In 1995-96, the Sonics finally acquired the right pieces on the court, solved their chemistry issues off it and unleashed a team that lost to the 72-win Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. It felt like the beginning of something great. It turned out to be the peak.

Share story

By the start of the 1995-96 season, the Sonics were at a crossroads.

They were young and talented, paced by superstars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. Payton was one of the NBA’s best defenders and most resolute competitors; Kemp was one of the league’s high-flying big men. Together they formed an exciting duo, but they had withered in their previous two playoffs. People questioned if they could win big games.

The Sonics finished the 1993-94 season with the NBA’s best record, yet they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to an eight seed.

The next season, playing all their home games at the Tacoma Dome while KeyArena was being renovated, the Sonics won 57 games. But they lost again in the first round, jeopardizing George Karl’s job.

More painful, those early exits happened when Michael Jordan was either away from basketball or wearing No. 45. In that void, the Houston Rockets won back-to-back NBA championships.

If the Sonics weren’t in chaos, they were a team squandering potential.

In 1995-96, the Sonics finally acquired the right pieces on the court, solved their chemistry issues off it and unleashed a team that lost to the 72-win Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. It felt like the beginning of something great. It turned out to be the peak.

Twenty years later, players, coaches, fans and front-office executives share memories and inside stories about Seattle’s last great NBA team.


Getting past the early exits

Wally Walker, general manager: “(Owner) Barry Ackerley came to me after that year (1994-95) and said, ‘You make the decision on what you want to do about the coach.’ ”

George Karl, coach: “I thought they would fire me. I don’t deny that.”

Wally Walker, general manager: “There was a lot of talk both nationally and locally that we should just break it up, particularly the young stars, and go a completely different direction. But that didn’t feel right. We weren’t that far away. We just needed some better chemistry and some better outside shooting.”

Before the ’95-96 season, the front office traded Kendall Gill, who had publicly clashed with Karl, for veterans Hersey Hawkins and David Wingate. Wrote one local columnist: “Are we supposed to believe this trade strikes fear in the heart of Houston, or San Antonio, or Phoenix?” The Sonics also signed veteran big man Frank Brickowski.

George Karl, coach: “The only regret I probably look back on any of the seven years in Seattle are the two years we lost in the first round and threw away the opportunity to win against a non-Michael Jordan Chicago team. If we would have maybe moved the mental toughness of our team two years earlier, I think we’d maybe have an NBA championship.”

Detlef Schrempf, forward:“I think there were a couple years where we had some issues with chemistry and guys not playing for the right reasons. And even though we were very talented, we didn’t put the team ahead of ourselves. I think that was obvious in the playoffs when it came down to making sacrifices and executing.”

George Karl, coach: “We traded a much more athletic and talented player for Hersey Hawkins, who just fit what we needed. We needed a guy who was a low-maintenance, solid player who would do whatever the other guys wanted to do. Kendall was always trying to get more of the pie, and Hersey came in and was just happy to be on a winning team.”


Back home with a new look

Two of the big story lines that season had to do with aesthetics.

For starters, the Sonics returned to a remodeled KeyArena. NBA commissioner David Stern attended the opener against the Lakers, and during the TV broadcast, infamously complimented the arena he later viewed as a problem.

“They got a beautiful building,” Stern said. “It’s intimate, the sight lines are great, the decorations are terrific. I think Seattle should be very proud of what’s going on here tonight.”

The Sonics also unveiled a new logo for the first time in 20 years and introduced new uniforms with red and bronze. At the time, Sonics and NBA employees described the new logo and uniform as “fun, young and fresh” and said they had “every intention” of keeping both for a long time.

Dwane Casey, assistant coach: “(Being back at KeyArena) was huge, because we didn’t have to make the trek down to the Tacoma Dome every game. It was almost like we had 82 road games.”

Vincent Askew, guard: “The Tacoma Dome was great, but it was so huge that the backdrop threw off your shot. But when we got back to KeyArena, it was like we were home.”

Kevin Calabro, Sonics play-by-play: “You had the music and what was happening culturally in the city. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains — all these bands and you’d see them show up at games. At that time, you didn’t have all the canned music and canned dance routines. It was a really unique experience at KeyArena. It wasn’t quite state of the art. Even with the redo, believe me, it wasn’t state of the art. But it was small and intimate and very loud. For its time, it was a hell of a facility.”

Eric Snow, guard: “Even now, I hear stories about guys who would look at the schedule and they’d count a game at KeyArena as a loss.”

Billy McKinney, vice president of basketball operations: “When I first accepted the position that year, one of the things I said to Wally Walker was, ‘I wonder when there’s going to be a logo or uniform change.’ That logo and uniform had been around for many years. And he said, ‘Well, it’s interesting you say that, because we’re breaking out a new uniform this year.’ ”

Marc Moquin, Sonics media relations: “Traditionalists did not like it. I’m not really sure why we switched. It had too many colors. It was too fancy. If you look back at it now, it’s kind of funny.”

MC Geologic, member of the hip-hop group Blue Scholars: “At the time? I loved it. I was probably the target demographic for that switch.”

The ghosts of ’94 and ’95 were hanging over them.” - Mike Gastineau, KJR sports

Marc Moquin, Sonics media relations: “The red in it reminded people of Portland’s colors. I had one fan come up to me and say, ‘Red is Portland’s color. I never want to see red in our uniform. Why are you guys doing that?’”

Billy McKinney, vice president of basketball operations: “While there were mixed reviews, I thought it was a nice change. It was different. It gave us a little bit of a different identity.”


‘Our practices were R-rated’

Dwane Casey, assistant coach:“On the first day of training camp that season, I remember Detlef and Frank Brickowski got in this knockdown and drag-out fight. It was like two guys trying to mark their turf.”

Billy McKinney, vice president of basketball operations: “There was a little bumping and grinding, and next thing you know those two said words and squared off. There were very few words; there were several punches. And that was it.”

Frank Brickowski, center: “I’m trying to remember the fight. I’ve been in so many freaking fights in camps. I remember getting hit, and I remember landing a couple. But Detlef was a great teammate, and when you fight with a great teammate, it’s not that big of a deal.”

Eric Snow, guard: “I couldn’t believe, not necessarily that they fought, but I couldn’t believe the response after it. It wasn’t just pushing. It was a real fight. But when it ended, they broke it up, and they just kept practicing. I couldn’t believe it was just over. That set up everything for how we were going to be that season.”

Vincent Askew, guard: “George Karl loved that. I played for George before I got to Seattle in the CBA and in Spain. He loved guys who went at it in practice, and our practices were R-rated, buddy.”

The Sonics began the season 6-5 but soon caught fire. During one stretch, they won 20 of 21 games.


Payton vs. Karl

The Sonics’ leader, of course, was Gary Payton, who never backed down, not even from his coach. (Payton declined comment for this story.)

Vincent Askew, guard: “And George wanted to get him going so he could practice hard. Gary was more of a gamer unless you made him upset. If you made him upset, he dominated practices.”

George Karl, coach: “He wasn’t always the most desirous of practice.”

Eric Snow, guard: “That was my job: to get him to practice. If he told Coach he didn’t want to practice, I’d challenge him and talk trash to him to get him going. He loved to talk, so it always got to the point that he wouldn’t let you out-talk him.”

Mike Gastineau, KJR sports radio personality: “One time George told me, ‘Gas, you don’t understand. Every day of my life starts with a 30-minute argument with Gary Payton about something.’ ”

Marc Moquin, Sonics media relations: “As Gary used to say, his dad was the craziest guy he ever played for, but George was second.”

Frank Brickowski, center: “George Karl is a tough coach in that he’s a little crazy. And that’s an understatement. I remember we came in at halftime of a game up 12, and he’s screaming at us like we did something wrong or we’re not playing. I told him, ‘George, we’re up 12, not down 12. You need to smoke a joint or something.’ He didn’t know what to say.”

Ervin Johnson, center: “Gary could be a handful, but I really believe George depended on him, and I think Gary knew George was in his corner even though they went at each other. It was almost like a love-hate relationship. They had so much respect for each other.”


Payton leads with his chin

Frank Brickowski, center: “Gary was a selfish player that served the team. There are selfish players you play with that don’t serve the team, that don’t make you better. Gary was a selfish player that competed every night, and it drove us. Was he a great teammate? I don’t know. Probably not. But he drove us, and he competed every night. The further I got away from it, the more I appreciated Gary Payton.”

Vincent Askew, guard: “If I could pick anybody to go play a game with — one game to win for your life — I’ll pick Gary because Gary’s not afraid of anything. He made guys on the team play hard because he played hard.”

Mike Gastineau, KJR sports radio personality: “I never saw a guy whose posture actually led with his chin. He physically led with his chin all the time.”

Frank Brickowski, center: “I hated him when I played against him. We hated each other. But when we played together, it was all good. Gary would throw temper tantrums and be kicking and screaming, and we’d just roll our eyes like, ‘Here goes Gary again.’ He wanted to fight the trainer one day, and the trainer is like 110 years old. What do you want to fight him for? He didn’t do anything to you.”

Billy McKinney, vice president of basketball operations: “I think Gary was kind of misunderstood because people perceived him as having a tough exterior. He was one of the most giving people I’ve known. I lost my dog that year, and we got on the plane to go somewhere, and I was sitting in my seat trying to conceal the grief I was having. Gary was joking with me and says, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told him what happened, and that was a side of Gary Payton many people saw (that the public didn’t see).”


A turning point

The Sonics finished the season 64-18, second only to Jordan’s Bulls.

The Sonics were the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. But they didn’t have Kemp, who was suspended for the opening game of the first round vs. Sacramento after getting in a fight during the regular-season finale.

The Sonics won the first game but lost the second after Kemp returned. It led to a tense Game 3 in Sacramento.

Mike Gastineau, KJR sports radio personality: “They were nervous. The ghosts of ’94 and ’95 were hanging over them.”

Marques Johnson, Sonics broadcaster: “You just didn’t take first-round playoff series for granted. I remember that feeling of trepidation kind of creeping in like, ‘Oh, boy. Here we go again. You dudes are getting ready to choke another one away.’ ”

Wally Walker, general manager: “Ownership was worried. (Game 2) was a Sunday afternoon game, and I got a late-night call (from Ackerley): ‘What is this?’ So the next game at Sacramento we are down eight with like five minutes to go.”

Vincent Askew, guard: “We huddled up, and I’ll never forget who was in the huddle. It was me, Gary, Kemp, Detlef and Nate. There were some words exchanged, and then we went on to win the game. I’ll put it that way. Me and Gary told certain people that they weren’t playing as manly as they should have. It got better after that.”

The Sonics beat Sacramento in four games before sweeping Houston, the two-time defending champion, in the next round. Kemp, the Sonics’ fun-loving big man, who couldn’t be reached for comment on this story, took over.

Kemp comes of age

Frank Brickowski, center: “If there was one guy that produced and played at a higher level throughout those playoffs, it was Shawn. We swept Houston, and he dominated.”

If I could pick anybody to go play a game with — one game to win for your life — I’ll pick Gary because Gary’s not afraid of anything.” - Vincent Askew

George Karl, coach: “Every game, every series, he got better.”

Vincent Askew, guard: “Kemp was like a brother. George Karl told me I had to play him one on one every day when I got there and beat on him a little. So when I played him, and I saw strong he was and how aggressive he was, I said, ‘Coach, this dude don’t need nobody beating on him. He’s a beast. He just needs to slow down a little bit and take his time.’ ”

George Karl, coach: “Shawn was kind of goofy in some ways, but I tell you what, in terms of competing and getting ready for games, I never had any problem with him.”

Eric Snow, guard: “Shawn was funny. He used to name his moves, which was hilarious. One of them was Emmitt Smith. I don’t know why he named it that, but he was juking or something. And this was during games. We blew a lot of teams out that year, and he’d come over and starting telling me the names of his moves.”


A defining moment

The Sonics faced Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference finals. A back-and-forth series climaxed with Game 7 at KeyArena.

Billy McKinney, vice president of basketball operations: “The last time we played Utah during the regular season, we were in Utah and not getting any calls. It rattled our guys for just a little bit. I remember George calling a timeout and talking to the players about, ‘This is what we’re going to have to go through if we’re going to win the Western Conference finals.’ When the team came out of the timeout, I remember every player standing on the floor with a defiant look in their eyes, a stare I can’t even describe. I think that game was really the defining moment for the team.”

Frank Brickowski, center: “I remember early in Game 7, John Stockton came in the lane. I would go up with my hands and lead with my elbows if I wanted to discourage somebody from coming in the lane. And I did that with John. I caught him in the eye with an elbow. It opened his eye, and he was walking away with blood dripping down his face, and he said, ‘That’s all you can do, Brickowski.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m still pretty good at it, right, Johnny?’ ”

Terry Stotts, assistant coach: “Karl Malone was at the line late in Game 7, and KeyArena was one of the loudest arenas in the NBA. That whole series, people were counting down how long it took him to shoot free throws. When he missed the first one, I didn’t think it could get any louder. And then after he missed the second one, it got even louder.”

Mike Gastineau, KJR sports radio personality: “Sometimes we get so caught in winning the championship, but that night after they beat Utah, it kind of felt like that. The town just went nuts.”

Shawn Kemp, forward (from a 2011 Seattle Times article): “It’s hard to describe what a buzz is, but there was a definite buzz around town unlike anything I can remember.”

Detlef Schrempf, forward: “It was a relief winning that, because I think everyone was exhausted physically and mentally. I think that might have been a factor a little bit going into the finals because we were so tired.”

A shot at Jordan and the Bulls

The Sonics’ reward for winning the Western Conference? A meeting with Michael Jordan and his record-setting Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.

Nate McMillan, guard: “We really felt we could beat them. But the one thing I recall: We were out on the tarmac, and we were getting a police escort through Chicago’s traffic straight to the hotel. And I remember one of the guys pulling out a camcorder and videoing the police escort. You don’t get a police escort at any time during the season except for the Finals, so everybody was excited and enjoying the moment. But I remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t know if we are ready for this.’ ”

Dwane Casey, assistant coach: “We had a very confident, borderline overconfident group. Gary wasn’t about to back down, and he talked stuff to Jordan. Probably wasn’t a great idea, but we had a very confident group.”

Marques Johnson, broadcaster: “Once Gary started yakking and going jaw-to-jaw with Michael Jordan, I thought Gary had a little — not deer in the headlights but just not a typical Gary Payton kind of bravado.”

George Karl, coach: “We thought we were going to put Gary on Michael at the end of games and let him rest during the game. We finally decided to put Gary on Michael on Game 3 or 4, and we probably should have done that earlier. … If I had to do it from hindsight, I probably say I would put Gary on Michael from the very beginning.”


Missing McMillan

The Sonics were without versatile guard Nate McMillan, who had a back injury. McMillan played just six minutes in Game 1 and sat out Games 2 and 3. The Sonics trailed the series 3-0.

That prompted NBC broadcaster and New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey to question the severity of McMillan’s injury.

It was not going the right direction. It wasn’t the same chemistry. It wasn’t the same team.” - Detlef Schrempf

Frank Brickowski, forward: “I just dismissed it at the time. I like Peter, but he wants to sell papers and create waves.”

Nate McMillan, guard: “He later apologized for that, because he was off base. I had a legit back injury. … I was close to having back surgery. I didn’t have it, but there were two doctors who told me I needed it.”

Detlef Schrempf, forward: “That hurt us a lot, because (Nate) was a big part of what made us go on both offense and defense.”

Marques Johnson, broadcaster: “Gary was the heart of the team, but Nate was the soul.”

Ervin Johnson, center: “Nate, Detlef and Sam (Perkins) were the true captains of that team.”

Terry Stotts, assistant coach: “Game 3 in the Finals was very disappointing for us, because we had played two competitive games in Games 1 and 2 in Chicago. And they just came out in Game 3 and blew our doors off.”


The breakup

The Sonics rallied to win Games 4 and 5 at home, forcing the series back to Chicago. But Jordan and the Bulls clinched the title in Game 6.

The Sonics faced a number of questions after the Finals. They had multiple free agents, a factor that players and coaches said helped keep everyone focused. But after the season they had to figure out who to keep.

The Sonics re-signed Payton to a new contract that summer, but they also signed Jim McIlvaine to a six-year contract worth more than $30 million. They lost Brickowski and Ervin Johnson in free agency and traded Askew after he and Karl clashed in the Finals.

Detlef Schrempf, forward: “I thought, ‘Hey, we are going to be back next year and have another run at it.’ We were still a young team at that point. But then a bunch of changes were made.”

Vincent Askew, guard: “I was living across the street from Gary in Vegas. We were like, ‘Man, when we come back, we’re winning next year.’ But I went on a cruise the next week, and I got traded that week. I was devastated.”

Frank Brickowski, center: “I still resent Wally Walker for not re-signing me and keeping that team together. He went and signed McIlvaine, and it just blew the team up because he gave him so much money, and it pissed everybody off. All he had to do was keep the team together and give us another run.”

Wally Walker, general manager: “I know this: We only had one thing in mind, which was to win a championship. We had to take some risks to do that. We couldn’t stand still and think we could come back. If we came back exactly the same we would have been really good, but some risk was required to try to get to the next level.”

George Karl, coach: “I don’t think there’s any question that the McIlvaine signing tilted Shawn to the wrong side of the ride.”

Frank Brickowski, center: “That (upset) Shawn … and it just snowballed from there.”

Detlef Schrempf, forward: “It was not going the right direction. It wasn’t the same chemistry. It wasn’t the same team.”


‘A great time for basketball’

The Sonics were still good, even potent. They won 57 games and a playoff series the following year. But after that season, they traded Kemp to Cleveland for Vin Baker. They won 61 games the season after that and again won a playoff series.

But that was the end of the run. Karl left for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1998. Howard Schultz bought the team in 2001. The Sonics won only one playoff series after 1998, and they played their final season in Seattle in 2008, leaving behind memories of the 1995-96 season.

MC Geologic, member of the hip-hop group Blue Scholars: “I was 16 during that season. It was my wonder years, man. It was when I started driving, when I started dating, when I started getting into this hip-hop thing. I have just good memories of living, and the Sonics were just ever-present during that time when I really started falling in love with the area.”

Gary Payton, guard (from a 2013 Seattle Times article): “In 1996, I made my mark. … Everything was going right in my life.”

Terry Stotts, assistant coach: “I think that five- or six-year period for the Sonics was one of the best in NBA history to never win a championship. We averaged almost 60 wins during that stretch, and the pinnacle was going to the finals against the Bulls. I thought the success we had during that run was a great time for basketball.”

Ervin Johnson, center: “I wish we could all be back together and play again. Sometimes we think it’s going to last forever and you’re going to get back there. But I just enjoy those guys and wish one day we could go back and play that damn game again.”

MC Geologic, member of the hip-hop group Blue Scholars: “When folks like myself get riled up and passionate about the team leaving and the potential for a team coming back, it really is the ‘95-96 squad we think about. Definitely the ’79 championship; that was cool. But the majority of Sonics fans look to the ‘95-96 season as the blueprint for what Seattle can look like, for what basketball can make the city feel like again.”