This city still reveres that 1979 Sonics team, perhaps even more so now given the NBA's exit. And Thursday, the living players from that squad all reunited for a stroll down memory lane.
The first thing most of them said is how nobody had really changed.
They were still finishing each other’s sentences. They were still telling the same jokes. They were still sharing the same stories.
Forty years after winning the franchise’s only championship, the 1978-79 Sonics reunited Thursday at the Seattle Sports Star of the Year Awards. The main takeaway?
Damn, that was fun.
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“It was one of the biggest thrills,” said center Jack Sikma, who averaged 15.6 points and 12.4 rebounds that season. “To be able to do it together — I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but we were so close the year before and never got a taste of it.”
If you were to tell somebody in December of 1977 that the Sonics would win a title in June of 1979, all you would have heard is laughter. The year before their championship season, the Sonics started 5-17, prompting the brass to replace coach Bob Hopkins with Lenny Wilkens.
Forward Wally Walker remembers being perplexed when Wilkens told the team that there was a lot of talent on the roster.
“I was like ‘are they bringing in a bunch of new guys?”‘ Walker said.
But five months later, the Sonics found themselves in the NBA Finals, taking the Bullets to Game 7 before falling six points short of victory. The next season, they beat the Bullets in five games to win the only title in franchise history and the first major sports title in Seattle in over 60 years.
This city still reveres that team, perhaps even more so now given the Sonics’ departure. And Thursday, the living players from that squad all reunited for a stroll down memory lane.
“I haven’t seen these guys for so long. We were so happy to see each other,” said forward Paul Silas, who averaged 5.6 points per game in 1978-79 at the age of 35. “Nobody thought we were going to be that good, but once we started winning, everybody was here.”
Big man Dennis Awtrey started that season as a Boston Celtic but remembers the fervor of Sonics fans. So he was more than happy to be traded to Seattle midway through the season, which occurred, in part, because of his reputation for slowing down Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
The move proved wise, as the Sonics eliminated the Lakers in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Awtrey’s secret on guarding the sky hook?
“It was actually pretty simple. Most guys guarding him were 7-footers who could jump, but that didn’t matter against his hook shot,” said Awtrey, who once threw a punch at Kareem when Jabbar played for the Bucks. “I was 6-10 and couldn’t jump. So I had to play a different game. He wanted to get the ball low on the block, but I made him get it 13 feet from the basket. He got frustrated.”
This was one of the more unusual championship teams in NBA history. Look at most of the title winners, and they’re dripping with Hall of Famers and top 50 all-time players.
Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and James Worthy with the Lakers. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish with the Celtics. Michael and Scottie with the Bulls. Kobe and Shaq with the Lakers. LeBron, Wade and Bosh with the Heat; Duncan, Parker and Ginobili with the Spurs; Steph, Klay, Draymond and Durant with the Warriors.
But other than that 2004 Pistons team, there really hasn’t been another team like that ’79 Sonics team. Dennis Johnson was a Hall of Famer, but probably not a top 50 or even top 100 all-time player. Sikma was a seven-time All-Star, but has yet to be inducted in Springfield.
Yet somehow that team — which had seven players average double-digit scoring — pulled it off.
“I just felt that if the pieces were put together right, we could be successful,” Wilkens said. “It was fantastic. We remember everything about it. And it’s not something anybody can take away from us.”
Walker said that nobody embodied the power of confident leadership more so than Wilkens. But he’s hardly the only one who deserves credit.
From Finals MVP Dennis Johnson, to leading scorer Gus Williams, to sharpshooting “Downtown” Freddie Brown, this team had contributions from every corner of the roster.
That’s what was emphasized at the Sports Star of the Year awards Thursday. That approach to the game is why, 40 years later, everybody in attendance was on their feet saluting that unexpected title team.
The next time the Sonics will have a chance to compete for a title remains unknown. That may be true for a while.
But Wilkens gave Seattle a reminder of that special season 40 years ago. No matter what happens going forward, nobody can take that away.