Black Planet & Remembering The Good Times With The Sonics

I’m reading a book called “Black Planet” by David Shields. He is/was a professor at the University of Washington and his book looks at race and how it relates to the NBA. It’s written as a journal of his thoughts, essentially, as he follows the Seattle Sonics in their lost season of 1994/1995.

While I find looking at race in different situations very interesting, obviously the major focus of my attention goes to the Sonics.

This was a tough, up & down year to sit through as a 13/14 year old. Fresh from the painful wounds of that 1993/1994 collapse at the hands of Dikembe Mutombo – ours a team with the best record in the NBA and the first team ever to lose as a 1-seed to an 8-seed – this 94/95 team, still loaded with talent and fire, continuously sputtered. They’d beat some good teams in impressive fashion, then follow it up with clunkers against bottom-feeders. Players like Kendall Gill and Sarunas Marciulionis, supposedly loaded with talent, were giving us absolutely nothing on the court except headaches and fits of rage. Still, this team was carried by stars like Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf, and Sam Perkins on its way to a still-okay 57-win season. Good for second place in the division.

This was also the year, most notably, where the Sonics played all their home games in the Tacoma Dome, as the Seattle Center Coliseum was being converted into the soon-to-be-obsolete Key Arena. Famously, this Sonics team once again lost in the first round of the playoffs (as a 4-seed to 5-seeded Los Angeles Lakers) in four games. In an unfortunate turn of events, there was a power-outage in the final game in the Tacoma Dome, delaying the game approximately 20 minutes at a point where the Sonics had momentum and were poised to send this series to a fifth game.

And finally, this was the second of a 2-season sabbatical by Michael Jordan – the only window of opportunity for any non-Chicago Bulls team to win an NBA Championship until Jordan retired a second time after the 1998 season.

While the 1995/1996 Sonics would jettison the loathesome duo of Gill and Marciulionis and subsequently win 64 games on their way to a 6-game defeat to those very Bulls in the NBA Finals, it was the 93/94 and 94/95 seasons that were the real heartbreakers. Those are the Sonics teams that’ll go down – alongside the Mariners of 1995-1997 and 2000-2003, and maybe even some of those early 80s Seahawks teams – as the great “What Could’ve Been” teams. Teams people look back on and wonder, “How could those teams, with those superstars, underachieve so massively?”

Of course, what made it all the tougher as a fan was that I never enjoyed watching sports as much as when I watched those Sonics teams in the early-to-mid 90s. For most of my conscious life, the Seahawks have been terrible. And while the Mariners had some good runs under Pinella, you’re still looking at my 3rd-favorite sport. While NFL has always been tops with me, for a long time NBA was Number 2 (the way I judge that is by how much interest I have in watching games where a Seattle team is not involved; you’ll mostly-never see me watching a non-Mariners related MLB game).

It’s hard to appreciate greatness as much as you should when you have it all around you. I mean, yeah, we all loved Gary and Shawn and Detlef, but at the time it was just expected that you’d get 60+ points per game from those three guys. So, when they produced, it was, “Oh yeah, the Big 3 did it again” and then you focus on all the contributions by role players who stepped up for a particular game or series. You don’t REALLY appreciate that type of greatness until they leave and are replaced by crap (like the Sonics of the later 90s).

Which makes this book tough. Because here’s a guy in David Shields who’s constantly effusing praise on the aforementioned Gary and Shawn and Detlef, while at the same time excoriating the likes of Kendall Gill who’d requested to be traded then, once denied, proceeded to dog it out on the court all season. This guy – David Shields – is an adult, intelligent version of me as a 13 year old! We like and loathe the same players for ostensibly the same reasons. It takes me back, is what I’m trying to say. To a time that was both wonderful and heartbreaking. And it makes me remember what it is we don’t have anymore and probably never will again.

Lack of proper basketball aside, it also reminds me of what we DO have at the moment: crappy professional teams yet again going through rebuilding cycles. Remember when we had great superstars here in Seattle? Now we’re down to Ichiro, King Felix every 5th day, and to a much MUCH lesser extent Matt Hasselbeck (when he’s healthy). That’s about it. Ask a random sports fan on the East Coast to name you as many Seattle-based pro athletes as they can, and I almost guarantee you they won’t get beyond those three guys.

This cursed, wretched city will ALWAYS be rebuilding its sports teams. Good players will continue to come here and founder; bad players will continue to leave and thrive. Draft picks will continue to bust, trades will continue to backfire, and winning campaigns will continue to become derailed by injuries or bad officiating. Pity the Seattle fan with his myriad inferiority complexes.

And if you are a Seattle fan, I don’t know what to tell you except to keep your head up. And join me in relishing the pure and very much warranted schadenfreude over anything bad that happens to the state of Oklahoma, its capital city, and specifically its basketball team. I know I get a cheap thrill out of all the rain and flooding going on there right now.

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