 12. He was stricken in practice last week and missed two games before returning to play against the Cavs.
As important as the addition of Gill is for Seattle, it was the acquisition of the versatile, 6'10" Schrempf that many observers believe may put championship rings on the Sonics' fingers. Schrempf can become an unrestricted free agent after this season, which prompted the trade—along with new Pacer coach Larry Brown's belief that Schrempf wasn't strong enough on defense to adapt to Indiana's new, aggressive style.
Considering the talented McKey's tendency to disappear at times on the court, the deal seemed like a godsend for the Sonics, but there was a surprising amount of agonizing over it by club officials. Even Karl, whose intense personality often conflicted with McKey's laid-back style, admits he didn't sleep well the night the trade was made, contemplating the loss of McKey's defensive abilities. McKey, a Sonic first-round draft choice in 1987, was one of the most popular Sonics and a co-captain along with guard Nate McMillan. It's noteworthy that while the rest of the league marvels over Seattle's shrewdness in adding Schrempf and Gill to a team that came within a game of reaching the NBA Finals, some of the Sonics express mixed emotions. "I don't really understand why a team that nearly makes the Finals has to make two major trades," says Kemp. "I'm glad to have Detlef here, but a lot of my heart is still with Derrick." Can nothing make this team happy?
Fortunately for Schrempf, he didn't need a welcoming committee to make him feel at home in Seattle. Born in Germany, he came to the U.S. to attend high school in Centralia, Wash., about 70 miles from Seattle, and he later played for the University of Washington, in Seattle. A onetime gym rat who has since discovered other pleasures—including water-skiing on Seattle's Lake Washington—Schrempf moved back into the house he owns on the lake after the trade, all of which indicates that the Sonics have a good chance of signing him to a new contract. If, that is, he can get used to the Sonics' frenetic style of play and their kinetic personality. "This team doesn't hold anything in," he says, smiling. "But I have no problem with that—I'm pretty emotional myself. Maybe sometimes people on this team say things they might regret later, but it's only because they're so committed to winning a title. After years in Indiana, that's something I'm glad to see."
Schrempf hasn't yet begun to pay his greatest dividends for the Sonics, especially on the backboards (he's averaging 4.3 boards per game, 2.2 below his career average) and on defense, but he has shown the smooth offensive game that Seattle expected. His passing skills (3.2 career assists per game) and his ability to post up should be especially helpful to the Sonics, whose half-court game has been a weak spot in the recent past. But Seattle more than makes up for that shortcoming with its greatest strength—defense. Without a traditional, shot-blocking center, the Sonics, a swarming, sticky-fingered lot, compensate with a succession of traps all over the court, reflecting a strategy that Karl refers to as "pressure and disruption." They were disruptive enough last season to lead the NBA in steals (11.5 per game) and forced turnovers (18.5), and in the 20 years since the league began recording steals, they were only the sixth team to have five players (Payton, McMillan, Kemp, McKey and Pierce) with at least 100. Through Sunday, Seattle again led the league in steals (12.2 per game) and forced turnovers (20.8).
The Sonics are so consumed by defense that Payton has instituted a gesture he calls the Glove, in which a Sonic clasps his hand around his wrist in a sort of sign language that says, "Let's get a steal."
"It's just a motivational thing to get us to concentrate even more on defense," says McMillan, who lost a friendly competition with Payton last year over their individual steal totals. Payton finished with 177 thefts; McMillan had 173.
The Sonics spread the wealth just as generously on offense; in each of their 10 wins, at least five starters scored in double figures. The addition of two exceedingly unselfish players—Perkins, who came over in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers with 32 games remaining last season, and Schrempf—has helped ensure that there are few hard feelings about the distribution of shots. "There were times last year when if you came down the court two or three times and somebody didn't get to touch the ball, he got upset and you heard about it," says McMillan.
But the Sonics' balance has had its drawbacks. For Sonic opponents the bad news is that it's impossible to discern whom Seattle, which doesn't have a true go-to guy, will turn to in the clutch; the good news is that the Sonics often don't seem to know either. That's a flaw they will have to eliminate if they are to turn their fast start into a title. "I don't know how that will work itself out," says Karl. "Our go-to guy could be Shawn, it could be Detlef, it could be Ricky, one of the best shooters in the league with the clock running down. We could do it by committee, which is the way we do a lot of things."
That's the Sonic way, of course, and however unorthodox, it works more often than not. Karl and his bosses think they have built a championship-caliber team, and although they are giving themselves a two- or three-year window, it's clear that they believe this could be the Sonics' championship season. Others, like McMillan, are more cautious. "I don't know why everyone thinks this is going to be our year," he says. "I still think it's going to take a few years until we're at our best." It's a point the Sonics would be happy to argue about well into the playoffs.