Let’s face it: Clay Bennett left Seattle with a sour taste in our mouths and an NBA team that was headed to Oklahoma City. Few businessmen can have that kind of impact on our rain-soaked souls. I’ve written before about smarmy blank-check writers that swooped up Seattle teams before (Bud Selig) but we’re still bitter about the last time it happened. It happened to our Sonics.
But this week we get to revel in sweet Seattle history by revisiting the 1996 NBA Finals, a series that saw the whole of the PNW’s basketball madness get to collectively go nuts over hosting one of the greatest teams ever. And it all went down 23 years ago.
THE 1996 SEASON
Well, before the games counted for real, we had the NBA Draft that year. Seattle had two picks that literally nobody remembers, mainly because every spotlight in the world was focused on future Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett being taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves at #5.
During the 95-96 season, the Sonics racked up 64 wins, dominating the Pacific Division and the Western Conference. Gary Payton would be named Defensive Player of the Year, leading the league in total steals and forcing his career-best 3.2 Turnovers Per Game WHILE ALSO leading the team in total points scored! Fortunately he didn’t do it alone, as some guy named Shawn Kemp was also terrorizing every opponent in the paint on his way to being named to the All-Star Game with Payton for the 4th time.
All hail the Reign Man.
We strutted into the playoffs as the 1st seed. The first round wasn’t much of a challenge; we trounced the Kings in 4 games, then took the Semifinals against the Houston Rockets in just as many games. Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler couldn’t even wipe their foreheads before we beat ’em.
The Western Conference Final had us going up against the Utah Jazz, who featured the scrappy John Stockton and blueprint of model male musculature Karl Malone. The series went to 7 games this time before we finally took them down 90-86 at Key Arena.
If you don’t know by now, the Sonics’ opponent in the Finals that year was the Chicago Bulls. That year they had set a then-record for most wins in a season with 72, mostly because they fielded a team of future Hall of Famers too: Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, and Scottie Pippen. Any lesser team would have been shaking in their Nikes but not Seattle.
Games 1 and 2 were hosted in Chicago. We lost both games, but not for lack of trying:
For Game 3 we headed back to Seattle and lost. We were down 0-3; the pit that from which under nobody ever climbs back. Then we got hot, winning Games 3 and 4 in front of sold-out clamorous Key Arena fans!
Then we got to Chicago for Game 6. If you know the story, it basically says that the Sonics lost, the Bulls won their 4th NBA Championship, and even though no one knew it at the time, it would be the last time Seattle would host the NBA Finals.
Yet we did get to see more playoff basketball in the Emerald City before they became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008: we made it to the Semifinals in ’97 and ’98, and got to the playoffs again in ’05 before falling again.
Seattle’s status as a potential NBA city is up in the air, but improvements to Key Arena are ongoing, and can only help bring a team here.
And with the National Hockey League awarding an expansion team to Seattle earlier this year, it’s safe to assume that basketball will once again run through the Pacific Northwest. For now, it’s been fun reminiscing with you. And I’ll be at the Key the day we get our Sonics back.
-Ben from the Afterparty