When the Sonics Boomed

“A long story short, there was chaos everywhere, dysfunction everywhere, weirdness everywhere and the owner trying to recreate history of what happened.”

By Jonathan Abrams

The Seattle SuperSonics of the 1990s were a frantic, frenzied, alley-oop-tossing, tomahawk-dunk-finishing bunch who bickered internally, beat you externally and then let you know about it.

Money and ego ultimately ripped apart the fabric of the team. The NBA and its players were introduced to lucrative modern contracts in the mid-1990s, and Shawn Kemp, Seattle’s anchor, was vastly underpaid. He eventually left, the team’s core crumbled and Kemp’s rim-rattling dunks would prove to be his lasting legacy in Seattle.

This is the oral history of when many thought those Sonics would rule the league, how they did for a fleeting, spectacular moment, and how it ended before many appreciated what they had done.

Building the Nucleus

Bob Whitsitt (Sonics president and general manager, 1986-94): The team had sucked for a couple of years and they had the lowest attendance in the league and nobody cared about the Sonics. As a young, new guy coming in, I couldn’t say, "Hey, in three years, we’ll start to get it going." In three years, there might not even be a team. … We were doing a draft party and I announced two picks, and when I announced [Shawn] Kemp, nobody had a clue who he was. It was an afternoon draft and we’d been serving free beer and they’re yelling stuff at me and booing me and the owner kind of wasn’t too nice after the draft either. … I had to have his mother sign [the contract], because he was not old enough to sign it. That was a first for me and it was kind of, wow, this guy really is young.

Michael Cage (Sonics forward, 1988-94): First day of practice, I said, "All right, he's going to be special." He doesn't know what he's doing really at this level right now. But I’m looking at raw talent, physique, skills.

Nate McMillan (Sonics guard, 1986-98): We had some issues with some people drinking, and at that time, beer was allowed in locker rooms. It was just there and we had to take beer out of our locker room because he was underage.

Derrick McKey (Sonics forward, 1987-93): Shawn was real raw when he first got there. Just the little things made him happy, a dunk here or there. If he got a dunk early on, he’d be jumping and trying to block everything.

Cage: He didn’t really steal the world right away, and that’s why he became such a good player, because he was an apprentice to guys like me. He learned the ropes his first year.

Whitsitt: We were all still flying commercial flights. He and Dana [Barros] got to the airport early [before one flight], so they wouldn’t miss the plane, but they fell asleep at the waiting area and ended up missing it. Those are the right intention [mistakes] versus the guy who forgot to set his alarm or something.

Bernie Bickerstaff (Sonics coach, 1985-90): He obviously made the right move coming out, where a lot of the kids, you were concerned about them. But once he stepped on the court, he was a man.

Whitsitt: We went 41-41 [during Kemp’s rookie year in 1989-90], so we did not even have a losing record, but we lost in the [playoff] tiebreaker to Houston. We go and get our ping-pong balls, kick some ass and got [the] No. 2 [pick]. We were all united on [Gary] Payton was the guy.

  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Sonics president and general manager, 1986-1994
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Bernie Bickerstaff
    Sonics coach, 1985-1990
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Dwane Casey
    Sonics assistant coach, 1994-2005

Kevin Calabro (broadcaster, Sonics, 1987-2008): We badly needed a point guard with this ballclub. McMillan was the incumbent point guard. But we needed a guy that could score at that position. It was pretty apparent Nate was not a scorer.

Gary Payton (Sonics guard, 1990-2003): I was just going to be happy just to get into the pros, but to stay Northwest [after playing at Oregon State], and to stay in Seattle and just make that my first place, it was great.

Barry Ackerley (Sonics owner): I'm married to a woman still who was an All-American swimmer at Arizona State, but she knew nothing about basketball. When Gary was first drafted, we were at a preseason dinner and she asked me after the dinner, "Who was that guy sitting across the table?" It happened to be Gary Payton. She looked at me and she said, "That guy’s going to be a winner. You can just see it in his eyes. He has the eye of the tiger. He's never going to let himself fail." She's very rarely ever made comments about players—except at that time—and it was a pretty bold statement.

McMillan: They announced the day that Gary was drafted that he was going to be the starting point guard. Gary really came in feeling that there was going to be a problem with he and I. It was totally opposite. I introduced myself and I told him we were going to make this work and he was going to be the starting guard and I was going to come off the bench. I think from that day forward, he and I became almost like brothers, very, very close. And I was able to talk to Gary and kind of be that big brother to him throughout his career.

Whitsitt: The moment I drafted him, he’s on the radio saying, "Point guards like Magic Johnson and I don't come along very often." Gary didn’t stop talking from the moment you drafted him until the day his career was over; probably hasn’t stopped talking today, and I mean that in a Gary way and sort of who Gary is and how he functions.

Calabro: The first game that we played in preseason, we played the Chicago Bulls up in Vancouver and he wanted to D up on [Michael] Jordan and got a couple of stops. He talked smack to Jordan, and I’m not sure if Jordan initially knew how to handle this guy.

Eddie Johnson (Sonics forward, 1990-93): I just knew I had to at least be a leader and get them refocused. The first guy that I went after was Gary. ... I just reached the point with him one day in a practice when I told him just shut up. He didn't like it, but I think he respected it and I think he accepted my leadership of me pushing and prodding he and Shawn for the three years that I was there.

  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Shawn Kemp
    Sonics forward 1989-1997
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Michael Cage
    Sonics forward, 1988-1994
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Nate McMillan
    Sonics guard, 1986-1998

Sam Perkins (Sonics forward/center, 1993-98): There’s nobody out there that talks more than Gary. Gary’s still talking to this day on Fox, making up new words that the English vocabulary has never heard of. I thought Derek Harper talked, but nah, this cat lost hands down to Gary.

Cage: Every flight. Dude, come on, man. You've got to shut up. I’m trying to sleep. Everybody’s asleep except you and the people around you that you’re keeping up. And dude never stopped talking. Talking at 1:30, 2 in the morning. He’s yakking and got something going on with somebody from the other day.

McKey: Guys thought he was arrogant and didn’t really know him. Guys did come at him harder, because they thought they knew who he was and his personality. Him being a high draft pick, it automatically made guys go harder at him.

Vincent Askew (Sonics guard, 1992-96): He really couldn’t play pool, but he talked so much that he would talk you out of your game, and that was funny to me. He’d come in bragging and can’t shoot.

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Gary Payton of the Oregon State Beavers looks to pass during an NCAA game circa 1990 at the Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, Oregon. (Getty Images)

Johnson: We called each other every name in the book. But he knew and I knew that it wasn’t personal, and I think eventually he knew that I was using him as a conduit so that if everyone saw that if I was getting on him, that they would allow me to come up to them and say something to them, to try and prod them. You go after the guy that is top dog, and Gary thought he was top dog early on.

Steve Kelley (sports columnist, Seattle Times): Nate McMillan was a key. Nate had the locker next to Gary for years, and Nate would throw a bucket of water on Gary when Gary got out of hand. Once, I was interviewing Nate and Gary was sitting next to him and he was saying, "Stupid question. Stupid question. What a stupid question," after every question I’d ask. Nate finally stopped and turned his chair and looked at Gary and said, "Shut up. He's not talking to you. Shut up."

Payton: When I first got there, [Kemp and I] were hanging out and then we started practicing together. Once you hang out with somebody off the court, I think it’s a little bit easier because you get to knowing them and then you get to looking for each other on the court. … I don’t know if people realized that, but once you get close to somebody, you start knowing what he’s going to do or where he’s going to be, and then it makes the game a lot easier.

Seattle again went 41-41 during Payton’s rookie season, losing to Portland in the first round of the playoffs. By then, K.C. Jones had replaced Bernie Bickerstaff as the team’s coach. Despite a talented roster, the team sputtered to an 18-18 start to the 1991-92 season. After a third consecutive loss, Whitsitt decided to fire head coach K.C. Jones. Next up: George Karl.

  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Derrick McKey
    Sonics forward, 1987-1993
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Kevin Calabro
    Sonics broadcaster, 1987-2008
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Gary Payton
    Sonics guard, 1990-2003

George Karl (Sonics coach, 1992-98): I was at a stage in my career where I thought I was going to have to go to college.

Whitsitt: I did not know George. I knew of George. But let's say the number was 30 people I talked to regarding George. Twenty-nine of them said, "Don’t touch him with a 10-foot pole. You will lose your job in no time flat." They all had the same horror stories. Temper, egomaniac, drinks too much. One guy was neutral on him and he said, "Look, I can't recommend him, but I won't kill him because he is a smart basketball coach."

Karl: I never heard the real story of why Whitsitt pulled me out of the hat. He’s never told me.

Whitsitt: I do my homework. What I’m liking about George is a combination of things. He had a tiny bit of success as a very young NBA coach in Cleveland, and unfortunately that tiny bit of success he had was the wrong thing for a young George Karl, because his ego was so massive. This was like putting gas on the fire and it was like George creating more problems for George, and George became his own worst enemy and then he got a run in Golden State, and all hell broke loose and everybody in the NBA hated him, and he ended up self-destructing. He did and he deserved to self-destruct, but this is a guy who went from thinking he was the biggest hotshot in the NBA to he couldn’t get another job in the NBA, but he loved the game so much, he went and coached in the CBA. ... Then, he tried to go up to a higher level of play, because he still couldn’t get into the NBA and he was coaching over in Spain and this was a guy who would tell people he could speak Spanish. George could say hola and adios and that was about it.

Karl: He talked to me early in January when they were struggling.

Whitsitt: I went to my owner when I told them who I was thinking of hiring. I’ll never forget it. I went out to his house and all I had was a CBA media guide to show them, and my owner says, basically, "Are you kidding?" And his wife looks at me and she goes, "He does nothing for me." I’m like, "Great, now I’ve got to sell the wife too." ... I’ll give him credit, he looked at his wife and he said to her, "Honey, we don’t want George Karl. We've made that clear to Bob, but I hired the last coach in K.C. If he's really insisted on this guy, let's let him do it and this is on him and he knows his job is on the line." And she looked at me too, she goes, "You know you won't have a job if he doesn't pan out?"

Payton: [Initially I thought of Karl as] arrogant. [An] assh--e. Because he came in from overseas and was one of those cats where he wanted to come in and try to establish that he was arrogant and all that, and we were the same way and that's why we clashed heads at the beginning. … Then when you start thinking about it, we had the same personality and wanted the same thing. We just wanted to win and wanted to get better, and he had the opportunity to get back in the NBA after he had been out of the NBA for a while and went overseas.

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Gary Payton talks with George Karl. (Getty Images)

Karl: Gary and I, of course, fought a lot, but Gary competed for me.

Whitsitt: Gary and Shawn once prearranged some play so they could get some footage for a shoe commercial one of them was working on. Gary had a breakaway layup and Shawn was trailing and nobody was in sight. Gary throws it off the board so Shawn could follow with one of his thunder dunks. It’s probably one of the only open dunks in Shawn’s career that he missed. It was one of those ones where the ball goes flying to half court type of deals, and the other team grabbed it and took it in to score. I thought I was going to have to call the paramedics and/or the police, because George Karl was ready to explode. He was as red as a tomato. If I had to guess, we probably won the game, but I thought, oh gosh, we are gonna have a cleanup to do in aisle 12 in the locker room after the game.

Payton: He just wanted to establish himself as being a hard-nosed coach, and we weren’t having that. We clashed heads. I think the best thing he did was bring in [assistant coach Tim Grgurich] and when Coach Grg came in, he knew how to deal with us and he would be the buffer. We’d get it, we’d cuss each other out in closed doors and then when we get out there, we’d play hard-nosed basketball. It was a great thing for us to get that.

Ricky Pierce (Sonics guard, 1991-94): George Karl would go around and he would say things like, Gary’s out of control and this and that. But it was just the fire that Gary had in him, and it was a good fire.

  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Eddie Johnson
    Sonics forward, 1990-93
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Sam Perkins
    Sonics forward/center, 1993-1998
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Vincent Askew
    Sonics guard, 1992-1996

Steve Scheffler (Sonics forward, 1992-97): I remember [Karl] talking, saying, "Hey, I've got a revolver here with six bullets in the chamber. I can blow up six times during the season and be effective. After that, everybody realizes you're just shooting blanks. So pick and choose the times when you blow up and how you blow up."

Payton: He proved himself to me when he started letting me be the guy I wanted to be. When I stopped making mistakes and he started believing in me and pulling me over to the side and saying, "Look, this is your show. Run what you gotta run. Do what you gotta do.” And I think that was the starting point of me knowing that this guy had a lot of trust in me, and once he had a lot of trust in me like that, I knew I had to be that guy to always come through for him and win basketball games without me looking over at the bench and he's calling timeouts if I wasn’t calling the right plays.

Karl: The word I like to use is I think we sustained a commitment to a compromise. I backed off a little bit. He backed off a little bit, but I think we both had that fire that subconsciously we respected and it was a similar fire. Just win, baby. Go out there and go after people. Do what you do.

Soon, Karl’s chaotic, trapping defense paid dividends. Karl helped rally Seattle to a 47-35 record in 1991-92. Seattle topped Golden State in the first round of the playoffs in a series that featured the official arrival of Kemp into NBA stardom with his iconic dunk over Alton Lister.

Seattle, as a team, appeared to arrive the following year by advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals. The SuperSonics took Phoenix to a deciding seventh game. But Charles Barkley amassed 44 points and 24 rebounds in handing Seattle a 123-110 loss. Phoenix attempted 64 free throws to Seattle’s 36.

Karl: The foundation [of the defense] was a guy named Bob Kloppenburg and his defensive concepts. I thought I was a pretty good defensive guy before I got there, but Kloppy really made me believe that you could create the game with defense. Every team has different strengths, but that team, I’d have arguments on the bench, “If you aren't going to cover the motherf--ker, I'll cover him. Get into the man.” So if anybody got hot on us, it was like a fight. I'll take him. That’s never happened at any [other] point of my career.

Terry Stotts (Sonics assistant coach, 1992-98): It was a lot of trapping and doubling in the post and rotating. It was things that other teams weren’t doing at that time.

Calabro: [The dunk on Alton Lister] was the culmination of what we had seen from Shawn Kemp, just the power, the grace, the ability to get up and down the floor, to make a catch, get to the rim, sail to the hole and finish with just a fury.

Alton Lister: We had an altercation the game before. We were out there crawling all over the floor, wrassling. No punches were thrown, but Tim Hardaway had grabbed Shawn and pulled him down from the back, and he thought I did that. So that's the reason why he was so animated toward me when he did that dunk. He was probably just champing at the bit waiting to get his opportunity to go at me and to get a dunk.

  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    George Karl
    Sonics coach, 1992-1998
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Coby Karl
    George’s son, former NBA player
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Ricky Pierce
    Sonics guard, 1991-1994

Payton: That’s all anybody ever talks about is a dunk like that and then he’s squatting down, pointing at Alton Lister. I think it's [the] No. 1 [dunk] of all time. Me being a part of that and seeing that, it was great.

Kelley: Gary and Shawn were the personality of the team. They were so dramatic. The way Gary played where he was yapping the whole game and pestering the point guards and running the show and revving up the crowd. That was unbelievable and the plays he made, his ability to get to the rim. The plays he was making in the fast break, the way he and Shawn worked together in the fast break. It was just beautiful to watch.

Whitsitt: Barkley had the game of his life and the refs decided to let them shoot twice as many free throws as us [in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Finals].

Karl: I can’t talk about that. Last time I talked about it, it cost me $100,000.

The Setbacks

Seattle sliced through the 1993-94 regular season, all the way to a league-best 63 wins. The Sonics appeared destined for NBA immortality, prepped to step into the gaping hole that Michael Jordan’s abrupt retirement had left. But Seattle lost in five games to Denver in the best-of-five first round, the last two games decided by overtime.

By doing so, they achieved history in an altogether different manner, becoming the first top seed toppled by an eighth seed. Internal discombobulation contributed to the deflating ending. Soon, Whitsitt was gone, the glue who had held it all together no longer in place.

Kelley: Something happened at halftime of Game 2 in Seattle. One of the cops came up to me and said, "You’ll never believe what happened at halftime and you’ll never hear it from me." Years later, we found out that Ricky [Pierce] and Gary got in a fight at halftime of Game 2, and the whole series changed on that night.

Karl: Gary and Ricky were threatening to get guns. The players told me they had guns in their gym bags. It was like, "I’ll kill your family.” It was crazy. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1996)

Pierce: Gary and I, we had a little argument, just a team argument, and I think that might have been one of the reasons why I didn’t play [much in the series after that]. But George, from my understanding from outside sources, George was more worried about his job and he was tied with the younger player. … It wasn’t like we were fighting. We just had a few words like teammates do, so what’s the problem? Go in there and say, "Come on, guys, squash it and let’s play." And Gary and I have never had any problems. I don’t have a problem with Gary. I enjoyed playing with Gary.

Karl: We kind of emotionally got disturbed after Game [2], and the locker room got a little testy, a little edgy.

Calabro: You start with [Dikembe Mutombo and Bison Dele] defending Kemp in the post, waiting for him at the rim. Kemp just had extreme difficulties going inside against those guys.

Cage: We had a lead at the end of the third quarter [of Game 4]. We got away from the things we needed to do to close out the fourth, and all of a sudden, they got a little bit of life.

Marc Moquin (Sonics public relations, 1992-2006): Shawn was at the line for two free throws and he missed both, and Denver ended up winning in overtime [in Game 4]. But even after it was 2-2 and they came back, I just thought they had it and our players probably thought the same thing. [Michael] Jordan had retired, so that was our window of opportunity and we were going to take advantage of it.

Payton: We made that one big mistake. We missed a free throw. We could have closed them out in Denver. We didn’t, and now all of a sudden they got momentum and once they got the momentum, it was a whole different story.

Karl: I think Robert Pack had five threes in a game and had three in the season and five in the fifth game. Brian Williams got a 20-20. LaPhonso Ellis was a star and Mutombo was giving us defensive nightmares like he gives everybody. It was a perfect storm that we caused probably on ourselves. (Pack hit three threes in Game 5 after connecting on six the entire regular season. Williams, later known as Bison Dele, had 17 points and 19 rebounds in the deciding game.)

Kelley: It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. Denver didn’t belong on the floor with those guys.

Bill Ackerley (son of team owner Barry Ackerley, president and chief executive officer of Ackerley Communications, Inc.): I had a newly born son who was six months old, and I remember walking around the arena after it all went down, just looking at my son, saying, "Thank goodness I got you, because this was a crummy day."

Pierce: I think it was George’s fault that he cowered out and benched me. That cost us that series. He didn’t say one word. He didn’t even say anything.

  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Steve Scheffler
    Sonics forward, 1992-1997
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Terry Stotts
    Sonics assistant coach, 1992-1998
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Ervin Johnson
    Sonics center, 1993-1996

Scheffler: If we could have had Eddie Johnson on the team and just smacked everybody upside the head and say, "Just forget everything. Just win this at all costs. Your lives depend on this." (Seattle traded Johnson with Dana Barros and a first-round pick to Charlotte in 1993 for Kendall Gill and a pick.)

Barry Ackerley: It hurt me very deeply. It was sort of like a death in the family. As with any severe trauma, you sort of, like, walk away from it for a while. … I think we have a very fine basketball team. I’m pleased with the way it was put together. I have no problems in that area. (Seattle Times, 1994)

Scheffler: You had more anger, more frustration, because you realized how close you were. You didn’t just lose in the first round to Denver; you lost a really good chance at winning a ring.

"You had more anger, more frustration, because you realized how close you were. You didn’t just lose in the first round to Denver. You lost a really good chance at winning a ring."

—Steve Scheffler 

Payton: That was the most disappointing year that we ever had, because we knew we should have been closer and went to the Finals during that time.

Whitsitt: Frankly, as much as I didn’t want a setback, I knew it was the setback that I was going to use to take us to the championship the next year. The group was very high-octane and hard to manage. It’d just been getting better and better and better and they’d never really faced anything before, and I was going to use this embarrassment as a motivator and we were going to win it next year.

Kelley: I remember seeing George about a week-and-a-half later. I went to his office and asked, "How are you doing?" And he said, “Well, on a good day, I feel s---ty.”

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Robert Pack shoots a layup in Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Seattle SuperSonics (Getty Images)

After the embarrassing loss, Whitsitt was out as GM and Wally Walker was in for the 1994 draft.

Tony Dutt (Kemp’s agent): Chicago had supposedly traded [Kemp] for [Scottie] Pippen [on draft night of 1994]. If that trade would have went through, it would have taken Shawn to a whole other level marketing-wise. You think about him and Jordan playing together. That would have been pretty special.

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Scottie Pippen, exchanges team caps as he gets traded to the Chicago Bulls (Getty Images)

Karl: I was a huge Pippen fan and I was a huge Shawn fan. We, at that stage, were seeing Shawn wearing out a little bit. Not dipping, but the slant was not like this [motions up], it was kind of going this way [motions down]. It was kind of pretty quick, so you started worrying about maybe his off-the-court habits. My voice was, at that time, a very difficult choice, but I would have made the trade. I would have gone with the speed and athleticism and great defense. Shawn was a good defender, but not a great defender. Pippen, I think is an elite, top, maybe, 10 defender of all time.

Kelley: George and Tim Grgurich wanted to do it. And then Wally Walker had his finger in the air and felt the breeze and decided that it wasn’t a good thing to do. So Wally kiboshed the trade and George and Grg were distraught and we were sitting in George’s office, and that night they began the renovation. (The NBA wanted the Seattle Center Coliseum updated to NBA standards. The renovation forced Seattle to play the 1994-95 season at the Tacoma Dome, about 30 miles away.) You could hear the bulldozers coming in and they were literally coming down the hallway into George’s office. I mean, it was time to get out of there. You could hear the crashing of walls and George was talking about how metaphorical it was. It was sort of an apoplectic [sic] scene and George was talking about how apropos it was, because he thought that by not making that trade, they had kind of sealed their fate for the future in a bad way.

Wally Walker (Sonics general manager, 1994-2006): That was an odd situation, because there wasn’t a general manager in place. I was just a consultant who was asked to come in temporarily. I had no designs for the job, but there wasn’t a full-time GM, so it made for a very odd dynamic in the draft room.

Kelley: Wally sided with Ackerley instead of with George and the basketball people.

Walker: The owner, Barry Ackerley, had to get involved and I can remember calling him, because I was really reporting to him as a consultant that was there, to say, "Well, the coaches want to do this trade and you've got to make a call as to whether this trade happens or not." Obviously a huge blockbuster trade. I remember Barry’s response was, "Do I have to?" And it was one of those. It was agonizing. People in Seattle love Shawn. They should. He was an exciting, dynamic young player and Pippen was a great player, and there you go.

Dutt: At the end, we were told it was done and then it wasn’t done and then who knows? I remember telling Shawn, "Look, under the rules of the game if you would have gotten traded there, they had a history that they weren't going to redo [his contract]." So we knew that going in, but I also felt like he would go to another level marketing-wise too that would have compensated him in a much higher way.

Walker: Barry decided ultimately not to do it. Obviously, it was his call. I remember he had a quote—I’m paraphrasing it at best—but it was, "I’m 0-for-3 in trades with Chicago.” Because he was in the draft-and-trade where the Bulls got Pippen with Seattle’s pick. He was feeling timid about doing another deal.

The Finals Run

The SuperSonics went 57-25 in the 1994-95 season but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. With Jordan back, some thought they had missed their best chance to win a championship. The team debuted new uniforms and a new logo to coincide with the reopening of KeyArena in 1995. That was not the only thing about the franchise that had changed. Karl, Kemp and Payton remained. But some of the veteran core around them had been updated.

Whitsitt had earned the name Trader Bob for his freewheeling ways, and his moves, as well as those by Wally Walker, began to have a positive impact. In 1993, Seattle obtained Detlef Schrempf, a valuable forward from Germany, in exchange for Derrick McKey. The acquisitions of Hersey Hawkins and Frank Brickowski also helped stabilize the squad.

They advanced to the 1996 NBA Finals, their first trip since 1979. Kemp averaged 23.3 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks against Chicago. Yet Seattle, mired with injuries to its backcourt, succumbed to Chicago in six games. Jordan was named MVP of the Finals after posting averages of 27.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists.

Hersey Hawkins (Sonics guard, 1995-99): We didn’t start the season off that good on that team (Seattle began 6-5). This was a team that was talented, barely keeping their head above water, and then all of a sudden it just clicked, and I think a lot of the early part of the season George was a big part of keeping everybody confident.

Eric Snow (Sonics guard, 1995-98): They were scrappy and aggressive. You either had to fit in or get out.

Ervin Johnson: The general manager had made all the right moves to get all the right players. We just had to get out there and play. We were the deepest team in the NBA. We had 10 guys that could play on other teams, very talented, could do a lot of different things.

Frank Brickowski (Sonics center, 1984-86 and 1995-96): We all enjoyed each other. We really did. There were some knuckleheads. Nate McMillan was a huge part of that balance. He kind of was our compass and kept Gary in check.

Kelley: When Brickowski and Askew came into the games, the atmosphere in the arena changed greatly, because they brought that type of toughness, and it’s like an enforcer going onto the ice in hockey. You knew that the other team was looking over their shoulders a little bit.

Brickowski: At halftime [of one game], we were up 12 and George was just going off like we were down 12 to a s--tty team and I’m listening to it, I’m like, "We are up, right?" I just looked at George and he was just going off on the whole team. I go, "George, we’re up f--king 12 points. You need to smoke a joint or something.” And I walked out and everybody started cracking up. George [once] came to me, bitching about whether Shawn was high before practice or high before games. I’m not saying he was or he wasn’t, but I said to George, "Well, if he is, you want him high, because if he's doing this high, you don't want him sober. You know what I mean?" George kind of looked at me like he never thought about it in those terms. He looked at me and then he walked away.

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Shawn Kemp and guard Nate McMillan in the Miami Arena. (Getty Images)

Walker: Shawn is suspended for Game 1 of our first-round [playoff] series against Sacramento. He gets in a fight, squabble, in the last regular-season game [with Denver’s Tom Hammonds]. ... We’re playing Sacramento at home, beat them easily without Shawn. Game 2, Shawn’s back, so we’re confident, overconfident—frankly in hindsight—and lost to Sacramento. We’re down eight with about five minutes to go. If we lose that Game 3, we’ve got Game 4, an elimination game, must-win down there, with all the pressure and the history? Aw, man.

Brickowski: I saw everybody tighten up down the stretch [of Game 3]. Sacramento was pushing us a little bit. The ball gets passed around and I’m not real cognizant of it. I don’t even know if I realized how many first-round playoff losses they had, because I’m not really a basketball fan, so I don’t even really know. … No one wants to shoot the ball and I could give a s--t. The ball comes to me for the second time and I launch a three and hit it and Grg always told me that was a huge three. I didn’t really get it. It was just another shot to me, but we ended up winning that game and got past the first round and then the team took off.

Walker: The next possession, Perkins hits a three and then right in front of where I was sitting, Hersey Hawkins hits a three. We go from down eight to up one in the course of a little over a minute, win the game, win Game 4 easily. But Brick’s shot—his three, down eight, midway through the fourth—was the biggest shot of the year. We might have never gotten out of the first round again.

Dwane Casey (Sonics assistant coach, 1994-2005): That Utah series in the Western Conference Finals that year, that was one of the most intense series, dogfights you could ever want to see. I never will forget the final game against Utah in that last game. That was unbelievable. You’re going against the great John Stockton and Karl Malone and there’s a young Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp going.

Walker: Shawn had one of the all-time great dunks, making the steal. Antoine Carr was back defending, and Shawn just put the ball and Antoine through the basket. It was just one that you couldn’t not remember.

  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Barry Ackerley
    Sonics owner
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Bill Ackerley
    son of Barry, president and chief executive officer of Ackerley Communications Inc.
  • Bleacher Report | When The Sonics Boomed
    Hersey Hawkins
    Sonics guard, 1995-1999

McMillan: The biggest obstacle was the Jazz. The Jazz, we left so much in that series that getting to the Finals, it was just a relief that we had made it. We were happy to be there as opposed to knowing how to win once we got there. … Leading up to the NBA Finals, I started experiencing the back spasms during the Utah series. I just kept asking why. And mothers have a way of answering all questions, and I remember talking to my mother. We had all the All-Stars. Shawn Kemp. We had Gary Payton. We had Sam Perkins. She told me, Baby, God wants people to see that team without you, to see how important you are. But I never understood why.

Casey: We knew we had to go through a dogfight just to get there and then there’s the Bulls waiting for you with Jordan, Pippen, that group. They won 72 that year.

Snow: They won 72, you look at it, but at the same time, we won 64.

Casey: The biggest thing is, "Who’s going to match up with Jordan and try to watch him and try to stay in front of him?”

Payton: I was hurt in the beginning of the series. I wish that I would have guarded Michael a little earlier and probably started off on him and we could have changed things.

"They won 72, you look at it, but at the same time, we won 64."

— Eric Snow

Casey: I think we started Detlef on him, and I don’t think that worked out too well. Gary was probably our most fierce defender, competitor, but at that time in Jordan’s career, it didn't matter who you put on him. He was going to find a way to score or help somebody else get a shot.

Payton: Everybody was always putting him as the No. 1 competitor to go against and you always wanted to prove that you could guard this guy. At that time, I was the top defender and I was known for the defense, and they made a big deal about it and I had to come and perform.

Casey: We tried Detlef. We tried Gary. We even tried David Wingate. We tried Hersey Hawkins. We tried everybody on him and the triangle was so difficult to double-team with him in the low post or mid post or low-goal isos. At that time, Jordan was such a good passer and willing passer, it made it really tough to double-team.

Calabro: Frank Brickowski’s matchup against [Dennis] Rodman was always very entertaining.

Brickowski: If I had done something to get ejected [two minutes after entering Game 1], it would have been one thing and I would take responsibility for that, but the league never fined me and when I got ejected, I was telling Jack Haley to shut the f--k up and sit down in his street clothes, and I had just gotten into it with Dennis.

Casey: We came back that night [after Game 2] and we probably should have spent the night that night, because it was a long night and a late game and we didn't get back into Seattle until late, late. The next day was kind of a blur for us and then we played them again. … I know we were still a little groggy in Game 3.

Brickowski: [Rodman] was shooting a foul shot [in Game 3] and I’m on the foul lane. Shawn and Michael and Scottie, they’re across the lane from me and one of the referees had the ball. I said, "Dennis, I'm a little confused, the wedding dress and all that. What do you do after the game?” ... The next foul shot, he stands next to me, looking at me like that. And I said to him, "Dennis, I was just curious. I'm not judging. I'm just curious.” … You could say something like I questioned his sexuality after seeing him in a dress.

Scheffler: In the Finals, he wouldn’t back down.

Brickowski: The second time I got ejected was in Seattle [in Game 3] and it was for nothing again, just Dennis tangling me up and falling down like something attacked him, but I don't get fined for that either. … It was really disheartening to wait that long to get into the Finals and to have referees do that to me, to us.

Johnson: That’s the worst thing you can do is get baited into Dennis Rodman’s mind games, and I think Frank got baited into it and it ain’t turn out the way it should have, not in a good way.

Brickowski: He was the best rebounder, pound-for-pound, the game has seen, and when he’s getting those flop calls and playing like that, it was nearly impossible [to guard him]. He wasn’t physical. He wasn't a badass. He wasn’t a fighter. But he was a flopper and he worked it. That cheapens the game in my mind. I don’t know why it took the NBA so long to put in a flopping rule, but they should have done it 15 years ago.

Walker: We started the series acting like we weren’t sure we belonged there. So we’re down 2-0 coming home and we’re not quite ready to play. Obviously, the team won 64 games. I think we only lost three, maybe four games in our building during the regular season. But Luc Longley had his playoff career high against us. We probably didn’t see that one coming. So we lose Game 3 at home to go down 3-0, and now what do we have? Do we have any fight left? Who are we?

Payton: I think we went into the series thinking not to lose, rather than to win, when we could have beat this team, and we just thought we needed to just hang on. We figured that out after the third game and we won two in a row by big margins and then by that time, it was too late.

Calabro: They finally switched Payton onto Jordan. They didn’t want that matchup early in the series because they felt like Payton, physically, was not at 100 percent. But Gary insisted that they switch him off onto Jordan and it was effective.

McMillan: Going into Game 6, I couldn’t play again. I’m sitting there asking, "Why? Why is this happening?”

Calabro: They only scored 75 points in Game 6, so it was Chicago’s game. They controlled the tempo and just shut people down in Game 6.

Karl: Most playoffs get this way, it becomes a defensive game and they were better defensively. You saw two great defensive teams going nose-to-nose. Ronnie Harper, people don’t remember Pippen and Jordan weren’t the A-defender a lot of the game, until the fourth quarter. Harper was the A-defender and then Jordan and Pippen would take over and Rodman would take care of the big man. Phil [Jackson] is pretty simple defensively, but man they were good. You just tried and stay away from the turnover, try to get a good shot. In Game 6, it was like, "Man, they know every play."

Karl: The best player on the court was Shawn Kemp.

Brickowski: Shawn Kemp carried that team. You can talk about Gary Payton, you can talk about whoever, but Shawn was whose back everybody jumped on.

Moquin: If you’d been from another planet and I brought you to that series and you watched those six games and were asked, “Who is the best player in this game?”, you would have said Shawn Kemp over Michael Jordan.

The Band
Breaks Up

Of the core, Kemp was the first to arrive and also the first to go. Disgruntled after being underpaid and, he believed, undervalued for years, he forced his way to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a 1997 blockbuster deal that landed Vin Baker, who like Kemp would soon encounter his own substance abuse issues, in Seattle.

The trigger for Kemp’s disgruntlement arrived with the summer 1996 signing of Jim McIlvaine for seven years and $33.6 million, and he was absent at the beginning of that season’s training camp. In Cleveland, Kemp signed a pact worth $107 million over seven years. The ending of the 1998-99 NBA lockout saw Kemp return lethargic and out of shape, and he never regained the athletic explosiveness that transformed him into a household name.

Karl, engaged in contract battles with Seattle’s ownership, left at the end of the 1997-98 season. Payton, the last holdout, was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, where Karl had then advanced to coach, in 2003. By then, few strands remained of a team that had entertained, thrilled and ultimately disappointed. The SuperSonics were under new management, and the chain of events that would facilitate the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City was soon set in motion.

Dutt: [Kemp] had two or three years left on his deal, and what we were trying to do at that time was just really look into the future a little bit and just see when the next opportunity was for him to get paid. If you remember, they signed a guy named [Jim] McIlvaine. He was making more than Shawn.

Walker: We brought in a free agent, Jim McIlvaine [for seven years and $33.6 million], after that [1995-96] season, for this reason: If you go back and look at that Finals, you’ll find that we really got hurt all year by big centers, and in the Finals, Ervin Johnson—who was just a beautiful guy and great guy to have around—really barely played and Luc Longley hurt us, as did big centers all year.

McIlvaine: I was shocked at the size of the contract offers that teams were throwing around at me. Charles Barkley said he was firing his mom for giving birth to him too early. I said, I'm giving my mom a raise. I had a great agent who timed everything perfectly. He knew how the market was going to evolve and made sure that I was going to be an unrestricted free agent during a year that there was going to be a lot of opportunity, and that allowed me to really have some good choices of teams.

Dutt: I was so close to Shawn that I could see him kind of fall into a funk. What made Shawn great was his love for the game, and he was kind of losing that at one point. I remember having a conversation with him during that process that we needed to figure it out, because there was so much going on and it was just hard for him and to live it with him. It was hard seeing it through his eyes.

Karl: That was the beginning of the generation of money becoming so big. There was no question the players were upset by the money of McIlvaine. We signed McIlvaine, three guys. McIlvaine, [Craig] Ehlo and Steve Scheffler. It had a drain, a psychological drain in the locker room, and that came the year after Whitsitt, and it just seemed that no one had confidence in the people above.

Bill Ackerley: The one thing I learned about professional athletes a long time ago is they'll play for free as long as they make one dollar more than the guy they think they're better than and that's a big deal, and I think in Shawn's case, we were restricted in some way in terms of what we could do in terms of Shawn's contract.

Walker: Shawn Kemp was upset about his contract, but the part where revisionist history has not done the situation justice, in '94, he was given an extension [for seven years and $25.4 million], which really was one of the first things I did as a general manager. The league rule was you couldn’t then renegotiate a deal for a player that had done one or gotten one for another three years. Not only could you not negotiate one, you couldn’t even have a discussion.

Kelley: It ruined the team. It shouldn’t have. Shawn should have been a bigger person, but Shawn went into the tank and George benched him at several points during that year, and George being George was very public about the fact that Shawn wasn’t playing hard. And then McIlvaine was horrible and the rest of the players kind of looked at McIlvaine like he was an interloper. You had Shawn and McIlvaine. You had George and Wally. You had Whitsitt and Ackerley. You had all these little fires that grew into one raging inferno.

Karl: There was no question when Whitsitt went and then [assistant general manager Mark] Warkentien, our gang broke up. Someone talked to me about how it was like a band, a great band, the orchestration of everything never got back. That doesn’t mean it was bad, but it was pretty special. When a band breaks up ... when they get back together, they're never as good as they were.

Kemp: I will never, ever wear that uniform again. It’s been so negative there in the city over the last couple of years, it would be impossible for me to be in that situation again. I would never let myself go back there to play another 82-game season in Seattle. (Kemp said this to ESPN in the summer of 1997.)

Dutt: When he said he wouldn’t play for them again, I told him, you make that statement, that’s about as strong a statement as you can make. But he was at that point.

Walker: He was still a great player, but we were worried about the trend. We would have never have traded him just because he was upset about his contract and asked to be traded. The only reason we traded him is because we were worried about the trend of where his play was going and what that meant for the Sonics.

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Shawn Kemp drives against Vin Baker. (Getty Images)

Kelley: When he was traded to Cleveland, I was really hard on him the last year, because of the way he was acting and the way he wasn’t playing. That first game they played in the Northwest was in Vancouver. I went up to it and I was leery of how I was going to be received and if he was going to talk to me. He was so happy to see me, because it seemed like he was so homesick, so lonely. He seemed sad. His face was like a metaphor for everything that had gone wrong in Seattle. … That’s when all of his other problems surfaced. That’s when the Sports Illustrated story came out about all of his kids, and as flamboyant as he is on the floor, he’s a quiet, shy guy and he just couldn’t handle all of that.

Karl: I was probably having contractual problems and trying to squeeze a little bit more money too at that time. My ego was I wanted to be recognized as a top coach and so I was in a financial pushing-and-shoving match with them. So I think the team, from the coaches and team, was unified. But Bill Walsh used to say organizations self-destruct as much as they get beat. Wally and I just never got a connection. We just never got a connection and that’s the situation. I’m not saying it was his fault or my fault. It just didn’t happen.

The Lakers eliminated Seattle, 4-1, in the 1998 Western Conference Semifinals.

Walker: In '98, we may have well not have reached a contract agreement. His contract was up, so we were talking about a new contract and we started the discussions, but then George being George said something that annoyed our owner and I got a call one morning saying, "That's it for discussions." And it ended the era for George coaching here, so that was that.

Payton: Then Detlef leaves, Hersey leaves, Sam leaves. It just wasn't the same. I think we should have kept that team together and we didn’t.

Johnson: Everybody had to sacrifice, and I don’t know if everybody wanted to sacrifice for the sake of the team.

Payton: I think we could have came with one or two [championships]. I think we would have went back a couple of times, just like what Chicago did. It was just sad that we didn’t get a chance to do that, because we got a new general manager in there that didn’t know what he was doing. He took over and really didn’t know what was going on and tried to just be a general manager off numbers and what he thought was going to save money, and it was the wrong thing to do.

McMillan: It was just a surprise to see that during that lockout year, the weight [Kemp] had gained and what he had lost. Shawn Kemp, the guy that we now know as Blake Griffin, was Shawn Kemp. He had to develop his jump shot, the same things Blake Griffin is doing now, Shawn Kemp was doing then, and if he wouldn’t have gained that weight, he would have did that for a lot longer.

Payton: It was hard getting traded, but we were in a bad situation with a bad owner (Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz headed a group that purchased the SuperSonics from Ackerley in 2001). Our owner didn’t know what he was doing. The management didn’t know what they were doing. They were trying to run something that they really thought they were going to run a different way. It wasn’t the way that it should have been ran and it showed, and you see why the SuperSonics are not with Seattle anymore. It’s because we had bad management and it’s because we had bad ownership that let it go and didn’t know what it was, and they tore down a great franchise.

The Legacy

They are different players, of course, but Gary Payton saw the harmonization in the games of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He saw that once, with himself and Kemp. He is now in the Hall of Fame after obtaining his long sought-after championship with the Miami Heat in 2006 after a failed attempt with a Lakers conglomerate of himself, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone two years earlier.

Kemp is still often spotted around Seattle these days, although his restaurant, Oskar’s Kitchen, closed down. Karl, meanwhile, was at it, until recently, coaching each regular-season game with the Sacramento Kings as though it were his last, while trying to relate, and often struggling to do so, with a new generation of NBA superstars.

All, and many more, are left to wonder, what if?

Cage: Man, we left a lot on the table and we should have had some titles to show for it. It just should have been there.

Walker: If not for the Bulls being the greatest team maybe of all time, we would have won a title.

Cage: Now that it’s all over, I never realized how good we were. I knew we were a good team. I just didn’t know how good we were, because we were getting better gradually. It wasn’t like we had some big, huge jump in one year. We just gradually got better until we got to a point where we won 60-plus games.

Whitsitt: I can’t imagine if we would have had that team today with digital content and super HD, watching Kemp and Payton, the high octane, and them doing the things they did. … You could go back and look at all the video you want and you’ll find a few, but not many that were more exciting to watch than Shawn. The other thing is he paved the way. He became kind of a cult hero for guys like Kobe Bryant and [Kevin] Garnett. I took a kid named Jermaine O’Neal a few years later. Even LeBron [James], some of these other high school players, who after the fact came out to be terrific. If Shawn Kemp had busted and fallen flat on his face, I’m not sure that the high school players would have been jumping out as freely as they did.

Payton: We could have been better or equal to [John Stockton and Karl Malone] if we would have stayed together. We had just beat them in '96 and I thought we had just took over the top duo in the NBA, and then Shawn went through his situation and then we separated. I think if we would have stayed together, like I’m in the Hall of Fame now, I think Shawn would have been in the Hall of Fame too. We would have made a huge dynasty, but it didn’t happen. Him in his prime, being the freak of nature that he was, jumping and dunking and shooting jumpers and free throws, and doing things and defending people—he was probably one of the best players I've ever seen play, just a highlight reel.

Kelley: The thing about these Sonics was that they broke your heart. They were heartbreakers, because they got so close and whatever the tragic flaw was, it was just this mixture of personalities that in the end just couldn’t make it.

Cage: We played ball with a little bit of new school and a little bit of old school. We had veteran players like myself and we had the New Jack kids too, like Shawn and Gary and Kendall. … We had that kind of work ethic to us, that kind of blue-collar approach to the game and, at the time, the tech market wasn’t as strong as it is in Seattle right now. Microsoft was still coming out. Howard Schultz was still trying to get his coffee in every home at Starbucks. And we were way up there in Seattle, so we didn’t get a whole lot of press like L.A., New York, Chicago, places like that. But the fans knew us, and when the smoke cleared and our careers were over, hey, we’re still friends. We’re still the best of friends. ◼

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dozens of efforts to reach Kemp for this story failed. Detlef Schrempf also declined several interview requests. 

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.

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