Forty years ago in Landover, Md., the Seattle SuperSonics were crowned NBA champions for the first and only time in their history. But they truly revealed themselves as a championship team in a do-or-die game weeks earlier in Phoenix.
“It’s a basket here or a basket there and history changes,’’ said Jack Sikma, recalling a Mother’s Day Sunday at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum four decades ago this weekend — May 13, 1979.
That championship was in the hands of the Suns’ Garfield Heard with one second remaining in a one-point game. Heard had already hit one of the most famous shots in NBA history to that point — a 20-footer as time ran out to force overtime in Game 5 of the 1976 finals — something that was on the mind of every Sonic as they watched the final play unfold.
“We all remembered Gar Heard hitting an impossible shot against the Celtics,’’ said Wally Walker, a reserve forward on that team who, the next day, was among the players featured on the front page of The Seattle Times watching pensively as the ball sailed through the air. “We were all thinking it when we saw him catch it and release it.’’
This time, Heard — a 6-6 forward who began his career with the Sonics in 1970 — fired from about 16 feet and hit nothing but air.
As the horn sounded, the Sonics had pulled out a win that forced a Game 7 and continued their championship season.
While it’s since been overshadowed by memories of the NBA Finals victory over Washington, and is virtually impossible to find on YouTube, that forgotten game is as big as any in franchise history — and thus, all of Seattle sports.
Gus Williams’ famous toss of the ball to the rafters in Landover almost three weeks later never happens if the Sonics don’t find a way to beat a Suns team that hadn’t lost at home in 10 weeks — and with a fourth quarter in which they held the lead only once.
The road to Phoenix
After losing in Game 7 of the Finals at home to Washington the year before, the Sonics were a popular pick to win it all in 1979. Certainly, Walker says, that was the only goal the team had.
But it was hardly a smooth ride.
Center Marvin Webster was lost in the summer to the Knicks as a free agent, and one of his replacements, Tom LaGarde, suffered a season-ending knee injury after playing only 23 games. Dealing with injuries and players in new roles, the Sonics lost six straight games in December.
But by the time the playoffs rolled around, the Sonics were rolling, finishing with the second-best record in the NBA and best in the Western Conference. They plowed through the Lakers (the year before they drafted Magic Johnson) in the conference semifinals.
That brought on the Suns.
When they won the first two games at home by 15 and six points, most of the Sonics figured they’d go to Phoenix and split and come home and win in five and head to the Finals and a hoped-for rematch with Washington. Forward John Johnson told reporters after the Game 2 win that he didn’t think Phoenix could play any better than it already had.
A funny thing happened early in Game 3 — Suns star center Alvan Adams suffered an ankle injury that looked like it might knock him out weeks (he would actually miss three games). That figured to be all the Sonics needed to coast to an easy series win. Instead, it proved a stunning change in the series’ fortunes and gave Sikma the biggest mental challenge of what is officially a Hall of Fame career after his election earlier this year.
Into Adams’ role stepped 6-7 rookie Joel Kramer, who would average only 3.8 points in a five-year career in which he started only four games. But Kramer was a vastly more physical player than Adams, and that seemed to throw off Sikma, who suddenly couldn’t hit a shot.
“He had had some success against me, and I don’t know if I ever in my career felt as much pressure to kind of get it going as I did during times in that series,’’ Sikma said.
He would shoot just 23 percent in games three, four and five. The first two of those games were losses in Phoenix that set up a seemingly pivotal Game 5 on a Friday night at the Kingdome.
After the Sonics had built a sizable lead early, the Suns pressed, and Sikma still couldn’t hit — he went 3 of 13 and scored just nine points. The Suns outscored the Sonics 33-25 in the final quarter for a 99-93 win and needed only to beat the Sonics at home roughly 36 hours later to head to the NBA Finals.
“You lose Game 5 at home and you’re like ‘really?’’’ Walker said. “But I don’t remember any sense of panic or anything. We were a calm team, and Lenny (Wilkens) was a calm coach. But obviously there was lots to worry about. The odds weren’t good for us.’’
A Mother’s Day setup?
In fact, heading to Phoenix, the Sonics appeared destined to be on the wrong side of NBA history.
To that point, only four times had an NBA team taken a 2-0 lead and lost the series. Entering the 2019 season, teams that take a 2-0 lead in a playoff series are 262-20.
After losing Game 5 at home to go down 3-2, the Sonics’ odds were among the lowest they could be. In NBA playoff history, a team that wins Game 5 to go up 3-2 takes the series 83 percent of the time.
“This is hard to believe,’’ John Johnson told Sports Illustrated.
Throw in going on the road — Phoenix had won 16 consecutive games at home — and, well, it was hard to argue with the lead paragraph in a Seattle Times story previewing the game that stated “a near miracle is necessary today to avoid the end’’ of the season.
In Walker’s view, the Sonics had already received all they needed to get ready for a battle from veteran power forward Paul Silas, then 35 years old and with two rings won with the Celtics.
“I still have this visual of him in the locker room,’’ Walker said. “He was just kind of sitting in this chair in the middle — the locker rooms were tiny in those days — and he’s not saying a word, but he’s breathing audibly, his eyes are like blood shot and he’s just doing this thing with his hands.
“He used to use Stickum, which wasn’t legal, but he hid it under his wrist. So he had his hands going, breathing heavily. And the rest of us were kind of looking around like, ‘OK, this is what intensity looks like when you are getting ready for an elimination game.’ There is a guy who has been there, has won championships. I think it had a big impact on everybody like, ‘OK, get yourself ready because here is what needs to get done, and this is how you do it.’’’
The fired-up Sonics took a 55-50 lead at the half.
But the Suns’ coronation seemed on track as they went on a big run to start the third quarter, taking an eight-point lead into the fourth and still leading by six with a little more than seven minutes remaining.
The Sonics never let the lead get out of hand, and in the final minutes they strung together one last rally. Sikma snapped out of his slump and hit 7 of 11 shots in the game and Wilkens made a key tactical decision, switching burly forward Lonnie Shelton to defend standout Suns small forward Walter Davis instead of John Johnson in the final quarter.
When Williams made a jumper with 52 seconds remaining, the Sonics finally had the lead at 106-105 — their first lead of the fourth quarter.
Shelton forced Davis into a travel with 41 seconds to play. Williams missed on the other end and the ball went off the Sonics, and the Suns had possession and a chance to win with 16 seconds remaining.
Davis missed an 18-footer, again under heavy defense from Shelton. But the ball glanced off Sikma’s hands out of bounds. With one second remaining, the Suns still had a chance.
The Suns wanted the ball to go to Westphal or Davis. But they were covered, and Don Buse threw the inbounds pass to Heard, who turned and shot as Sikma lunged to get a hand in his face.
“I contested it,’’ Sikma said. “But you just never know.’’
“I thought it was good,’’ Silas said in the next day’s Seattle Times. “When it went over the basket I was the happiest man in the world.’’
Sikma remembers feeling the weight of the world off his shoulders — his mysterious slump finally over and the Sonics heading home with hopes still alive.
“I think I grew a lot from that experience,’’ Sikma said. “And it weighed heavy. But we hung together as a team. And I just remember how big that one was, especially since I think we felt the most pressure in that series.’’
Sikma would go on to play one of the best games of his career four days later, scoring 33 points — the most he would ever score in 102 career playoff games — and grab 11 rebounds as the Sonics won Game 7 at the Kingdome 114-110 (a furious late rally made the score look a little closer than it was) to advance to the Finals for a second consecutive year.
From there it was a relative breeze, with the four straight wins over Washington to take the title after an opening-game loss on the road. Williams appeared a few days later on the cover of Sports Illustrated commemorating the first major professional sports title for a Seattle team in the modern era.
But to Williams, there was no bigger moment than that day in Phoenix.
“Game 6,’’ Williams said in an interview years later when asked for the defining memory of his Sonics career. “To win that game on the road, it was a great feeling and it just seemed like we were destined to do it.”