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.
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.