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Originally published May 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 1, 2009 at 7:49 PM

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Steve Kelley

30 years ago, the Sonics were on top of the NBA world

Thirty years ago, when the Seattle Sonics were the best team in basketball, the national sports landscape looked much different. There were no 24-hour...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Sonics Anniversary Audio


Thirty years ago, when the Seattle Sonics were the best team in basketball, the national sports landscape looked much different.

There were no 24-hour sports channels, with their teams of analysts, always looking for something new to fill the next news cycle. No round-table of pundits micro-analyzing every substitution rotation, every defensive double-team, every shot selected and every three-pointer missed.

In fact, 30 years ago, there was no three-point line in the NBA and no "legal" zone defenses. Flagrant fouls were considered part of the spice of the sport. And only two officials were on the floor.

As good as it was — and it was a very, very good league 30 years ago — the NBA was a distant third among the nation's favorite professional sports. CBS was so worried about its ratings that it often showed weeknight Finals games on taped delay, after the late local news.

This was the season before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived and demanded fans' attentions. And it was long before the introduction of luxury suites, $1,500 courtside seats, canned, cacophonous noise and arena concourses that stretched as wide as Broadway.

It was the NBA's last season of innocence.

But in Seattle, in 1979, the Sonics ruled the city and the league. The previous season, they had lost in seven games to the Washington Bullets. In the seventh game, Seattle's star guard Dennis Johnson went 0 for 14 from the field and the next regular season, when Johnson missed his first shot against the Bullets, Washington coach Dick Motta barked at him, "0 for 15."

D.J.'s payback, however, was lush. The Sonics beat the Bullets in five games in 1979, winning the last four in a row, including the deciding game in Landover, Md., 97-93, a game that was played 30 years ago Monday.

The victory and the celebration that followed still might be the most glorious moments in Seattle sports history.

That team really felt as if it belonged to all of Seattle. The players were visible around town, in shops and restaurants and on the street. It was a band of approachable "Everymen" who just happened to be the best-assembled team in the game at the time.

Those Sonics connected with this city in a way very few professional sports teams connect with their towns.

Coach and general manager Lenny Wilkens and assistant Les Habegger put together a group that was better than its individual parts. A team that was a perfect blend of veteran crustiness and youthful exuberance.

The Sonics understood the game. They ran. They played larcenous defense. And they played together. Nobody on that team averaged 20 points a game, but six regulars averaged between 19.2 and 11.

Wilkens found players like Jack Sikma, Paul Silas and Lonnie Shelton, who willingly battled in the trenches for rebounds. He put the ball in the hands of a young creative jet, Gus Williams, who converted those rebounds into fast-breaking tsunamis.

Williams, Fred Brown and D.J. lurked in the shadows of the passing lanes and swiped passes that turned into quick scores. And John Johnson did a little of everything, a point forward with a Rhodes scholar's Basketball IQ. He led the Sonics in assists.

I was working in Portland at the time, but I loved being around this team and enjoyed covering their playoff games. Players like Sikma, J.J., Silas, D.J. and Brown were among the best interviews in the league.

Wilkens had a roster of role players. Brown was the game's best long-range jump shooter. The mercuric D.J., played lockdown defense and could catch fire and carry the team by himself.

Williams was the leading scorer. Sikma's unique step-back jumper was dependable as the tide tables, and Shelton made 52 percent of his field-goal attempts, best among the regulars.

The Sonics played in the often-filled and surprisingly loud Kingdome. They provided energy for an NBA that was treading water, anxiously waiting for Magic and Bird to revive the Lakers and Celtics, respectively.

With the NBA Finals beginning this week, and with the future of the former Sonics' former home, KeyArena, as uncertain as a player on a 10-day contract, we should celebrate what the NBA once meant to this city and how this team of "Everymen" united Seattle with its great artistry and relentless intensity.

Thirty years ago Monday, a much different time for basketball, Seattle and the Sonics meant everything to the NBA.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation. | 206-464-2176

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