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Professional basketball in Seattle, Washington, had its beginnings on December 20, 1966, when the city was awarded a National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise, with the club beginning play at the Seattle Center Coliseum in the 1967/68 season. With only two West Coast teams at the time, team owner Sam Schulman was optimistic, "I have a dream for this great city. I intend to pull together some of the most talented men in this country. Together, we will bring the world championship to Seattle." Basketball fans in the area submitted names for the club that would reflect the Indian lore of Seattle. Others suggested names that reflected Seattle's oldest industries, including Miners, Loggers, Captains, and Stevedores. Finally, it was decided the team should have a soaring, uplifting name--the Seattle SuperSonics--to remind the rest of the country that Seattle was home of the world's largest manufacturer of jet aircraft.
Owner Schulman and team management, under the direction of the first General Manager Don Richman, selected Al Tucker of Oklahoma Baptist as the team's first ever college draft pick. In the NBA expansion draft, Seattle picked up Tom Meschery from the San Francisco Warriors, Walt Hazzard from the Los Angeles Lakers, Bob Weiss from Philadelphia, and Rod Thorn from St. Louis. Al Bianchi, who in 1966 had ended a ten-year career as a former reserve guard with the NBA's Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia 76ers, became the SuperSonics' first head coach.
SuperSonics Begin First Season at the Seattle Center Coliseum
The Seattle SuperSonics' first game was played on September 19, 1967, a preseason game in San Diego, California, against the San Diego Rockets. The NBA newcomers' first season ended with 23 wins and 59 losses, fifth in the their Western Division and the second worst in the league. In the regular season, their first game against San Francisco ended in a disappointing loss of 144-116. Other high-scoring losses were to Philadelphia (160-122) and four other opponents who racked up 150 points or more against the SuperSonics. The Sonics' biggest offensive night was on February 11, when they beat San Francisco 146-118. For the season, opponents averaged 125.1 points per game, while Seattle averaged 118.7 points. Seattle played thirty-one games their first season, entertaining 202,263 fans in the Seattle Center Coliseum, with attendance averaging 6,524 per game.
Walt Hazzard was selected to play on the West All-Star Team and finished the season ranked seventh in the NBA in scoring with an average of 23.9 points per game (ppg) and fifth in assists with an average of 6.2 assists per game (apg). Bob Rule and Al Tucker were selected for the NBA All-Rookie Team.
Sonics Acquire Lenny Wilkins
Bianchi retained the head-coach job for a second year and guided the Sonics to a 30-52 season, inching up seven wins. At the beginning of the 1968/69 season, the Sonics acquired Lenny Wilkins in a trade with the St. Louis Hawks for Walt Hazzard. Wilkins, a 6' 1" point guard, was an All-Star in his first season in Seattle, finishing ninth in the NBA in scoring (22.4 ppg) and second in the league in assists (8.2 apg). Known for his flash ball handling and acrobatic shots, he became a driving force on the court and off.
The 1969/70 season saw Wilkins take over the coaching reins from Bianchi, while continuing to play his regular position. Under his leadership the Sonics continued to improve their game ending the season with a 36-46 record, and averaging 115 points per game. Wilkins lead the league in assists, averaging 9.1 per game. The Sonics' record improved again to 38-44 in 1970/71. Wilkins continued to shine as a Sonic, finishing second in the league in assists with an average of 9.2 per game and was named the All-Star Game's Most Valuable Player (MVP).
The team's first winning season came in 1971/72, when they finished with a record 47 wins and 35 losses. That season they came close to making the NBA playoffs, thanks not only to Wilkins' on- and off-court guidance, but to the acquisition of Spencer Haywood, a superstar from the American Basketball Association (ABA).
Sonics Challenge NBA Rule
Based on the NBA's rule prohibiting the signing of a player until his college class had graduated, Haywood had left the University of Detroit after his sophomore year in 1969 to sign as a free agent with the ABA's Denver Rockets. The Sonics, however, challenged the NBA rule, and following a landmark ruling, Haywood became the first undergraduate player ever to enter the NBA. As a first-time Sonic, Haywood made the All-NBA First Team, started in the All-Star Game, and finished fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 26.2 points per game.
Wilkins Makes Way for Bill Russell at the Helm
The Lenny Wilkins era came to a close at the end of the 1971/72 season, when he left the Sonics organization for Cleveland. Under the leadership of Tom Nissalke and Bucky Buckwalter, who both coached during the next year, the Sonics ended the season with a disappointing 26-56 record, reflecting the loss of Wilkins on and off the court.
In an effort to turn things around for the Sonics, owner Sam Schulman named Bill Russell as the new head coach for the 1973/74 season. Russell, a 13-year veteran of the NBA, with eleven NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, had been a player/coach at Boston for three seasons. A good match for the Sonics, Russell helped the Sonics improve their win-record by ten games, finishing in third place in the Pacific Division. Individual players made outstanding contributions as well. Jim Fox, acquired in the 1972/73 season, recorded thirty rebounds against the Los Angeles Lakers; Fred "Downtown" Brown, acquired in 1971, scored 58 points against the Golden State Warriors; and Spencer Haywood finished ninth in the NBA in scoring, sixth in rebounding, and ninth in blocked shots. In mid-season Seattle hosted its first All-Star Game.
Sonics Make the Playoffs
The 1974/75 season marked another milestone for the Sonics. Not only did the team compile a winning season of 43 wins and 39 losses, they also qualified for the NBA playoffs for the first time in their eight-year history. After disposing of the Detroit Pistons in a best-of-three series, they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Warriors went on to win the NBA championship.
The Sonics returned to the NBA finals after another winning season in 1975-76, again posting a 43-39 record. This time they were beaten out of the Western Conference Semifinals by the Phoenix Suns.
The 1976/77 season witnessed the Sonics slipping to a 40-42 season. In the off-season, the club underwent major restructuring with Assistant Coach Bob Hopkins replacing Bill Russell as head coach for the 1977/78 season. To the fans' dismay, a number of players were traded or benched. New faces to the lineup included Paul Silas, rookie Jack Sikma, Marvin Webster, Gus Williams and John Johnson. Owner Sam Schulman persuaded Lenny Wilkins, the club's new general manager, to return to his old coaching post. After implementing personnel changes, Coach Wilkins did, in fact, turn the team around to finish the season with a 42-18 record, and took them to the finals. The Sonics dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland, and Denver, to face the Washington Bullets in the finals. After trading victories through the series, Washington prevailed in Game 7 with a 105-99 victory.
Sonics Win the NBA Championship
Once again Coach Wilkins guided the Sonics to the NBA playoffs in 1978/79. The club posted their first 50-win season with a 52-30 record. In the post-season, they defeated the Lakers for the Western Conference title, and went on to face the Washington Bullets in the finals for the second time. After losing the first game to the Bullets, Seattle went on to win the next four games, clinching the NBA championship. Although the NBA-champion Sonics featured no big-name superstars, Wilkins was credited by a Seattle sportswriter with "putting all the necessary ingredients into the pot at the right time."
The following season posted another first for Seattle. With the advent of the three-point shot in the NBA, Seattle's "Downtown" Freddie Brown became the league's first ever three-point percentage leader (0.443). They were off to the conference finals again after a 56-26 season, but lost the Western Conference title to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 1980/81 season saw Seattle slip to 34 wins and 48 losses. Prior to the season opener, Paul Westphal came to Seattle in a trade with Phoenix for Dennis Johnson. Free agent Gus Williams failed to sign a contract with the Sonics and sat out the entire season. Paul Westphal and Jack Sikma were selected to represent the Sonics in the All-Star Game.
The club regained their footing in the conference with the 1981/82 season. Their 52-30 season record marked the third time in franchise history the team won over 50 games. Once again they were off to the finals, beating Houston in the first round of the playoffs, only to lose to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
The following season, Seattle finished third in the Pacific Division with a 34-48 record.
League stars were Gus Williams, who finished sixth in assists and seventh in steals, and Jack Sikma who in his fifth season with Seattle, finished fifth in rebounding and tenth in free throw shooting. Sikma, Williams and David Thompson represented the Sonics in the All-Star Game.
Ackerley Communications Purchases Team
The Sonics franchise changed hands before the 1983/84 season, when owner Sam Schulman sold the team to Barry Ackerley of Seattle's Ackerley Communications, a diversified media and entertainment company. This acquisition fell under the newly established Sport and Entertainment segment of the company. This year also marked the end of Fred Brown's thirteen-season career with the Sonics when he retired. He left as the team's career leader in games played (963), scoring (14,018 points), field goals (6,006) and steals (1,149). His uniform, No. 32, was retired in 1986. Although finishing third in the NBA in defense, Seattle earned the fewest wins since the 1972/73 season, finishing with a 31-51 record. Jack Sikma continued to shine, making his seventh straight All-Star appearance.
Wilkens Era Comes to an End
Prior to the 1985/86 seasoning opening, Coach Lenny Wilkins was bumped up to the front office, after compiling a 478-402 record as coach of the Sonics. Bernie Bickerstaff replaced Wilkins as head coach on June 20, 1985. This season the Sonics achieved another NBA milestone: the first NBA game ever postponed due to rain when a leaky roof at the Seattle Center Coliseum halted a game against the Suns in the second quarter. The game was concluded the following day. Six foot, seven inch rookie Xavier McDaniel, who lead NCAA in both scoring and rebounding his senior season at Wichita State, played his first season in Seattle and earned NBA All-Rookie Team honors.
During the off-season, longtime center Jack Sikma was sent to Milwaukee for Alton Lister, a move that signaled a change in Seattle's style of defense. When Sikma left the Sonics he had accumulated more rebounds (7,729) blocked shots (705) and free throws made (3,044) than any player in team history. His No. 43 jersey was raised to the Seattle Center Coliseum rafters in 1992.
Big Three Make NBA History
On May 28, 1986, Bob Whitsitt was hired as President of the Sonics. Dale Ellis was acquired from Dallas and began his first season with Seattle. Ellis turned out to be one of the most prolific three-point shooters in NBA history. With Tom Chambers and Xavier McDaniel, Ellis was part of a trio that made league history--the first time three players from one team averaged 23 points or better in a season. All three were ranked among the league's top fifteen scorers. Ellis was also recognized as the NBA's Most Improved Player. Chambers was voted the All-Star Game MVP, as Seattle once again hosted the All-Star Game in February 1987. Newcomer Nate McMillan set a franchise record with 25 assists on February 23, 1987. Despite finishing with a 39-43 season, Seattle made the playoffs and reached the Conference Finals for the third time in team history. They lost in four straight games to the Lakers. Coach Bickerstaff was named Sporting News NBA Coach of the Year.
The Big Three (Ellis, McDaniel, and Chambers) provided most of the scoring again in the 1987/88 season. Another player contributing to the winning 44-38 season was Nate McMillan, finishing sixth in the league in assists and eighth in steals.
In July 1988, the Sonics let Chambers go to Phoenix and brought in rebounding champ Michael Cage from the Los Angeles Lakers. On November 9, the Sonics played Milwaukee in a seemingly endless five-overtime game which was eventually won by the Bucks by a single point, 155-154. In spite of losing the game, the Sonics' total points matched their all-time high. Dale Ellis continued his reign on the court finishing third in the NBA in scoring and second in three-point shooting and represented Seattle in the All-Star Game.
The most intriguing player on the roster in 1989 was 6-foot, 10-inch Shawn Kemp, drafted right out of high school. Known for earth-shaking dunks, he earned the nickname "Reign Man" and would go on to earn many honors in a Sonics uniform.
Coaching Changes Begin Team Restructuring
Coach Bickerstaff lead the team to a 41-41 finish in 1990, an ending repeated in 1991 under the leadership of K.C. Jones. Jones had coached the Boston Celtics to two championships in the 1980's and had won eight championships as a player. But, on November 18, Seattle scored only 65 points in a loss to the Clippers, marking the weakest offensive performance of the team in franchise history.
Other team changes in midseason saw Xavier McDaniel go to the Phoenix Suns on December 7 in exchange for long-distance threat Eddie Johnson and a couple of draft picks. Dale Ellis left for Milwaukee in a trade for Ricky Pierce; and Olden Polynice went to the Los Angeles Clippers for Benoit Benjamin. Shawn Kemp set a Sonics' single-game record for blocked shots by snuffing ten Lakers' attempts on January 18. First-round draft pick Gary Payton, who had been Sports Illustrated's College Player of the Year at Oregon State, took over point guard duties from Nate McMillan and led the team in assists.
The team remained in transition during the 1991/92 season. Coach K.C. Jones was fired on January 15, and was succeeded by George Karl. Karl, who played five years with the San Antonio Spurs in the mid-70's, had coached two-year stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. He had also coached Albany of the Continental Basketball Association and Real Madrid in Europe.
The team appeared headed for a major turnaround under Karl and finished the season winning 27 of their last 42 games. On March 3, the Sonics won their 1000th game with a victory over Denver. They advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals over Golden State, but fell to Utah in five games.
Fans of the Sonics' 1992/93 season experienced an exciting, unconventional brand of basketball. The team ended in second place in the Pacific Division with a 55-27 record, the second best in club history. Power forward Shawn Kemp continued to entertain with spectacular offensive moves and dramatic slam dunks. Point guard Gary Payton developed a jump shot to augment his offensive repertoire and gained a reputation as a tenacious defender. The entire Sonics team seemed to thrive on an innovative defensive strategy devised by Assistant Coach Bob Kloppenburg. Midseason dealt center Benoit Benjamin and unsigned draft choice Doug Christie to the Lakers for Sam Perkins. The Sonics set a team record with twenty-three steals (two short of an NBA record) in a victory over Sacramento. Coach Karl recorded his 200th career win on April 22 against the Los Angeles Clippers. The team set a franchise record by selling out 26 home games. Another playoff run saw the Sonics beating Utah in the first round, and Houston in the Conference Semifinals, but the Charles Barkley-led Phoenix Suns were too much for the Sonics as they fell in the Western Conference Finals in seven games.
In 1993-94 the club picked up Detlef Schrempf from the Indiana Pacers and Kendall Gill from the Charlotte Hornets in preseason trades. The team went from being the NBA's best team in the regular season, with a 63-19 record, and winning the Pacific Division for the second time in NBA playoff history, to becoming the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 8 seed with a loss to the Denver Nuggets. Their sixty-three wins, however, included the team record for most home wins (37) and most road wins (26). McMillan lead the league in steals and the team set a team record with 1,053 steals, second highest total in NBA history. Kemp finished in the top 25 in scoring. The team sold out all forty-one home games, a franchise first.
Following the off season, Sonic President Bob Whitsitt, who had won NBA Executive of the Year honors the previous year, resigned in an apparent dispute with ownership. During the summer Wally Walker, a former NBA player and the Sonics' part-time broadcast analyst, was hired to fill his spot. One of his first moves was to trade Ricky Pierce and the draft rights to Carlos Rogers to the Golden State Warrior for Sarunas Marciulionis and Byron Houston.
The 1994/95 season was reminiscent of the year before, although the Sonics played the entire season in the Tacoma Dome while a new stadium was being built. The Sonics started out as one of the league's best teams and ended with a 57-25 record. Schrempf finished second in the league in three-point percentage, shooting a team record of 51.4 percent. For the third straight year, the Sonics lead the league in steals. Karl won his 300th career NBA game. Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, and Detlef Schrempf all made the All-Star Team, giving Seattle more representatives in the midseason classic than any other NBA club. Other key players were second year Ervin Johnson and Bill Cartwright. Once again, however, their playoff hopes were dashed by the Lakers in the first round.
KeyArena, located on the campus of The Seattle Center, opened its doors as the new 17,072-seat home of the Seattle SuperSonics on October 26, 1995. The Sonics' first game in their new venue was a win on November 4, 1995, against the Los Angeles Lakers. The team fit comfortably in the new arena and set a club record of 38 home game wins. Away from home, they beat the Chicago Bulls in one of only ten losses the Bulls suffered all season. In February and March, the Sonics posted a team-record 14-game wining streak, and later became the first team in NBA history to lead the league in steals for four straight seasons. Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and the Sonics coaching staff represented the team in this year's All-Star Game. Kemp lead the team in scoring; Payton led the NBA in steals, was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and won a berth on the U.S. Olympic basketball team. At the end of the season, the Sonics had posted a record of 64 wins and eighteen losses, the tenth best in NBA history. In the playoffs, they marched over the Sacramento Kings, the Houston Rockets, and the Utah Jazz to advance to the finals--the first time since their 1979 championship series. Facing the Bulls, the Sonics lost the first three games, but rebounded with back-to-back wins in games four and five, before the Bulls ended Seattle's championship run in the sixth game.
For the fifth straight season, Seattle won at least 55 games in 1996/97, and became the first team to lead the NBA in steals for five consecutive seasons (11.02 a game). In post-season play, they edged out the Lakers for their third Pacific Division title in four years. After defeating the Phoenix Suns, they faced the Houston Rockets who won in the final seconds of game seven of the Western Conference Semifinals. Kemp, Payton and Schrempf once again represented the Sonics on the All-Star Team. Payton was named First Team All-Defense for the fourth straight season. Seattle led the NBA in steals-to-turnover ratio with 0.73, and forced more turnovers (18.7) than any other team in the league.
Having been termed the team that couldn't win games when it counted, namely the playoffs, Seattle began the 1997/98 season looking toward the finals. With seven new players, the Sonics found themselves once again on top of the Pacific Division for the fourth time in five seasons, and posted another winning season with 61 wins and 21 losses. In a key move by Sonics President Wally Walker, a three-way trade was negotiated with Milwaukee and Cleveland to bring three-time All-Star Vin Baker to Seattle. In his first season as a Sonic, Baker did not disappoint his teammates and coach: he averaged 19.2 points per game, 8 rebounds per game, and finished fifth in the NBA in field goal percentage. Other key contributors to the team were Jerome Kersey, Greg Anthony, Aaron Williams and Dale Ellis. In the post-season, Seattle overcame Minnesota in the first round, but were beaten by the Lakers in five games, in no small way due to the phenomenal play of Shaquille O'Neal.
Coach Karl Leaves the Sonics
Although the 1998/99 season was another stellar season for Gary Payton, the Sonics finished 25-25 in the lockout-shortened season and missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Payton became the Sonics' all-time steals leader, scored his 10,000th NBA point and recorded his eighth triple-double (double digits in points, rebounds, and assists). In May 1998, Coach Karl left the Sonics to be replaced by former player Paul Westphal. Nate McMillan ended his 12-year career as Seattle's all-time steals and assists leader, but remained with the Sonics coaching staff as an assistant.
In the 1999/2000 season, Seattle's three-season home-sell-out record was broken at 114 on November 4, 1999. Gary Payton continued to lead the team in scoring, steals, and assists, and ended the season with 315 consecutive starts, the longest currently in the league. He was named First Team All-NBA for the second time, and was the second leading vote getter behind Shaquille O'Neal. Brent Barry was acquired from the Chicago Bulls and Ruben Patterson signed a three-year contract with the Sonics. Their playoffs hopes were dashed for the ninth time in ten years when they lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round.
Paul Westphal was replaced as head coach at the beginning of the 2000/2001 season by Nate McMillan, who was named interim coach on November 27, and later signed a four-year contract with the Sonics. He recorded his first career coaching victory on November 28 against the neighboring Trail Blazers in Portland, and went on to finish the season with a 38-29 record. Desmond Mason was signed as a first-round draft pick; and Patrick Ewing was acquired from the New York Knicks. Gary Payton passed Fred Brown as the team's all-time leading scorer with 14,018 points and became the eighth player in NBA history to compile 15,000 points, 6,000 assists, and 1,000 steals. He was named NBA Hometown Hero of the Month in April. As the first Sonics to ever do so, Desmond Mason won the NBA Slam Dunk contest during the NBA All-Star weekend.
Starbuck's Founder Purchases the Seattle SuperSonics
In 2001, The Basketball Club of Seattle LLC purchased the Seattle SuperSonics from Barry Ackerley for $200 million. The Basketball Club of Seattle LLC, a group of private investors, was headed by Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks Coffee Company. Schultz, an avid sports fan, hoped by acquiring ownership of the team to make outstanding sporting events accessible to the entire community and is committed to bringing an NBA championship to the city of Seattle, not unlike the aspirations of original owner Sam Schulman.
Principal Competitors:Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns.