On Sunday night, the Seattle Seahawks will take the field against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. The 'Hawks will be playing not only for the first championship in franchise history, but for the first professional sports championship for any Seattle men's professional sports franchise since the 1970s.
All the Super Bowl excitement bubbling over in Seattle—the legions of fans decked out in blue and neon green jerseys, the newborn babies named "Cydnee Leigh 12th Mann"—belies a city with a sad sports history.
The two longest-tenured franchises left in the Emerald City, the Seahawks and Mariners have exactly zero championships between them. The Seahawks came closest to the promised land in 2005, losing Super Bowl XL to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-10, in a game marred by some questionable officiating.
The Mariners have had an even more star-crossed history. They are one of two Major League Baseball franchises (along with the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals) never to make an appearance in the World Series.
Though they've had a host of legendary players over the years, including Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki, the talented Mariners clubs of the '90s/early '00s had a habit of falling short in the American League Championship Series. Even the 2001 team, which won a league-record 116 games, lost to the hated New York Yankees in the ALCS.
But before the Seahawks and Mariners, there were the Seattle SuperSonics: 1978-79 NBA champions.
The NBA established a franchise in Seattle in 1967, before either the NFL or MLB came calling. Like most expansion franchises, the new SuperSonics took a few seasons to get on their feet. They didn't make the playoffs until 1974-75, their eighth season.
The Sonics finally broke through to the ranks of true contenders in 1977-78. Future Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens took over midseason for Bob Hopkins, who had coached the team to a disappointing 5-17 start.
With Wilkens at the helm, Seattle took off.
They finished the season strong, then upset the No. 1-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals. They went on to beat Denver in the conference finals, earning a date with the Washington Bullets in the championship series.
The Bullets triumphed in seven games. The young Sonics were denied a title. They would not be denied again.
Most basketball fans remember Hall of Fame guard Dennis Johnson from his time with the legendary Larry Bird Celtics teams of the '80s. He was the guy on the receiving end of Bird's famous pass off the inbounds steal in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.
But before he was a Celtic, Johnson was part of a dynamic Sonics backcourt, along with two-time All-Star Gus Williams.
But Johnson let down the Sonics in '78 with one of the worst shooting performances in finals history, and the defending-champion Bullets wouldn't let him forget it in '79.
Per the Seattle Times' Steve Kelley, "In the seventh game [of the '78 finals], 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.'"
The Sonics finished with a regular-season record of 52-30, best in the Western Conference and second-best in the league...to the Bullets.
Before the playoffs, Sonics guard Fred Brown guessed the finals would once again come down to a battle between Seattle and Washington (D.C.).
Per NBA.com, Brown had said, "Don't be fooling yourself. You know it all boils down to us against Washington one more time. Both teams have great people all the way through the lineup. They're deeper, but we make up for that with our backcourt. I think it will be wild and picturesque all over again."
Indeed, the Bullets had the NBA's best frontcourt, anchored by Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. They took Game 1, 99-97.
But that's all the Bullets would get. Seattle swept the next four games to win the title. The key play of the series was made by Dennis Johnson—the same Dennis Johnson who had failed to come through when it mattered in '78. With the Sonics up by two in overtime of Game 4, Johnson blocked a last-second attempt by Washington's Kevin Grevey to seal the win.
Johnson was named MVP of the '79 Finals, averaging 22.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. He and Gus Williams accounted for more than half of Seattle's points during the series.
According to Kelley, that '79 team developed a special rapport with the city of Seattle:
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.
In a very real way, that '79 Sonics championship marked the end of an era in the NBA: an era of unprecedented parity.
Eight NBA teams won a title during the '70s, including Seattle, the Knicks, Celtics, Warriors, Bullets (Wizards), Trail Blazers, Lakers and Bucks. But only two of those franchises (Celtics, Lakers) have won another championship since '79.
In the 34 years since the Sonics' last championship, the NBA has been dominated by just a handful of franchises like no other professional sports league in North America:
- Los Angeles Lakers: 10 titles
- Chicago Bulls: six titles
- Boston Celtics: four titles
- San Antonio Spurs: four titles
- Miami Heat: three titles
- Detroit Pistons: three titles
- Houston Rockets: two titles
Only two teams during that time have won a single championship: the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers and the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks.
Given the lack of parity in the NBA over the last three decades, the Sonics' title drought is far from an embarrassment: many franchises have had it far worse. Seattle made one more NBA Finals, in 1996, but lost to Michael Jordan and the powerhouse Bulls.
Unfortunately for the basketball fans of the Pacific Northwest, the franchise's next appearance would come in another city. Owner Clay Bennett moved the franchise to Oklahoma City following the 2007-08 season—a season that just so happened to feature a promising rookie by the name of Kevin Durant.
Though the Sonics may be gone forever, they left an indelible imprint on the city and its fans, thanks to the 1978-79 championship team. It is now up to another team—in another sport—to reestablish Seattle as a city of champions.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference
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