Turns out all these Seattle SuperSonics needed to finally win
the NBA's Western Conference was a little help from a frog, a 3
a.m. wake-up call, a soapy hound, 48 minutes of rabid defense
and what may or may not have been lucky underwear. Whatever.
They'll take it. After an unexpected delay of anywhere between
five days and two years, depending on whom you ask, Seattle
finally reached the NBA Finals with a 90-86 win over the Utah
Jazz in Game 7 of the conference final on Sunday. Yes, that
sound you heard was the Pacific Northwest breathing again.
Nothing comes easy in Seattle, where recent history suggests
that behind every dark cloud there is a darker cloud. Thus,
after running up a 3-1 series lead, these Sonics were forced to
endure nearly a week in postseason purgatory. On May 28 they
lost Game 5 in overtime in their home gym, and last Thursday
they suffered a 35-point humiliation in Game 6 in Salt Lake
City. Those bitter defeats created a sense of impending Sonic
It is said that bad news comes in threes, and so it was that
before Game 7, the Sonics stared squarely at the possibility of
their first three-game losing streak since they were upset by
the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the '95 playoffs.
That collapse occurred one year after Seattle had lost three in
a row to the Denver Nuggets and was shockingly dismissed in the
opening round in '94. These dubious playoff meltdowns spawned so
much talk of exorcising demons before the deciding game against
Utah that you half expected Linda Blair and a cleric to show up
at Key Arena.
Last Friday afternoon 8,000 Seattle fans turned out in a
downtown park for a pep rally. Sonics guard Hersey Hawkins stood
on a balcony above the throng and yelled, "Are we ready to kick
some butt on Sunday?" The crowd stood dumbfounded for a moment,
perhaps wondering if this was a trick question, and then roared
June 9, 1996
One fan wrote to The Seattle Times informing the general public
that he had bathed with his basset hound in the name of good
karma. Sonics forward Detlef Schrempf took less drastic action.
"I wanted to wear my lucky underwear, but I couldn't remember
which pair it was," Schrempf explained. "I thought, Is it the
boxers or the briefs?"
Advice came from every precinct. Hawkins received a phone call
in the early hours of last Saturday morning from his friend
Johnny Dawkins in North Carolina. Hawkins, Dawkins and Utah
guard Jeff Hornacek had been teammates together in '92-93 with
the Philadelphia 76ers, and Dawkins was calling to give Hawkins
a few pointers on how to handle Hornacek with physical play.
Sonics coach George Karl, who studied a little psychology at
North Carolina, called upon his counseling training to convince
his players that they had the Jazz exactly where they wanted
them: at Key Arena for a seventh game. Karl put up a good front.
Little did his troops know that minutes before Game 7 their
coach petted his lucky porcelain frog and decided against
carrying a "magic" marble in his pocket.
Each Sonic having discovered his source of confidence, Seattle
controlled much of the game with a balanced team effort. Shawn
Kemp led the scoring with 26 points as five Sonics finished in
double figures. On the defensive end, Seattle cranked up the
pressure, double-teaming power forward Karl Malone, forcing
point guard John Stockton to give up much of the Jazz ball
handling and causing Utah to shoot 44.9% from the field. Hawkins
bullied Hornacek into 3-of-10 shooting and his lowest output of
the series (10 points).
Still, Utah kept the game close, and Karl, exploiting his most
decisive advantage, called for the ball to be pounded down low
to Kemp repeatedly in the fourth quarter. Twice in the final
1:17, Kemp was fouled on moves to the basket, and he converted
all four clutch foul shots. With 8.2 seconds left and the Jazz
trailing 89-86, Malone was hacked but missed his two free
throws, sealing Utah's fate. For all of his heroics during the
series, the Mailman did not deliver on Sunday, scoring 22 points
on only 8-of-22 shooting from the field. Still, as soon as the
game ended, Kemp tracked down Malone and complimented the Jazz's
Indeed, even in defeat, Utah's valiant effort brought the Jazz
some overdue recognition. This team, which did not merit a
single national appearance on NBC during the regular season,
erased that 3-1 series deficit with guts, a minimum of trash
talk and plenty of class. Malone even spoke to the crowd over
the public address system at the Delta Center after Game 6 and
dedicated the Utah victory to a young Jazz fan with leukemia.
"We're America's Team," said Jazz president Frank Layden. "It's
just that America doesn't know it yet."
That will have to wait at least another year, Frank, for this
was the Sonics' day of redemption. "It's been very difficult to
listen to all our critics call us chokers for two years and then
go home every summer and have people ask, 'What happened to you
guys?'" said guard Nate McMillan, a 10-year Seattle veteran,
who played gamely despite a lower back injury. "This loss would
have haunted us forever, but we're still playing, and we're
happy that we'll never have to endure that stuff again."
"Losing the last two years the way we did makes this day even
sweeter, it makes this the greatest day of my life" said Kemp,
before pausing for perspective. "I should say the greatest so
And with that, Kemp officially turned his thoughts eastward to
the Chicago Bulls, to the NBA Finals, which were scheduled to
start in Chicago on Wednesday. His coach was already a step
ahead of him. Karl walked past Kemp toward the door of the
Sonics' locker room with three Bulls videotapes under his arm,
promising that he wouldn't screen them until the morning. "This
victory is healing," said Karl. "We've gone through so much hell
together, listened to so much b.s., it's been borderline
torture. With this win we shut up a lot of people."
Then Karl smiled and shouted out the sweetest words he and his
players could imagine: "Practice. Tomorrow at noon."