1977-78 - A big surprise

by Dennis Keefe

I relied on several sources for my information, besides my memory: my brother Richard; Lenny Wilkens' book, Unguarded, Blaine Johnson's book, What's Happenin'?, various posts from the APBR website (cited below), The Sporting News Official NBA Guide, the Official NBA Encyclopedia, and some of the scores were obtained from the Score Project, which lists game scores for several sports across many seasons.

I'll never forget the 1977-1978 Sonics season. Seattle had the greatest in-season turnaround in NBA history. Of course, you don't hear about it because Seattle is not near New York or Los Angeles. Here's the story.

After the turmoil and frustration of the previous season, owner Sam Schulman resolved to try again. Schulman had never been shy about taking risks when it came to players. This time most of last year's team was let go or traded away, and former assistant Bob Hopkins replaced Bill Russell as coach. I remember thinking, why go with an assistant? Why not get former player-coach Lenny Wilkens back? Lenny's retired as a player, he loves coaching . . . and he has experience. Hopkins doesn't. Hopkins had been a college coach, and an excellent college talent scout, but he chastised the players even more than Russell had. But Lenny was hired as GM, and that couldn't hurt.

They kept sharp-shooting guard Downtown Freddy Brown, of course, as well as fan favorite Slick Watts, second-year guard Dennis Johnson (a late second-round pick from Pepperdine who was blossoming into a starting-caliber player), forward Bruce Seals and center Mike Green. The rest of the team was scrapped. Tom Burleson went to Kansas City, Bob Wilkerson to Denver, and Nick Weatherspoon, Willie Norwood, Frank Oleynick, and Bob Love left as well.

Meanwhile, the Sonics went hunting in Denver, a team that had won 50 games the year before. Lenny bagged phenom center Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster, nicknamed because of his rebounding prowess, and a good shotblocker to boot. Veteran rebounder and defender Paul Silas and swingman Willie Wise came from Denver as well. From Golden State, Lenny signed highly touted "Wizard" Gus Williams, a point guard who, unlike Watts, actually had a good jump shot. And Gus was as quick as a lightning bug. Added to that was Seattle's first round pick, 6'11" Jack Sikma, who was far from flashy but had shown virtually no weaknesses in his game except for his ballhandling. At worst, I figured, he would be a decent backup to The Eraser, maybe a starting forward in a year or two. Hopkins had spotted him at Illinois Wesleyan. Without Hopkins' scouting of Dennis Johnson the year before and now Jack Sikma, the Sonics would not have been anywhere as good as they turned out to be.

Things were looking up. They had a front line that could rebound (Silas, Webster, and Sikma) and a backcourt that could score (Brown and Gus Williams) or play defense (Watts and DJ.) I had almost forgotten last season's disappointment.

When versatile Johnny Johnson came in from Houston one game into the season, the team looked deep at small forward as well. On paper, this team looked good.

But that was only on paper. Hopkins was starting pretty much the same Sonics as had started the previous year -- Brown, Watts, Seals, plus Paul Silas and Webster.

The regular season began and the Sonics started 0-4.

They kept losing, and losing. . . .

by November 6 they were 2-10.

On the bright side, Webster looked good at the center position, while JJ and Seals looked like they could handle the small forward position. Reed-thin Mike Green became expendable. Nine games into the season, he was gone, and second-year forward Wally Walker, from Portland, was his replacement.

But things only got worse. Fred Brown hurt his knee and the Sonics limped to a 5-17 record. Somewhere along the line I decided that the season was a wash, and stopped listening to the games on the radio -- until, mercifully, everything changed. On November 30, Coach Hopkins was fired, and my dream coach Lenny Wilkens took over. Great minds think alike!

Lenny scrimmaged with players during practice and gained their respect as a player. In addition, he dramatically changed the lineup. Sikma, Williams, Dennis Johnson, and John Johnson started along with Webster and immediately the team began to rip apart the league.

Lineup: an intense, hardworking team

Starting Center: Marvin Webster (7-1, 235) was tall, athletic, and played with more intensity than Burleson had in his time under Russell. In 36 minutes per game, he averaged 14 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2 blocks per game, with 50.2% shooting from the field. He was an excellent offensive rebounder, and many of his points came from putbacks, but he also had a decent hook shot.

Starting Power Forward: Jack Sikma (6-11, 250) had a terrific offensive move that frustrated opponents who tried to block his shot (in his rookie year, the best defense was to play him physically). Basically, Sikma would catch the ball with his back to the basket, pivot, take a step back when his man stepped closer, then used a sort of hesitation shot to get the man in the air so he could get a clear shot. Because of his impeccable timing, it worked -- often leading him to be fouled; he was an excellent free throw shooter. Hoops know-it-alls call it the "Sikma move." But back then, when he was picked in the draft, the press' reaction was "Jack Who?" Few fans had heard of him. But Jack started at power forward, and was a valuable backup at center for the Eraser. In about 28 minutes per game, Jack Who averaged 10.7 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Backup Power Forward: Paul Silas (6-7,230) is considered a good coach today. As a Sonic, he was a good coach too, even if he wasn't called one. He was starting his 14th season (having played for several teams, including the Celtics) and would stay with Seattle for three years. By the time he played for Seattle he had lost his mobility and jumping ability, but was strong, had a killer instinct, was smart, and was a great teacher. Sikma, Dennis Johnson, and later Lonnie Shelton, owe much of their defensive prowess to his instruction. Without Paul Silas, the Sonics might never have developed into a great team (a point that Coach Wilkens himself made.) As a player, Silas was a great offensive rebounder, a strong, tricky defender, an enforcer, and, as Wilkens saw, more effective in limited minutes than as a starter. Besides, he was out of shape early in the season. In the 1977-78 season he saw 26 minutes per game and averaged about 6 points and 8 rebounds per game (about 3.5 offensive rebounds per game.) The Sonics needed offense at his position -- thus Sikma had more playing time.

Starting Point Forward: John Johnson (6-7, 200), in his eighth NBA season, was the coach on the floor, much like Lenny Wilkens had been as a player, but with a more overt ferocity than Lenny. JJ was a point forward (before Don Nelson coined the term with Paul Pressey) rather than a point guard: he was responsible for calling the offense, directing traffic, making sure there was ball movement, and so on. He was also a hard-nosed defensive player. In 76 games as a Sonic, JJ averaged 24 minutes, 10.7 points, 4 rebounds and only 2.7 assists -- a small number, but JJ was not the type to simply hit the open man. He, and Lenny, expected (demanded might be a better term for JJ) that whoever he passed to would pass up the shot if someone else had a better one. Because JJ made sure players moved without the ball, "the pass that led to another pass to an open man" became a staple of the Sonic offense.

Backup Small Forward: Bruce Seals (6-8, 210), in his last season in the NBA, grew dissatisfied with his role off the bench. But as more than one Sonic acknowledged, playing for Lenny Wilkens instead of Russell and Hopkins was, "Like getting out of jail." Another said, "Lenny makes you feel good about yourself." (As stated in What's Happenin'? Seals still saw 18 minutes per game and produced 8 points and 3 rebounds per contest.

Backup Small Forward: Wally Walker (6-6, 195) had played off the bench for Portland, and because of his athleticism and ability to drive inside, he shared minutes with Seals and JJ. He saw 15 minutes per game, averaged 6.5 points and 3 rebounds.

Starting Shooting Guard: Dennis Johnson (6-4, 200) combined athleticism, clutch play, and defensive intensity. Though only in his 2nd year, DJ had developed faster than anyone had expected. Lenny saw his value -- a guy who could shut down high-scoring guards and hit shots when needed -- and started him. DJ was moody and often let the refs get under his skin, but the Sonics were deep and could play well without him. He played 28 minutes per game, and averaged 12.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists per game, 1.5 steals, and 0.6 blocks.

Backup Shooting Guard: Fred Brown (6-3, 185) was one of the top offensive players in the game. Early in the season he had a knee injury that kept him out 10 games. When he came back, Lenny Wilkens talked him into accepting a role off the bench. He accepted -- Fred understood the psychological effect it might have on an opponent when he stepped into the game. He was a true sixth man -- worthy of starting, but a reserve because of chemistry issues (Wilkens wanted a defensive-oriented guard to start the game.) Downtown Freddie still had good playing time -- about 28 minutes per game -- and averaged 16.6 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game, plus 1.5 steals. He remained a great shooter from all over the court (48.8% field goals, 89.8% free throws.) His outlet passing on the fast break was excellent. He even stepped up on defense, playing more physically than ever, and even taking some charges. Bill Russell would have been shocked!

Starting Guard: Gus Williams (6-2, 175) had shown promise for two seasons as a Golden State Warrior, but "The Wizard" felt underused. When he came to Seattle, his offensive game blossomed. He handled the ball when JJ was off the floor, and was also the Sonics' main offensive weapon (along with Brown). He had a quick first (and second) step, quick hands, and was surprisingly strong for his tiny frame. For the Sonics he played 32 minutes per game, led the Sonics in scoring with 18 per game, led them in assists with 3.7 per game, and also led them with 2.3 steals (second in the league.) He was an upbeat player and thus was a nice contrast to the intense serious ones (Silas, JJ, and DJ) who dominated the team. In later years Gus became a quality point guard.

The Regular Season:

Under Lenny, the Sonics finished November with a win -- they won 6 in a row in fact -- and finished December 11-3.

Some of the former starters were unhappy at being benched by Lenny -- though Silas and Brown accepted their roles off the bench. One bump in the road came after only 10 more games -- Slick Watts, squirming on the bench because of Gus Williams' hot play, demanded to be played 30 minutes a game or be traded. He was traded to the New Orleans Jazz. I was stunned. The whole city loved the guy, and he loved us right back. I remember him coming to my sixth grade class in the spring of 1974 and actually talking to us like real human beings instead of a group of lowly munchkins. I think in the four and a half years he played in Seattle, he probably met about half the population of the city, he was so outgoing. And though Gus could play decent defense, Slick was one of the league's best at harrassing and confusing the opposition. Granted, Slick had no shooting ability, and he probably confused his own teammates as much as the opposition with his wild style of play . . . but he was so fun to watch!

But the Sonics kept on winning, and playing with confidence, and because of that the city didn't complain. Gus Williams, after all, was fun to watch, and wasn't bad when it came to stealing the ball. On February 22, in a 94-83 win over the Nets, Gus tied Fred Brown's Sonics record by grabbing 10 steals; Gus wound up second in the league in that category. Meanwhile, Webster averaged about 2 blocks a game and 12.6 rebounds -- in fact, the Sonics led the league with nearly 18 offensive rebounds per game, and were 4th in the league in overall rebounding. The Sonics had gained a reputation for playing absolutely tenacious body-up defense, especially in the fourth quarter. But they hadn't garnered much interest outside of the Northwest -- they were, esssentially a team of nobodies, with the two best known players (Brown & Silas) coming off the bench.

In January the team went 10-2, then cooled off by going 7-5 in February and 9-7 in March. Slick Watts had a measure of revenge when he first faced the Sonics, dominating the game on both ends of the court and leading the lowly Jazz to a 113-104 win on March 4, 1978.

Seattle ended the regular season by going 4-1 in April. The Sonics finished 47-35, tying the best record in their 11 year existence -- a record they had gained in Wilkens' last year as coach. Few in the league seemed impressed, despite the fact that the Sonics were 42-18 under Wilkens.

But the Sonics held opponents to 102.9 points, on good defense (not by slowing it down), while scoring 104.5 points per game.


1st Round: Seattle (47-35) vs. LA Lakers (45-37)

Their first round opponent, the Lakers, led by Kareem (in his prime), Adrian Dantley, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Lou Hudson, and Charlie Scott, were an offensive powerhouse. The Sonics, on the other hand, were one of the top defensive teams in the league, and won the series without much trouble. For one thing, the Lakers had no power forward -- Wilkes and Dantley were small forwards who could play guard, not power forward. Sikma and Silas dominated the boards, and Jack scored well against the 6-6 Wilkes.

2nd round: Seattle (49-36) vs. Portland (58-24)

Their second-round opponent, defending NBA champs Portland, had Bill Walton, who had recently returned from an injury. Then, in the second game of the series, Walton was injured and the series went to the Sonics in six games. Seattle fans were actually disappointed when Walton was injured -- they were confident in their Sonics and wanted to see an exciting series. Without Walton to counteract the Sonics' front line, Seattle dominated the boards. Gus Williams went berserk on defense and stole the ball 18 times in the series, matching a playoff feat by Slick Watts three years before against the Warriors. Yes, the Sonics were doing fine without Slick--so far.

Western Conference Finals: Seattle (53-38) vs. Denver (52-37)

Then came the Western Conference finals and Denver, the team the Sonics had robbed blind to get Webster and Silas. Most of the league probably wondered what a rough and tumble backwoods team was doing playing against David Thompson and the high-flying Nuggets. In every Sonic win Fred Brown went off on his usual jump-shooting heroics, raining long bombs from all over the court, mostly in the fourth quarter. Too bad there was no three-point shot then, or the games would have been blowouts. Bob Wilkerson, ex Sonic, defended Gus Williams well; defensive ace Bobby Jones played well against Skima and JJ, but it was not enough.

Dennis Johnson shut down David "Skywalker" Thompson -- the best leaper and the best one on one guard in the league -- and blocked a ton of his shots. Thompson had averaged 27 points a game in the regular season, and had shot 52%. Against DJ he didn't come close to either number.

Fred Brown could not be defended. He knew Wilkerson's tendencies on defense and blistered the Nuggets in the fourth quarter.

The Sonics actually won one in the mile high city (the Nuggets were 33-8 at home), and took the series in six games. Marvin Webster, the former Nugget, blocked 27 shots in that series and grabbed a ton of rebounds against center Dan Issel.

The Sonics, after beginning the season at 5 wins and 17 losses, were headed to the NBA Finals. No one was happier than Dennis Johnson, the moody guard, whose defense had led them there.

NBA Finals: Seattle (57-40) vs. Washington (54-42)

Their opponents, the Washington Bullets, had been to the finals twice before in the 70's and lost both times. But they were a deep and powerful team, led by unmoveable center Wes Unseld (he looked wider than he was tall), Elvin Hayes (one of the best power forwards to ever play the game, with tremendous quickness and an unstoppable inside move), all-around player Bob Dandridge, sharp-shooting Phil Chenier, and a deep bench. But mainly, it was a battle of two great rebounding teams.

Sharp-shooter Phil Chenier was injured, so forward Kevin Grevey filled in at guard and played great defense. Elvin Hayes took Sikma to school (especially game 2), playing him physically and knocking him around the court until Paul Silas used his elbows to tell Hayes to cool it. Sikma learned a valuable lesson: in the playoffs, the refs let the big guys play rough.

JJ (19 pts, 10 rebounds), Webster (17 pts, 14 rebs), and Fred Brown (30 points) led the Sonics as they came back from a 19 point deficit in the first game (a 106-102 Sonic victory); but the three were shut down in the second game. DJ (21 points) and Gus (24 points) helped take up the slack, but it was not enough as Dandridge (34 pts, 8 rebounds), Hayes (25 pts, 9 rebs, and 4 blocks), and point guard Tom Henderson (20 pts, 5 assists) dominated.

In game three, Seattle adjusted to the Bullets' rough play. Game three was filled with elbows and grunts of pain. DJ blocked 7 shots, Webster had 20 pts and 12 rebs; Silas had 10 pts and 14 rebs; and Sikma had 17 pts and 7 rebs before fouling out. Hayes (29 pts, 20 rebounds) was unstoppable; Dandridge played well too (21 pts, 9 rebs, 6 assists) -- the game was close through most of the contest, and with a few seconds left, Seattle led 93-92 when Silas was called with a violation inbounding the ball (for stepping over the line, which replays showed he did not do). Bobby Dandridge shot and missed; Elvin Hayes tried for a tip-in and missed. Silas rebounded and the game was over.

Seattle had the homecourt advantage, running out to a 2-1 series lead. They returned to Seattle where they had won 21 games in a row. The circus was in town, so the Sonics were 'forced' to play in the Kingdome -- in front of almost 40,000 screaming fans. DJ looked awesome: 10 for 14 shooting from the field, 33 points, 7 rebs, 3 blocks. Seattle built up a 15 point lead in the third quarter only to see Washington charge late and take the lead with seconds to play. Much of the time, Washington had a huge lineup: Unseld, Hayes, Grevey or Kupchak (a power forward/center), Dandridge, along with point guard Tom Henderson. But the real spark came when 6-foot, seldom-used Charles Johnson came in and scored six quick points in the fourth quarter. The Sonics had outplayed the Bullets until the Seattle players started fouling out in the fourth quarter --Webster (15 rebs), Sikma (20 pts, 8 rebs), and JJ -- but even so, Fred Brown hit a shot in the last few seconds to send it to overtime. Elvin Hayes had fouled out as well, but it was not enough. Johnson scored 8 more points and Washington pulled it out in overtime. The series was tied 2-2.

The Sonics then won the next in Seattle. Fred Brown caught fire (26 points in 26 minutes on 60% shooting), DJ was impressive (24 points, 7 rebounds), with a balanced game from everyone else. This time, the Bullets' reserve players were shut down, and Washington's lousy free throw shooting (18/31, compared to Seattle's 26/31) cost them the game.

Finally, Seattle was leading the series 3-2, and I figured the series was over. Just one more win to go, after all! In Seattle, Sonics fans had come out of the woodwork. A network of Sonics fans stretched from Montana to Alaska, voicing their enthusiasm. Back east, meanwhile, fans showed only moderate interest -- these weren't the Celtics, 76ers or Knicks, after all -- until Bullets coach Dick Motta voiced a phrase that is with us to this day:

"It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings." The words rang out over and over on every sports cast in Seattle.

As if this catch-phrase somehow injected them with the spirit of the legendary Celtics teams of the past, the Bullets rallied, blowing the Sonics out by 35 points in Washington to even the series. Sikma, Webster, and DJ had gone a combined 11 for 41 from the field -- they had hit about a quarter of their shots. Bobby Dandridge, a noted defensive player, moved to guard when Grevey was injured and was largely resonsible for DJ's poor shooting. Charles Johnson once again torched the Sonics, getting 17 points and 9 rebounds in 27 minutes. Another reserve, Greg Ballard, played at forward and had 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists. Once again, the Bullets had come back just when it looked like they were done for, thanks to the help of some seldom-used reserves.

Returning to Seattle for a game seven, the Sonics looked shell-shocked. But, I reminded myself, they had been nearly unbeatable at home during the playoffs. Surely they would find a way to clinch the series.

Before a fanatic Seattle crowd, back in the familiar confines of the Coliseum, a number of ex-Sonics cheered their former team: Leonard Gray, Tab Skinner, Dean Tolson, Mike Bantom, and Slick Watts. But as they watched, the fat lady sang a dirge, and the Sonics listened as if transfixed. DJ went 0 for 14 from the field and The Sonics had only 16 turnovers, but it always seemed to be at the worst time. Gus Williams, DJ, Sikma, JJ, Silas -- it only seemed like every clutch possession ended in a turnover. Gus Williams was only 4 for 12 from the field. Part of the problem was that they were not moving the ball, and that was the Bullet's doing. There were strong performances from Webster (27 pts, 19 rebs, with 10 offensive rebs, and 4 blocks), Sikma (21 pts, 11 rebs) and Fred Brown (21 pts on 9 for 18 shooting). In the fourth quarter the Sonics made a charge, cutting a 13 point lead down to 4 with a minute 30 to go; Charles Johnson missed a shot and Webster, Sikma & Silas all dove for the ball -- somehow, tiny Tom Henderson brought it out from the crowd, passed to Kupchak who made the shot and got fouled, and brought the lead to 7 at 101-94. But with a few seconds left Seattle brought it to 101-99. They fouled Unseld, hoping he would miss (he had been 5 for 10 from the line to that point). Unseld sank both of them, the Bullets made a couple more free throws, and the game belonged to the Bullets, 105-99. I'm sure Watts was wishing that he could have been in the game to disrupt the Bullets' momentum. Perhaps he could have helped. Once again, the Bullets had superb performances from their backup players -- Mitch Kupchak and Charles Johnson this time.

The Bullets had come back from a 3-2 deficit to win the NBA championship.

For a more complete description of the finals series, along with Box Scores (compiled by Al Hoffman and other members of the American Professional Basketball Researchers), please visit the APBR website.

Type in "NBA Finals" and access the post on the NBA Finals 1970 through 1996. Every finals series is described in detail!

Though I was heartbroken, I consoled myself with the truth: the Sonics had nearly done the impossible, transforming themselves from the worst team in the NBA into the best -- well, almost the best. Led by a rookie (Sikma), a hot-headed second year player (DJ), a Human Eraser (Webster), a Wizard (Williams), a guy who shot from downtown (Brown), and a small forward whose shot was so flat it made Jamaal Wilkes' shot look a textbook jumper (JJ), the Sonics had gone to the seventh game of the NBA finals. And the Sonics would return for the next season brimming with confidence.