Seattle's National Basketball Association team for 41 years, the SuperSonics were the city's first major league sports franchise and won a championship in 1979. Longtime Seattle natives remember where they were when the SuperSonics finished off the Washington Bullets in Game 5 of the 1978-1979 NBA Finals as vividly as when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Names like Lenny Wilkens, Spencer Haywood, Slick Watts, Gus Williams, Fred Brown, Jack Sikma, and Gary Payton evoke passionate responses from fans who followed the team since its first game in 1967. The team's 41-year run in Seattle came to a controversial end in 2008. Part 1 of this two-part history tells the Sonics' story from the beginning of the franchise to the World Championship year of 1979.
Seattle Was Ready
Seattle landed its first professional sports franchise when the National Basketball Association (NBA), feeling some pressure from rival league, the American Basketball Association, decided to expand into eight new cities for the 1967-1968 season. There was little doubt that Seattle was ready to support such an endeavor. Seattle's metropolitan-area population exceeded 1,000,000 citizens; the 14,000-seat Seattle Center Coliseum, left over from the 1962 World's Fair, was a perfect basketball venue; and business leaders had been courting prospective sports teams for years in an attempt to validate the city as a major metropolitan hub, or, in the parlance, to make it "major league."
The irony being that none of Seattle's vocal sports boosters stepped up to purchase the franchise rights when the time came. That honor went to a pair of opportunistic Californians, Eugene Klein and Sam Schulman, who were able to see what our local business community apparently could not -- that NBA basketball had a promising future in Seattle.
Stumbling Out of the Gate
It was difficult to gauge that from the team's on-court performance during its inaugural season. As the vast majority of expansion teams do, the Sonics stumbled out of the gate. Under the guidance of head coach Al Bianchi, Seattle lost its first-ever regular-season game to the San Francisco Warriors by a score of 144-116 on October 13, 1967, then followed that up with another loss in its first regular season home game, a 121-114 defeat at the hands of expansion rivals, the San Diego Rockets. The SuperSonics returned the favor the next night (October 21), however, downing the Rockets 117-110 in overtime.
In typical expansion team fashion, the SuperSonics struggled to win all season, losing 12 of their first 14 games en route to a final regular season record of 23-59 -- second-worst in the NBA, but eight games better than San Diego.
The only real highlights for Seattle that first year were individual honors earned by a trio of players. Walt Hazzard, whom the SuperSonics had acquired in the 1967 expansion draft, finished the season as the NBA's seventh leading scorer (23.9 points per game) and represented Seattle at the NBA All-Star Game. And two rookies, Al Tucker and Bob Rule, the Sonics' first-round and second-round picks, respectively, in the 1967 college draft, were named to the NBA All-Rookie team.
Glory for Some
Indeed, individual accolades were about the only glory associated with the SuperSonics during their first seven seasons, as the team finished with a winning record only once. Rule continued to be a scoring force, tallying 49 points on November 15, 1969, to set a then-team record for points in a game. He was named an All-Star for the 1969-1970 season.
But the Sonics' biggest star was the newly arrived Lenny Wilkens, who had come from the St. Louis Hawks in exchange for Seattle's original All-Star, Hazzard. Wilkens made three consecutive All-Star appearances from 1969-71, earning All-Star Game MVP honors in 1971.
Starting with the 1969-1970 season, Wilkens served as the SuperSonics' player-coach, and thanks in part to his own excellent play on the court, he coached the team to its first winning season (47 wins, 35 losses) in 1971-1972. Strangely enough, Wilkens was traded in the offseason to Cleveland for guard Butch Beard, who played one unspectacular season for Seattle.
The Spencer Haywood Factor
Perhaps part of what made Wilkens expendable was the arrival of Spencer Haywood, who signed with the SuperSonics midway through the 1969-1970 season. A former ABA superstar (the first ABA player to cross over to the NBA), Haywood soon established himself as the SuperSonics' most effective scorer. On January 3, 1973, he scored 51 points in a game (breaking Rule's team-record) and went on to be named to four straight All-Star teams.
Haywood's talent wasn't the only thing notable about him. He also made history when he signed with the SuperSonics before his four-year college eligibility had expired, something prohibited by the NBA. Sonics brass challenged the rule and won, paving the way for more college underclassman to enter the NBA -- a precedent that continues to affect the NBA in the twenty-first century.
After Wilkens' departure, Seattle lost track of its winning ways under two coaches before hiring NBA legend Bill Russell in the summer of 1973. Russell, arguably the greatest center of all time, won a staggering 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics (including two as player-coach) and had an immediate impact on the inchoate SuperSonics. Russell's first season saw the team improve its record by 10 wins over the previous campaign. During one of those wins, on March 23, third-year shooting guard Fred Brown hit for a team record 58 points, a mark that stands today.
Promised Land, Pacific Division
Brown's big game at the end of the 1973-1974 season was a sign of good things to come. In Russell's second season (1974-1975) as head coach, he delivered the SuperSonics to the basketball equivalent of the promised land -- the playoffs -- for the first time in franchise history. On the strength of Haywood and Brown's offense, and stingy defense from Don "Slick" Watts (whose shaved head and trademark headband are emulated even today by young NBA players) and Tom Burleson, Seattle garnered a 43-39 record, good enough for second-place in the Pacific Division. In the first round of the playoffs, Seattle disposed of the Detroit Pistons, but fell to the Golden State Warriors, four games to two, in the conference semifinals.
The following season (1975-1976) was a virtual carbon copy: a 43-39 record, second-place divisional finish, and a 4-2 loss in the conference semifinals, this time to Phoenix. But instead of building on their consecutive successes, the SuperSonics took a step backward in 1976-77, struggling to a losing record and failing to qualify for the postseason. During the team's first few years, a 40-42 record would have been a major accomplishment. Unfortunately for Russell, he had set the bar higher, so when the team missed the playoffs for the first time in three years, he was fired, ending a brief but prosperous run for the NBA hero in Seattle.
The Timely Return of Lenny Wilkens
Ownership quickly realized the mistake of firing Russell when the team began the 1977-78 season with a 5-17 record under his replacement, former assistant coach Bob Hopkins. In an attempt to stop the bleeding, the team fired Hopkins on November 30, 1977, and replaced him with none other than Lenny Wilkens.
Wilkens had been serving as Seattle's director of player personnel since May 1977, and had reshaped the SuperSonics' roster, drafting center Jack Sikma, signing free agent guard Gus Williams and acquiring John Johnson, Paul Silas, Marvin Webster (1952-2009), and future team general manager Wally Walker in a series of trades. Prior to his return to Seattle, Wilkens had been player-coach of Seattle's so-called "I-5 rival," the Portland Trail Blazers.
The newly assembled team turned itself around under the guidance of its new coach, winning 18 of the next 21 games. By the time the regular season ended, the SuperSonics had gone 42-18 under Wilkens to finish with a 47-35 record and qualify for the playoffs as the Western Conference's fourth-best team. From here, the Sonics surpassed everyone's expectations.
After defeating Los Angeles in a best-of-three series, Seattle beat the defending NBA champion Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals to set up a conference finals showdown vs. Denver. In the decisive sixth game of the series at the Seattle Coliseum, the SuperSonics beat the Nuggets 123-108 to win the Western Conference crown and the right to face the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals. Despite taking a 3-2 series lead against Washington, the SuperSonics lost the last two games, including Game 7 at home, to give the Bullets the trophy.
But a new threshold had been crossed. SuperSonics players and fans had gotten a taste of championship glory and now wanted to swallow it whole. The 1978-79 campaign picked up right where the other had left off, with the team virtually intact (Webster signed as a free agent with the New York Knicks, but forward Lonnie Shelton came in to take his place).
Wilkens continued to work his sideline magic, while a well-balanced scoring attack, led by Williams' 19.2 points per game, kept opponents off balance. Adding to the Sonics' strength was their league-best defense, thanks to Williams' 2.08 steals per contest and Sikma's stellar rebounding. Seattle rolled to its first 50-win season (52-30) in franchise history and its first Pacific Division title.
Toward June 1, 1979
Once in the postseason, the SuperSonics proved that the previous season's playoff surprise had been no fluke. Seattle made relatively quick work of the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals, beating them four games to one. The SuperSonics then faced the Phoenix Suns in the conference finals, with the teams each winning two games at home to start the series. The Suns then stole a victory in Game 5, beating Seattle in the Coliseum, but the SuperSonics came right back to edge the Suns 106-105 in Phoenix. Seattle clinched a return to the finals with a 114-110 triumph in front of a frenzied home crowd.
At this point, the only obstacle standing between the SuperSonics and their first NBA Championship was defending champion Washington, who had vanquished the SuperSonics last year. The Bullets had finished the regular season with the best record in the league, but had to scratch and claw -- they came back from a 3-1 deficit against San Antonio to win the East -- to make it to the championship round.
The defending champs served notice that they weren't going to let the SuperSonics walk off with the trophy, winning Game 1 by a score of 99-97. Seattle quickly gained the upper hand in the series, however, winning Game 2 in Washington, then reeling off two straight wins in Seattle, the last being a 114-112 overtime victory that broke the Bullets' back. The coup de grace was the Sonics' 97-93 victory on Friday, June 1, 1979, a victory that delivered both the team and its city a first-ever NBA championship trophy.
To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature"