The 1972-73 season had been a disaster. Bad trades, bad coaching, bad play, and high salaries had ravaged the season. But owner Sam Schulman wasn't the kind of guy to give up so easily. He was a risk-taker -- he had made plenty of mistakes, but that didn't stop him from trying again to make this a contending team. But how?
The answer was simple: if you want to be a champion, learn from a champion.
Schulman called Bill Russell, who had played 13 seasons for the Boston Celtics as their perrennial MVP, and in that time had won 11 championships, one as player/coach. Russell's knees were too shot to play now -- five years after he had retired -- but he could still coach.
Russell refused Schulman's initial offers, but as he relates in his classic book, "Second Wind," he decided to get Schulman off his back by asking for a ludicrous contract -- complete control of the franchise, with a clause barring anyone else in Sonic management from speaking or acting for the Sonics, a huge salary, a nice rental car in every town -- the list went on and on.
Schulman accepted at once. When Sam wanted something, he would go as far as the moon to get it. Russell kept his word and came. I remember the press hailing him as "The Dictator," which sent a chill down my spine. Russell was a man of strong opinions, and he had a great sense of humor, but I'd heard that he could be aloof and downright scary too.
The question was: would Russell the great player also be a great coach? He had coached a team of champion veterans in the Celtics. What about a bunch of selfish, arrogant, overpaid athletes?
The answer to that question was both yes and no. To get ahead of myself, he ruined more than one career, he alienated himself from the players and eventually the fans, he took the Sonics to the playoffs, he drafted at least one great player, and he reduced the payroll enough so that those who followed him could lure some quality players to the team. To understand how he did all this, we have to start at the beginning.
Bill Russell Comes to Town
Russell's task was two-fold. First, he had to help the team win. Second, he had to make the team financially stable. The payroll was the second-highest in the league, and attendance had plummeted. More than a coach, more than a GM, he was a veritable czar -- a dictator, as the press had affectionately labelled him. The players looked on him as something approaching deity.
Russell loved Seattle's laid-back, accepting style. (At least it was more accepting of African-Americans than many cities of its time; it was far from perfect.) He cultivated fan support in a weekly Seattle Times column and in a weekly radio show where he answered fans' questions. Both solidified his popularity with the fans. Hopes were high on all sides: here was a proven leader who could take us to the top.
Russell's impression of the Sonics team was not good. They let other teams dictate their style of play; they took selfish play to new heights (in his book he relates one incident when one player was chided by another for not passing to an open man; the first said, "Don't start messing with me while I'm shooting!") They didn't play tough defense. They weren't self-motivated. In other words, they were the complete opposite of Bill Russell's Celtics teams.
To make things worse, Russell's method during training camp was to subject players to a continuous barrage of criticism and blatant put-downs (this was according to Blaine Johnson's book, "What's Happenin'?", which describes Russell's last season with the Sonics; also, several such incidents are described in Spencer Haywood's book, "Spencer Haywood: The Rise, the Fall, the Recovery.") Coming from any other coach, the players might have shrugged it off; but coming from Bill Russell, the greatest winner in basketball, a man they greatly respected on and off the court, the insults could be devastating. Probably this was Russell's way of weeding out the "weaker" players. As a reminder during games, Russell kept a baseball bat and a carrot at his feet, emphasizing his "carrot and stick" approach to coaching -- although many players probably wondered where the carrot was. A large part of Russell's game had always been psychological; he wanted mentally tough players. (Of course, everyone does.) His approach was the opposite of Lenny Wilkens; Lenny had made players feel good and want to play; those who did what he asked and did it well when it counted got their playing time. Russell was much less predictable about playing time, and even less communicative; he did little teaching about how to do it right -- the assistant coaches did that, but they didn't hold the status that Russell did, and players often found them too verbose and hard to follow.
On road trips there was no alcohol and no tape recorders allowed. He wanted players to focus on the upcoming opponent. Players found his rules tough to follow.
Russell was particularly tough on 2 ex-ABA "stars," McDaniels and Brisker. McDaniels was too thin and soft to play in the NBA; Brisker was too stubborn and anti-authoritarian to play for Russell. Both Haywood's book and Johnson's book give details about how Russell ended the careers of both players. McDaniels' confidence plummeted under Russell; his already mediocre play deteriorated even more; his contract was bought out and then he was re-signed and traded early in the 73-74 season. He played for a few teams for several years after that, but never with much enthusiasm.
In preseason, as Haywood described, Brisker got mauled in practice by another player and wanted to fight; Russell let the two square off. Brisker with one punch smashed the guy's teeth out and the fight was over; Brisker then looked directly at Russell and screamed. Russell must have thought Brisker was insane -- from that day on, Russell wanted nothing to do with Brisker, often refusing to talk with him, and playing him little. Brisker apparently tried to mend fences; he played well offensively and even played defense, but Russell wasn't biting. Once you got on his wrong side, you were finished.
Russell sent Brisker to the Eastern League (basically a developmental league) to "learn defense" (which wasn't really played in the Eastern League, by the way.) Then when he returned he pleaded with Russell to let him know what he could do to play again; Johnson related that Russell simply swore at Brisker and told him to "stay out of my face." Brisker rode the bench from then on. His contract was bought out in the summer of 1974 when the Sonics took him to court, claiming he had broken a clause when he had surgery to remove bone spurs. According to Haywood and Johnson's books, many players lost respect for Bill Russell after his first season. The reason: Russell had gotten rid of Brisker even though John had showed signs of playing like an All-Star, and despite his repeated efforts to mend things with Russell. Brisker might score 70 points in a practice game according to Haywood, but Russell seemed not to notice. I remember listening to Bob Blackburn's play by play in a game against Kansas City in which Brisker scored 47 points; Blackburn was in awe. Suddenly I was almost a Brisker fan, even though I had thought him a punk and a worthless waste of money before; now I realized how dominant he could be. But after that game, Brisker was benched; fans shouted "We want Brisker!" but Russell ignored them. Soon after that he was sent to the Eastern (developmental) league, and his career was virtually over. Other coaches and GM's assumed it was all Brisker's fault. Of course, Brisker had already had a bad reputation; his fight and screaming in the preseason was bad. I think Russell's reaction was bad too -- instead of trying to communicate with a valuable player, he basically drove him off the team and by consequence, out of the league. Maybe Brisker deserved it; Russell hasn't given his perspective on the matter.
After how Russell had dealt with Brisker, many players became afraid that this would happen to them if they spoke out against the Dictator (so the books say.) Even in Russell's last season, the fear remained -- and the sense of injustice that a great man like Russell could treat a player so unfairly, at least in their eyes.
Even if Russell had been harsh about getting rid of McDaniels and Brisker, some good came out of it: the Sonics had gotten rid of two of their three highest players. (The highest paid one, Haywood, would be gone after Russell's second season.) They were a big step closer to reaching Russell's financial goals.
In the first season, Haywood and Russell became close, and Haywood became the team captain. Haywood's defense improved further. Other players came in, like Slick Watts, who hustled and played good defense. The Dictator, painfully, was improving the Sonics' roster while lowering the payroll. I don't know how many people could have done that.
The Sonics finished the season 36-46, 10 games better than the previous season. They scored 107 points a game on 44.5% shooting (near average that year), while on defense gaeve up 109.5 points on 46.3% shooting. They moved the ball and wound up 6th in assists that year (out of 17 teams) and 3rd lowest in personal fouls. Attendance sky-rocketed to a franchise-high of 12,000 per game, second highest in the league that year.
For the first time, the NBA kept official statistics on steals and blocked shots, and distinguished offensive rebounds from defensive rebounds. Scoring continued to drop in the league; perhaps this was due to a dilution of talent given the presence of the rival league, the ABA; it was also due to the increased use of scouting and video tapes. Russell apparently didn't use video tapes to prepare his team.
Assistant coaches included Emmett Bryant (not to be confused with Joe, Kobe's father) and Bob Hopkins, a former college coach and Russell's cousin.
The Sonics drafted Mike Green in the 1st round (4th pick overall), who promptly fled to the ABA. Russell, who joined the team after the draft, told reporters that it was just as well; Green was too thin and wouldn't have amounted to much in the NBA. Butch Beard, who had been acquired in exchange for Lenny Wilkens the year before, was traded to Golden State for Walt Hazzard. Hazzard had been the star point guard for the expansion Sonics. Because of injuries, he saw little playing time.
For the record, I remember Russell's teams as some of the goofiest looking of all time. Watts was the first bald-headed player in the league, and sported a yellow headband; Fox was tall, lanky, very scruffy-looking, and looked as pale as snow; Brown was pudgy and his big afro somehow seemed to accentuate his girth; Brisker looked as mean as his reputation; Snyder was paler than Fox and his receding hairline made him look like a middle-aged milk man; McDaniels looked like a long twig who'd break in half if you blew too hard; Haywood looked handsome and therefore out of place. (Sorry, Sonics. I was just 11, give me a break.)
Starting lineups changed throughout the season. For a while, it was:
later it was Haywood/Fox/McIntosh/Snyder/Brown
for 19 games it was Haywood/Fox/Snyder/Brown/Watts
and later in the season it was back to Haywood/Fox/McIntosh/Snyder/Brown
Starting Center/Forward: Jim Fox, a steady 6-10 veteran, played 28 minutes per game, and averaged 11.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game. He was not a shot-blocker (0.3 per game), so he sometimes played forward while Haywood played center. Basically, he tried to stay out of Haywood's way on offense, but had a decent jump shot from 15'. He shot 47.8% from the field and an impressive 82.3% from the line.
Center: Jim McDaniels, listed at 7-0 and 230, was probably shorter, and closer to 210 than 230. In other ways he wasn't as good as advertised in the ABA either. His earlier years with the Sonics had been a disappointment, but he sank to new lows under Russell. He was traded after the first 2 months of the season, then whoever got him immediately waived him for salary purposes. He did play in 27 games for 16 minutes a night that year with the Sonics.
Starting Power Forward/Center: Spencer Haywood, listed sometimes at 6-8 and sometimes at 6-9 (he was somewhere in between), played the season with a series of minor injuries, including bursitis in his right heel and an injured calf. Despite his hurts, he missed only 7 games that season. Though he lacked some of the jumping ability he had before his dramatic knee injury, he still looked good and was fun to watch driving through the lane and rising to the basket; Russell even taught him his old hook shot. Except for his diminished shot-blocking, Haywood's defense was perhaps the best of his career. Russell had him work on his positioning, anticipation, and footwork. He averaged 23.5 points (9th in the league), 13.4 rebounds (8th in the league), including 4.2 offensive rebounds per game; consistent with what Russell wanted, he helped move the ball and averaged a career-high 3.2 assists per game. He also averaged 0.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, and shot 45.7% from the field and 81.4% from the line. He played over 40 minutes per game, much of it at the center position, some at his more natural power forward position. He played great in the All-Star game, getting 23 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 5 assists, but Bob Lanier (24 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 0 blocks) was voted the MVP for the game. I guess people liked Lanier better. Spencer was named to the All-NBA 2nd team. In one game during the season, against the Bullets, Haywood had the flu but played all 48 minutes, had 26 points, 24 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots.
Reserve Power Forward/Center: John Hummer (6-9, 230) played the last 3 years of his career with Seattle, all under Russell. He came from Chicago early in the season in a "deal" for McDaniels. Hummer played in 35 games for the Sonics, averaging 27 minutes per game, 8.2 points, 7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. He had good fundamentals, except perhaps for his bll handling.
Starting Small Forward: In his second year with the Sonics, Kenny McIntosh (6-7, 225) played in 69 games and averaged 30 minutes per game. He shot horribly (38.9% from the field, 60.7% from the line) but Russell liked his defense. He averaged 7.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 0.8 steals per game. Frankly, I don't remember very much about Kenny except that he did play defense. He's not mentioned in any of my sources either.
Small Forward: Strong, tough, mean, great offensive player, terrible defense -- these describe the 6 5, 210 pound John Brisker, though he did improve his defense to try to please Russell. He played 35 games in the early part of the season, then in mid-January was sent packing. In only 20 minutes per game he averaged 12.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 0.8 steals per game, on 44.9% shooting from the field and 82.0% from the line.
Reserve Small Forward/Shooting Guard: Dick Gibbs (6-5, 210) had played for Houston and Kansas City. In his only year as a Sonic, he averaged career highs in points (10.8), field goal percentage (43.1%), rebounds (3.1), assists (1.1), and minutes per game (21.5). His defense was nothing special, but good enough to warrant minutes off the bench.
Starting Shooting Guard/Small Forward: Dick Snyder (6-5, 210) was a great sharpshooter, even though he didn't quite have Fred Brown's range. He was excellent at helping to move the ball and his shot selection was good, so Russell must have been pleased with that aspect of his game. On defense he suffered from lack of speed. In 74 games he averaged 36 minutes, 18.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.2 steals. He shot 48.1% from the field (often outside jump shots) and 86.6% from the line (7th best in the league.)
Reserve Shooting Guard: Bud Stallworth (6-5, 190) was in his 2nd year and despite his talent, continued to struggle. He saw little playing time (15 minutes per game) because of his poor shooting (39.2% from the field; 69.2% from the line). He was athletic but lost out on playing time to the guard trio of Snyder, Brown, and Watts.
Starting Point Guard/Shooting Guard: "Downtown" Fred Brown (6-3, 185) was in his 3rd year and had developed into a smooth offensive player. Russell hated his softness on defense, and his pudgy body, but he played him because of his combination of passing and shooting abilities. And yelling at Fred just made him more likely to ignore Russell. Brown was a great shooter like Snyder, and had a large repertoire of shots. He was best known for his 30-foot bombs (from "downtown,") but these shots were rare even for Fred. He favored a jump shot from 20-22 feet, and he could be very sly about getting it off. Sometimes he would double pump to fake out his man; other times he'd put up a quick jumper or pass the ball. When he handled the ball, he'd sometimes face his man (from the top of the key or at an angle) and I noticed when watching him live that he'd sometimes wink or grin at his defender before he shot; he could get his shot off while being bodied up, or handchecked, or double teamed; sometimes I saw him look away from his man and then start his shot before he looked at the basket. (I'm not making this up.) Probably his favorite shot was when he ran to the baseline (either side), squared up as quick as a wink and fired off a jumper from the corner -- he could do this on fast breaks as well as when a lane to the corner was open, getting there either by dribbling or by moving without the ball, then catching and firing off a shot. Inside, he could get his shot off against bigger men, much like Gary Payton does today. Even when I watched him in person, I was never sure how he pulled it off; here's a description that works, but I can't remember who wrote it: he would first pump fake to get his man up in the air, lower the ball, then step around and under the bigger defender, and shoot the ball by bringing it up from his hip, past the defender's ribcage. The angle made it very difficult to block the shot. Perhaps Russell could have twisted around and swatted it away, but Russ wasn't playing any more. Defenders must have hated to guard Brown. He averaged 16.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.0 asssists, and 1.7 steals in just over 30 minutes per game. He shot 47.1% from the field and 86.3% from the line (9th best in the league.)
Point Guard: Don "Slick" Watts (listed at 6-1, 175; he was probably shorter) was the best walk-on player the Sonics ever had. He had played for a year under Bob Hopkins at Xavier, and Hopkins got him a tryout for Russell. Watts was wild and undisciplined, the opposite of a Celtics player; he made foolish mistakes and turned the ball over too much; he was a ball hog and a gunner without much of a shot. But Russell saw something in him and kept him on the team. He had grown up playing against bigger players and had developed into a great thief -- he'd use his terrific quickness to fly behind the player and steal the ball; he could handle the ball well; he hustled, and he never, ever stopped moving. Move without the ball? Never a question for Slick; the question was, could you ever STOP him from moving? He was the only bald headed player in the league (he had shaved it since the 7th grade) and wore a head band (only Wilt Chamberlain had used one before him). But what was most memorable about him was his outgoing personality -- he probably met half the city in his four and a half years with the Sonics (he would have met them all, but he missed many of his scheduled appearances.) The city fell in love with him when they saw him play and read his witty quotes in the Times or P.I. The guy was a walking ball of charisma. It helped that he was thought of as an underdog, coming from poverty and tough times to make it in the NBA. If he ever writes a book, read it. During the early part of the season he rode the bench, but the Sonics were struggling and Russell loved to play with his lineup. Slick started one game, played great, and ended up starting the next 19 games before becoming a reserve again for the rest of the season. That season he averaged 23 minutes per game, along with 8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists (13th best in the league), 3.3 fouls (very high for his limited minutes), and 1.9 steals ( a great average considering his minutes.) He shot only 39.2% from the field and 62.3% from the line. Often he'd drive into a crowded lane and maneuver his body like a contortionist, throwing up a wild layup that more often than expected went in. Rumor had it that both Russell and Haywood resented his sudden popularity; some players stopped talking to him. He probably never stopped talking to anyone!
The Sonics went 36-46 in 1973-74. They were 22-19 at home and 14-27 on the road. They split the season series 2-2 against the 1974 champions, Boston, and were 2-2 against another excellent team, the Capitol Bullets, who featured Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Phil Chenier, Archie Clark, Mike Riordan, and Kevin Porter.
Seattle started the season 2-1, then lost 3 in a row. In one loss, the Sonics played the Lakers on October 19, 1973 (Gail Goodrich and Jerry West) and allowed a record 36 defensive rebounds in the 1st half (58 total in the game.) Seattle ended October 3-9. After that, they came close to playing .500 ball.
They played November 6-8, moving their overall record to 9-17. Then on December 1, at Atlanta, Russell decided to start Slick Watts. The team had not been moving the ball and he knew Watts moved. Watts defended Maravich (one of the leading scorers in the league) and blocked 3 of his shots; Slick scored 21 points, had 9 rebounds and 14 assists. Atlanta still won the game, 120-110, but Russ liked what he saw. Slick started the next 19 games. They went 0-4 before the team gelled with him and then won 8 of their next 15 games. The Seattle press began to talk about rookie of the year consideration for Slick. But after that, Watts rode the bench again, as Russell continued to experiment with the lineup.
On December 26 the Sonics got their revenge against the Lakers in a 129-105 blowout in the Coliseum. But the Lakers came back on February 15, and despite turning the ball over a record 43 times, beat the Sonics 112-96.
A particularly memorable game was January 9 in Seattle. John Brisker scored 47 points against the Kansas City-Omaha Kings and Seattle won, 100-96. That was the last great game John Brisker ever played. Russell benched him.
The Sonics went 7-6 in January, 6-6 in February, and 6-7 in March. They ended the season going 4-2, including wins over Phoenix, the Lakers, and a pair of wins over the Warriors, while losing to two of the best teams in the league, Milwaukee and Chicago. One win over the Warriors was particularly memorable. On March 23, 1974, in the second quarter, it seemed as if neither the Warriors nor the Sonics could miss. Brown, Snyder, and Haywood for the Sonics, and Barry, Cazzie Russell, and Jeff Mullins for the Warriors, plus a few from other teammates, scored a combined 91 points in the second quarter (Seattle scored 46, the Warriors 45). The final score was Seattle 139, Golden State 137. I was exhausted just listening on the radio!
So the Sonics, though they went 36-46, actually played .500 ball much of the season. Things were looking up. It looked like Russell's tough approach was paying off. The next logical step, of course, was to try to make the playoffs.
For some good reading on the Russell-Sonics era, try the following:
Second Wind, 1979 by Bill Russell & Taylor Branch
Russell spends about half a chapter on his time with the Sonics. The whole book is great.
The Spencer Haywood Story: The Rise, the Fall, the Recovery, 1992 by Spencer Haywood and Scott Ostler.
Haywood spends a chapter on the Sonics, about half on his time under Russell. The book is filled with drama.
What's Happenin'?, by Blaine Johnson.
Johnson's book covers the entire 1976-77 season (Russell's last) from an insider's perspective, and contains some brief anecdotes about earlier years under Russell, plus an epilogue describing the 1977-78 season under Lenny Wilkens. Extremely revealing; you might end up hating the author, when he depicts himself as the good guy of the story, but any Sonic fan from this era needs to read this book.