A great day in Seattle History
June 1, 2021
Dennis Johnson. Jack Sikma. Gus Williams. ‘Downtown’ Freddie Brown. Paul Silas. Lennie Wilkens.
On June 1, 1979, these were the names on the lips of every Washingtonian as the Seattle Supersonics won their first and only National Basketball Association championship.
The team was formed as part of the NBA expansion in 1967. The early years, while perhaps full of hope for the team, found the franchise consistently finishing near the bottom.
But the team and the fans were undaunted because Seattle was a basketball kind of town. It was the arrival of Bill Russell in 1973 that started the team on the path to glory. The next year the team made its first entry to the playoffs, losing in the Conference playoff round to the San Francisco Warriors.
For the next three years the excitement grew. At least until the disastrous 1976-77 season. The following year Bill Russell was gone as head coach and replaced by Bob Hopkins (who was, coincidentally, an assistant coach and Russell’s cousin). Hopkins was a catastrophe, being fired mid-year in the wake of a 5-17 start.
What happened next was, perhaps, a miracle. Lennie Wilkens, who had been a Sonics player and then head coach for a few years prior to Russell, returned and took the fairytale team all the way to the NBA finals.
The team lost the 1978 title in the 7 game series to the Washington Bullets.
Basketball fever, however, now gripped Seattle, the team and fans alike certain that the championship ring was within their grasp. At the close of the 1978-79 regular season, Seattle was atop the Western Conference and entered the playoffs with a 52-30 win/loss record.
From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“In the playoffs, the SuperSonics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Semifinals, then defeated the Phoenix Suns in seven games in the Conference Finals to reach the NBA Finals for a second consecutive season in a rematch of the 1978 NBA Finals, facing the defending NBA champion Washington Bullets whom they had lost to in seven games. The Sonics would go on to avenge their NBA Finals loss and defeat the Bullets in five games, winning their first and only NBA championship. Dennis Johnson was named the NBA Finals MVP.
This was Seattle’s first professional sports championship since the Seattle Metropolitans victory in the Stanley Cup in 1917.”
It was a moment never to be repeated. The Sonics did, in 1996, once again reach the NBA championship game where they lost the series 4-2 to the Chicago Bulls.
In 2008 the unthinkable happened. Seattle’s beloved team had been sold to an Oklahoma City consortium led by businessman Clay Bennett (ie – the most hated man in Seattle, perhaps tied with Ken Behring, former owner of the Seahawks who attempted a similar move with the Hawks). When unable to produce the
blackmail money funding to build a new arena, professional basketball left Seattle.
The hubby – then the boyfriend – and I had been dating for less than a month on June 1, 1979. I had come over to Seattle from Yakima and was staying with my older brother and his wife in Ballard. That evening, all four of us had dinner and then we all watched the game.
It was a perfect late spring day. The temperature by 8:30 p.m. was an ideal 75 degrees, down from a high of 84 that day. When the final shot dropped through the net and the Sonics were the world champions it was as if the entire city of Seattle erupted in celebration.
Like everyone else, we went outside and on to the back deck of their house which sported a territorial view to the west. In the distance we watched as aerial fireworks burst above downtown Ballard; a cacophony of honking horns – both car and air – marked the moment.
Never had I witnessed such a shared joy as in that moment. We sat on the deck steps for quite some time as the festivities continued. It was well past sunset when the final horns and fireworks faded away.
The Sonics were our team, our guys. By then we had the Seahawks but it would be decades before they won their championship. The only real game in town in 1979 was basketball. It was glorious. And no slick Oklahoma City flimflam man will ever be able to steal that moment from us.
A couple of links for those who want to know more:
The Facebook answers: Seahawks (blue and green), Mariners (A different blue and green), Sonics, UW Huskys (purple and gold), WSU Cougars (crimson and gray), and the Gonzaga Bulldogs (blue and red)