The Seattle Sonics were combustible. They were flawed. They were a little bit dangerous and not at all conventional. Ragged by design and exciting in both temperament and ability, the Sonics weren't ahead of their time. They were from another universe.
Nobody played basketball in the '90s like the Sonics. In an era of post-ups, isolations and slowdown styles, the Sonics were frantic. They trapped everything and switched even more. They wanted to turn you over and make you uncomfortable, and when they did, they threw down hammer dunks and alley-oops. Then, they told you about it afterward.
They were also really good. Over a six-year span, the Sonics won 357 games and finished with the best record in the West four times, reaching the conference finals twice and the NBA Finals once. In between, they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to team seeded eighth and followed that up with another first round exit.
At a time when great players like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton were denied championships by Michael Jordan's overwhelming presence, history has not been all that kind to the Sonics. Every one of those players and teams had postseason disappointments during their years together. The Sonics had disasters. There was no middle ground. When they were on top of their game, they were virtually unbeatable. But when they fell, they crashed, leaving a trail of collateral damage in their wake.
What the Sonics had more than any of the other teams of their era was personality. The players fought with each other. They argued with their coach, who was just as crazy as they were, and the general manager fought with the owner. If they existed today, they would own the basketball Internet and be worth the price of League Pass all by themselves. They were of a time and place, and when it was over, they simply faded away.
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Before the preps-to-pros movement began with Kevin Garnett in 1995, there was Shawn Kemp. A freakishly athletic 6-10 power forward, Kemp never played a game of college basketball. He signed with Kentucky, but was ruled ineligible under the old Prop 48 rules. He left amid allegations that he pawned a pair of gold chains belonging to the coach's son -- Kemp was never charged -- and a recruiting scandal that touched every aspect of the program. He made his way to a Texas junior college, but never played there either.
Nevertheless, Kemp declared for the 1989 draft. Sixteen spots after the Kings tabbed Pervis Ellison with the top pick, the Sonics chose Kemp, who quickly proved that he belonged in the league. He moved into the starting lineup early in his second season and was in the All-Star Game by the time he was 23 years old.
Dubbed the "Reign Man," by beloved broadcaster Kevin Calabro, Kemp combined brute power with stunning athletic grace. He was a spectacular in-game dunker, and like Blake Griffin years later, critics charged him with lacking an all-around game to complement his highlight plays. But Kemp was a better passer than people gave him credit for and a double-double machine whose numbers were obscured by the Sonics' deep rotations and spread-the-wealth offensive philosophy.
The Sonics went 41-41 in Kemp's rookie year and just missed out on the postseason, but lottery fortune was on their side. With the second pick in the draft, the Sonics selected Gary Payton from nearby Oregon State. Payton and Kemp couldn't have been more different. While Kemp kept to himself, operating on what the Sonics dubbed "Shawn Time," Payton was loud and brash. They were the alpha and omega of the Sonics' swaggering insecurity.
The Sonics were in the midst of a transition period when Kemp and Payton arrived and their story doesn't really begin to take shape until midway through the '91-'92 season, when GM Bob Whitsitt made a fateful change at head coach, firing K.C. Jones and luring George Karl back to the states from a gig coaching Real Madrid.
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Karl was a coaching prodigy who made winners out of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, but wore out his welcome before he could see those rebuilding projects through to completion. Upon his return, Karl was determined to do things his way. He had gone 50-6 with the Albany Patroons in the CBA playing a wide-open fast-paced style, which was perfect for his new team. He retained defensive guru Bob Kloppenburg, who installed the manic, trapping defensive style that became the team's trademark.
The Sonics went 27-15 that season under Karl and reached the second round of the playoffs after a memorable first-round upset of the Golden State Warriors, punctuated by a vicious Kemp jam over veteran statue Alton Lister. The dunk captured everything about Kemp's emerging game and was captured memorably by Calabro:
The Sonics lost to Utah in five games in the second round, but this was their introduction to the big stage. The NBA was undergoing a transition, as the Celtics, Pistons and Lakers were all at the end of their runs. The league now belonged to Michael Jordan, but the West was wide open, just waiting for someone to claim it.
Whitsitt made two savvy moves during the 1993 season, acquiring journeyman swingman Vincent Askew and landing Sam Perkins at the trade deadline. The Sonics won 55 games and reached the conference finals, but they already had a knack for making things hard on themselves. They fought back from 2-1 deficits in all three rounds of the playoffs, but eventually couldn't get past Barkley's Suns in a seventh game that featured 100 free throws, with 64 being awarded to Phoenix. For all their later postseason misery, this loss stung as much as any of them.
Trader Bob didn't sit tight. He dealt Derrick McKey to the Pacers for Detlef Schrempf and picked up Kendall Gill from the Hornets. The '94 Sonics were loaded. They won 63 games and went 17-2 down the stretch. After winning the first two playoff games handily against the Nuggets, it seemed like nothing could stop them.
Then, they went to Denver. All year long, people wondered if the Sonics would unravel when things got tight. Despite the impressive array of talent, they lacked a certified low-post scorer. Kemp was many things, but he wasn't automatic on the block like Barkley, Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson.
Then there was the questionable chemistry. McKey was no Schrempf offensively, but he could guard multiple positions and was as integral to their pressure defense as Payton and Nate McMillan. There was also a memorable argument between Payton and veteran Ricky Pierce over shots and the way Payton ran the offense.
The Sonics dropped both games in Denver and then came apart completely in the deciding fifth game. The series ended with Denver's Dikembe Mutombo on the ground gripping the ball in one the 1990's iconic moments. Payton later revealed that he sensed trouble after Game 2 and a locker room speech only magnified the problems.
Whitsitt resigned, or was fired (or both) and wound up with the Blazers. Kemp was nearly traded to the Bulls for Scottie Pippen, which would have dramatically altered NBA history. Karl survived, but a year later, they again lost in the first round, this time to the Lakers. The coach had one more year left on his contract and no one thought he could survive another postseason meltdown. He did.
Fortified by steady shooting guard Hersey Hawkins, the '96 Sonics finally, mercifully, reached the NBA Finals. Karl made a key strategic decision in the conference finals against Utah, dropping their trapping defense and playing the Jazz straight up. After blowing a 3-1 series lead, the Sonics finally held on in seven games, with Kemp making two clutch free throws to clinch the series.
In the Finals, they dropped the first three games to the Bulls, then came roaring back to take the series back to Chicago, which was about the most Sonics thing ever. Just when you were ready to write them off, they came back for more. Yet the Bulls closed them out back in Chicago and that was as close as they would get to the ultimate prize.
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More on the 90s Sonics
After losing in the second round in 1997, Kemp was finally traded. It was a contract dispute that did it. Kemp held out after Seattle gave backup center Jim McIlvaine a 5-year, $35 million contract, and he was dealt before the start of the season for Vin Baker. The Sonics won 61 games without him, but were no match for Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers in the playoffs. That finally sealed the end of Karl's run as coach.
Gary Payton hung around until the 2003 season, but he was ultimately traded to Milwaukee at the deadline for Ray Allen, in what began the Sonics' last run. They moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, and a franchise that meant so much to so many simply disappeared.
There are no retired jerseys or banners commemorating the mid-'90s Sonics. They exist only in our imagination, in grainy YouTube videos and old newspaper clips. When Clay Bennett moved the franchise to Oklahoma City, the Sonics' legacy went into limbo. The original memorabilia is still housed in Seattle, but Bennett's group retains the records, the history and the rights to the team name.
Perhaps someday in the future when Seattle finally gets its team back, Payton, Kemp and Karl will get their due. They were one of a kind: brash, crazy and unpredictable. They were a tragically flawed basketball team at the worst possible times.
But when they were on, there was no one like them.