Seattle will always have its Sonics — even though it no longer has its Sonics.
Between the two sports markets emotionally involved in Super Bowl XLVIII this evening in New Jersey, Denver has given its fans more of a payoff through the years. A pair of Lombardi Trophies (XXXII and XXXIII) for the Broncos as led by John Elway. A couple of laps around the ice (1996, 2001) by the Colorado Avalanche, with the NHL’s Stanley Cup held high by goaltender Patrick Roy. At least an appearance in the 2007 World Series by the Colorado Rockies before Boston’s sweep that fall.
But Seattle? Folks in that market have to go back to the 1979 SuperSonics to find the city’s lone championship (Big Four, North-American team category).
The Larry O’Brien trophy wasn’t even called that then. The NBA commissionership wasn’t even a glimmer in David Stern‘s eye. Michael Jordan? Heck, Larry and Magic weren’t even in the league yet.
Thirty-five years is a long time. How many Seattle sports fans are too young to remember that special spring? How many who lived it aren’t around anymore?
But Jack Sikma was front and center, making it happen, recalling it fondly ever since and basking a little in the glow and nostalgia during this Seahawks team’s push to the Bowl.
Sikma was the 6-foot-11 center on that Sonics title team, a sleeper out of Illinois Wesleyan in the 1977 draft widely remembered for his blond locks and signature “reverse pivot” move. As an obvious link to the city’s crowning sports achievement and a resident who makes his permanent home there, Sikma was a natural to be invited to participate in the Seahawks’ traditional “12th Man” ceremony earlier this NFL season.
“My niece works for the Seahawks,” said Sikma by phone Friday, taking a break from his NBA day job as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves. “They asked if I’d be interested and I told ’em, ‘Of course.’ My only qualifier was that it had to happen really early in the season, because we were going to start ours up.”
So on Sept. 22, with Jacksonville in town, Sikma made the trek up to the upper rim of CenturyLink Field as guest hoister of the team’s “12th Man” flag honoring the fans. “You’re at one end of the stadium, way up top,” he said. “The whole stadium is turned toward the flag pole just before kickoff, and the crescendo starts. You’re waving the flag and whipping up the crowd, and that goes right through the kickoff. It was pretty cool.”
The 1978-79 Sonics qualified as cool, too, getting all the way back to The Finals after a seventh-game loss to Washington the year before and then beating that same Bullets team in five games. Seattle had all its pieces in place that season: Sikma in the middle, a dynamic backcourt led by Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and (Downtown) Freddie Brown, Lonnie Shelton and John Johnson up front, a rotation that included Paul Silas, Wally Walker and Tom LaGarde and head coach Lenny Wilkens.
The biggest change from the previous squad was Shelton, arriving as compensation from New York after the Knicks signed free-agent center Marvin (Human Eraser) Webster. Sikma had played power forward as a rookie but shifted over, with the burly Shelton slotting alongside him.
The Sonics had the NBA’s top defense (100.1 rating) and ranked 14th of the 22 teams offensively (102.7). They won the Pacific Division with a 52-30 record, beat the pre-Magic Lakers in five games and came back from a 3-2 deficit to get past Phoenix. Williams (19.2 ppg) led them in scoring, John Johnson (4.4) in assists, Dennis Johnson chipped in 15.9 ppg and Shelton, Silas and LaGarde combined for 30.1 points and 21.5 rebounds a night. Brown was the deep threat and instant offense off the bench, while Sikma averaged 15.6 points and 12.4 rebounds.
“The pressure was really to give ourselves another chance at The Finals,” Sikma recalled, “especially since we were so close and lost the seventh game at home – it wore on you. We got there and we actually played our best basketball probably all year long. We got up and down [the floor]. Defensively we really closed down the paint. It happened, and the town went nuts. And I’m sure if the Seahawks win, it will be bedlam.”
Seattle’s small-town feel, particularly 35 years ago, meant that many of the team’s sports stars cross-pollinated, attending each others’ games. The Seahawks were an expansion team in 1976, the Mariners began the following spring – and Sikma was pretty young himself. He was single, with time on his hands, and mingled with fans constantly, security far less prevalent than now.
He also learned that team success wouldn’t always come so readily. Sikma played 12 more NBA seasons (another seven with the Sonics, then five with Milwaukee) but never made it back to The Finals.
“I wouldn’t say I didn’t appreciate how lucky I was and try to understand how hard it was to do what we did,” he said. “But the guys who had been there – Fred Brown had been in Seattle [since 1971] and really didn’t have a team that ever challenged. John Johnson hadn’t had that opportunity or Dennis Awtrey. They were later-on in their careers. I’m sure it meant a little more to them.”
While not getting back stung, getting there early actually helped him, Sikma said. “I got my money’s worth in those two years,” he said. “My experience under the pressure of it, and just the focus and the preparation, boded well for me for the rest of my career. The confidence that came from that, I couldn’t imagine any other way to gain it.”
Sikma was a seven-time All-Star. He retired having averaged 15.6 points and 9.8 rebounds, and ranks 30th in rebounds (10,816). In fact, as one of just nine players to have at least 17,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 1,000 blocks and 1,000 steals (since blocks and steals began being tracked in 1973), Sikma has a decent case for Hall of Fame consideration. Seven are in (Abdul-Jabbar, K. Malone, M. Malone, Olajuwon, Ewing, Parish, D. Robinson) and one (Kevin Garnett) is active.
Sikma, however, always will have that 1979 championship. He’s rooting for the Seahawks to join the Sonics as ring-bearers – rooting so hard, he’ll watch the game at home alone, he said, to avoid the distractions of a party. “I really respect that organization,” Sikma said. “[Owner] Paul Allen has built a great stadium. They have a rabid fan base and they have solid people like John Schneider running their organization. When you put those things together, usually, you have a high level of success.”
Sikma also would like to see another NBA contender in Seattle some day. The league’s power brokers know all about demographics, disposable incomes and TV market size; Sikma knows the people there.
“It’s a crime there’s not a basketball team there anymore,” he said. “People come out and they root. They’re participating in the game as a fan. There are a lot of young professionals that kind of fit the NBA’s fan mold who live in Seattle. It’s become a very urban city, both Seattle and across the way in Bellevue.
“I sure hope it happens and, if it does, it would be great.”
Funny, but he said exactly the same thing about Seahawks vs. Broncos.