When Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks take on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, they will try to win Seattle’s first major sports championship since the SuperSonics beat the Washington Bullets to win the NBA title in 1979.
Like the Seahawks, the 1978-79 Sonics were the best defensive team in their league. Some of their best players were picked after the first round of the draft, and they experienced phenomenal fan support.
When the SuperSonics won the NBA championship in 1979, the expansion Seahawks had only played three seasons and wouldn’t appear in a Super Bowl until 2006.
Seattle’s only other championship in a major sport came in 1917 when the Seattle Metropolitans became the first American team to win hockey’s Stanley Cup, a fact many hockey fans don’t even know.
Any description of Seattle sports has to start with the city’s fans. SuperSonics fans, like Seahawks fans, were among the best—if not the best—in the country. Game 4 of the 1978 NBA Finals was played before 39,457 fans at the Kingdome, the largest crowd ever to watch a single professional basketball game at the time. Game 3 of the 1979 Finals was played in front of 35,928 fans. Seattle averaged 21,725 fans per game in 1979-80, setting an NBA record.
Kevin Grevey was a starting guard on the Bullets teams that faced Seattle two years in a row in the Finals. Last April, at the Bullets’ 35th year anniversary reunion of their 1978 championship over the Sonics, Grevey said he had nothing but respect for Seattle and its fans.
“Seattle is a fabulous city. We spent a lot of time there, and we really enjoyed it. In the Northwest, they were great fans. Never once did I feel maliciously treated or anything,” Grevey said.
“The hotels, the restaurants, even the fans in the Kingdome and the Coliseum, they were very respectful. They cheered hard for their team, but they showed us a little bit of love. And I never really forgot that.”
In the 1979 NBA Finals, the SuperSonics defeated the defending champions, the Bullets, four games to one for their first and only championship. A Sonic boom was likely heard from the noise of the fans back in Seattle, as the SuperSonics took home the city’s first major sports championship of the modern era. Gus Williams scored 23 points in the Game 5 clincher, while Dennis Johnson added 21. Johnson was named the Finals MVP.
Seattle’s celebration came a year after the Sonics made it to the Finals, but fell to the Bullets in seven games. The 1978 Bullets are still the last team to win an NBA Finals Game 7 on the road.
“When we were warming up in Seattle in Game 7 (in 1978), their announcer said there would be a victory parade for the world champion Seattle SuperSonics,” said Bullets point guard Tom Henderson.
“I went by the scorer’s table and said, ‘You can’t play this game for them.’”
The Bullets won, 105-99, but the Sonics would get revenge and their own parade a year later.
The Sonics run to two straight Finals began when Lenny Wilkens became their coach early in the 1977-78 season and they won 42 of their final 60 games. In the playoffs, the Sonics upset the NBA champions, the Portland Trail Blazers, who led the league with 58 wins. Seattle then beat the Denver Nuggets to get to their first NBA Finals, where they would lose to the Bullets.
Then in 1979, Seattle advanced to the Finals again by beating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers in five games and getting by the Phoenix Suns in seven.
The 1978-79 Sonics, like the Seahawks 35 years later, had the best defense in the league. The Sonics held opponents to 103.9 points a game, while the NBA average was 110.3.
The Sonics title team featured five players who would make at least one NBA All-Star team in their careers: Williams (28.6 points per game in the finals), Jack Sikma, future Hall of Famer and defensive stopper Dennis Johnson, Paul Silas, and sharpshooter “Downtown” Freddie Brown, whose range may have extended out to Tacoma. The unheralded John Johnson provided a scoring spark in key situations.
The NBA awarded veteran power forward Lonnie Shelton to the Sonics before the 1978-79 season as compensation for Seattle losing 7-1 Marvin “Human Eraser” Webster to New York. The burly Shelton helped provide the strength to compete inside with Hall of Famers-to-be Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld.
While Hayes and Unseld were both 33, second year Sonics center Sikma was on the way up, scoring 15.6 points and grabbing 12.4 rebounds a game during the regular season, after marks of just 10.7 and 8.3 his rookie year.
Hayes and Unseld were later named to the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. The Big E and Unseld were the best rebounding tandem of all time, still ranking fourth and 11th in NBA history, respectively. Hayes also ranks eighth on the NBA career scoring list.
Washington’s Bobby Dandridge had scored 20 points a game while shooting 50 percent during the 1978-79 season. Bobby D, who had won championships with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Bullets, may have been the best player on the Bullets teams that made back-to-back finals appearances. In all, the Bullets made the NBA Finals four times in the 1970s, winning once.
Unseld, Hayes and Dandridge, plus young backups Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard, were often called one of the best front lines of all time. But Wes, the Big E and Bobby D were slowing down a bit.
Meanwhile, Dennis Johnson, Williams and Sikma were just hitting their stride. Brown was still effective, Silas provided leadership off the bench, and Shelton gave Seattle muscle up front.
In 1978, the Bullets had defeated two powerhouse teams en route to the Finals: Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers and George “Iceman” Gervin and the San Antonio Spurs.
Then in 1979, Washington had the best record in the NBA at 54-28. But it took seven games for the Bullets to get by both Atlanta and San Antonio in the playoffs.
The Sonics lost the opening contest in the 1979 Finals to the Bullets 99-97. The Bullets escaped on two free throws by Larry Wright with one second to go. However, Seattle had come back from an 18-point deficit in the third quarter, which gave them confidence against the favored Bullets.
The Sonics won the next three games to take a 3-1 lead as they took the court at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. for Game 5. Seattle was buoyed by a 12-0 run in the third quarter, Brown hit several shots down the stretch, and Williams made two free throws with 12 seconds left to seal the game, 97-93.
The Sonics ran off the court, jumped up and down and embraced as they headed toward the locker room to accept the NBA championship trophy. Seattle had its first major sports championship in the modern sports era.
The Sonics were welcomed by 30,000 fans when they returned to Seattle after winning the title. Later, the Sonics parade went from from Pioneer Square to University Square, in front of a crowd estimated at 250,000 people, according to security officials.
The champion SuperSonics had another similarity with today’s Seahawks: Dennis Johnson, Williams and Shelton were all selected in the second round of the NBA draft, which is similar to being a mid-to-late round pick in the NFL.
Some of the core Sonics from the title team stayed with Seattle for the bulk of their careers.
Williams played eight seasons for Seattle and appeared in two All-Star games.
Brown played all of his 13 seasons for Seattle, scored in double figures in 11 seasons and led the NBA in three-point field goal percentage (.443) in 1979-80, the year the three-pointer was introduced.
Sikma played nine seasons for the Sonics and was named to seven straight NBA All-Star teams while playing for Seattle. He went on to play five more seasons in Milwaukee.
However, Dennis Johnson was traded to Phoenix for Paul Westphal one year and two days after Seattle won the title. D.J. later went on to win two more NBA championships with the Boston Celtics.
Seattle won 56 games in 1979-80 and made the playoffs six times in seven seasons through the 1983-84 season.
The SuperSonics had another period of sustained success in the 1990s, making the playoffs eight straight seasons beginning in 1990-91, winning more than 60 games three times and losing in the NBA Finals to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1995-96.
In 2007, the Sonics drafted phenom Kevin Durant, but the Seattle fans only got to see the young star play one season for the SuperSonics. The Sonics moved to Oklahoma City before the 2008-09 season, two years after Oklahoma City businessman Clayton Bennett bought the team. Sonics fans were devastated by the loss of the franchise.
Then in 2013, Seattle almost got a team when the Sacramento Kings threatened to move to the Emerald City, but last May, NBA owners voted for the Kings to stay in Sacramento.
When asked if he would like to see an NBA franchise return to Seattle, Grevey answered emphatically before the question was finished.
“Got that right. Yeah, I’d love to see Seattle get a team back. That would be really cool. The Washington-Seattle rivalry was long-lasting with great traditional teams,” Grevey said.
“I was hurt when Seattle left and went to Oklahoma City. I would love to see them back. I love that town.”
Grevey added that the two teams who fought each other on the court held each other in high regard off of it.
“I saw Gus Williams here at our event. He was traveling through town and read about it in the paper. He came to the game and said hi to all of us. He was a terrific player for Seattle, and they had great players too in Jack Sikma, Freddie Brown and Dennis Johnson, Marvin Webster, Johnny Johnson. What a heck of a team they had. So much respect that we had for those guys.
The NBA is worse off now without the tradition of the Seattle SuperSonics and the Washington Bullets. Washington’s franchise is still around, renamed the Wizards in 1997, but for most Bullets fans, the Wizards name never stuck. It was the Bullets who gave D.C. its best pro basketball memories.
The 35th anniversary of the SuperSonics NBA championship is June 1. The Seahawks may win the Super Bowl, but the first championship is usually the sweetest. Seattle’s first title in the modern era will always hold a special place in the hearts of residents of the Emerald City.
All quotes from this article came from interviews conducted at the 35th anniversary celebration of the 1978 NBA Champion Washington Bullets April 5-6, 2013.
Article also posted at Examiner.com.