The darkest hours in Seattle sports history   

Updated: July 3, 2008, 1:29 PM ET

  • Comment
  • Email
  • Print
  • Share

The first sports poster I bought was of Dennis Johnson, the day after Seattle won the NBA championship in 1979. He was wearing Sonics green, bringing the ball upcourt, wearing a pair of bulky-looking kneepads.

That team started four players 26 or younger: Johnson, Gus Williams, Lonnie Shelton and Jack Sikma. Fred Brown was 31 but one of the best sixth men in the league. Better yet, the team owned two top-10 picks in the 1979 draft and the first-round pick of the perennially awful Jazz in 1981. The team was so popular it played its home games in the expansive, concrete Kingdome and averaged more than 21,000 fans per game in the '79-80 season, easily leading the NBA (and outdrawing its baseball cousins in Seattle).

Dennis Johnson

NBA Photo Library/Getty Images

Dennis Johnson and the Sonics brought Seattle its only major pro championship.

What could go wrong? A young team, full of All-Stars, a rabid fan base, an influx of top draft picks on the way … it looked like the Sonics would be competing with that Magic kid in L.A. for Western Conference supremacy for a long time.

They messed it up. Johnson fought with coach Lenny Wilkens and was traded for an over-the-hill Paul Westphal. They spent the two '79 picks on James Bailey and Vinnie Johnson (who unfortunately was traded for Greg Kelser after two years). Williams held out the entire '80-81 season. That fifth pick in 1981 turned into a flop named Danny Vranes. The team traded for David Thompson, who was only 28, but injuries and substance abuse meant he played only 94 more games in his career.

In just a few years, the team sank to near the bottom of the league.

The Sonics eventually rebuilt and became a power franchise in the 1990s.

Now, like kneepads on NBA players, the Sonics are gone.

I live on the East Coast now, and I will admit that fans out here probably are more consistently passionate about their pro sports teams than fans in Seattle. But I'll say this: No city can jump on a bandwagon like Seattle. I mean that in a good way, a bringing-the-city-together kind of thing. (Most locales are good bandwagon cities, of course.)

No NBA arena has been louder than the Seattle Center Coliseum and KeyArena were during the Sonics' playoff runs in the '90s, the crowd going nuts whenever a Gary Payton-led fastbreak ended with a thunderous dunk from Shawn Kemp. If you were in the Kingdome during September and October 1995, when the Mariners made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, you couldn't hear your neighbor talk. The club led the AL in attendance in 2001 and 2002. The Seahawks, when they are winning, like in recent years, are known for having the noisiest stadium in the NFL.

Those fans, even the bandwagon fans, are hurting today, the darkest day in Seattle sports history. And there have been a lot of dark days. After all, Seattle's major pro teams haven't won a title since 1979.

10. Pilots move to Milwaukee, April 1, 1970
It's not the same losing a team after one year as after 41, but the Pilots' one season in the American League was a disaster, with an ownership group that went bankrupt after the season. The sale to a group led by Bud Selig wasn't official until the end of spring training, and the team's equipment vans actually left Arizona not knowing whether they were heading to Seattle or Milwaukee.

9. Bo runs over the Boz, Nov. 30, 1987 More than anything else, when Bo Jackson ravaged the Seahawks and ran over brash linebacker Brian Bosworth on a short touchdown on "Monday Night Football," it symbolized the ineptitude of Ken Behring, one of the worst owners in sports history, a California real estate developer who constantly threatened to move the team. Behring took a popular, successful franchise and slowly destroyed it during the late '80s and early '90s.

8. Seahawks lose AFC Championship Game, Jan. 8, 1984
Until the 2005 season, this was the closest the Seahawks ever got to the Super Bowl. Although just 9-7 in the regular season, they had defeated the Raiders twice. But this one was no contest. The Raiders led 27-0 by the third quarter, and Curt Warner, the AFC's leading rusher, was held to just 26 yards.

1978 Finals

Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images

The surprising Sonics reached the NBA Finals in '78, but fell to the Bullets in Game 7.

7. Sonics lose Game 7 to Bullets, June 7, 1978
The Sonics looked like the worst team in the league early on -- they were 5-17 when coach Bob Hopkins was fired and replaced by Lenny Wilkens. They went 42-18 the rest of the way, beating Los Angeles, Portland and Denver to reach the NBA Finals. There, they took a 3-2 lead over Washington. The Bullets pounded the Sonics 117-82 in Game 6, but Game 7 was back in Seattle, where Seattle had gone 10-1 in the playoffs. Alas, Dennis Johnson, who had emerged as a star in the series, went 0-for-14 from the field, and the Bullets prevailed 105-99.

6. Ken Griffey Jr. traded, Feb. 10, 2000
True, Griffey had asked for a trade. True, the franchise recovered and made the playoffs in 2000 and 2001. But hearts across Puget Sound were broken when Junior -- Seattle's first true baseball superstar, a major league rookie at 19, The Kid, the future Hall of Famer who had helped save baseball in Seattle during the Mariners' dramatic playoff run in 1995 -- was dealt to Cincinnati.

5. Don James resigns as University of Washington football coach, August 1993
James had coached the Huskies to 15 bowl games in 18 seasons, including 22 consecutive wins, three straight Rose Bowls and a national title in the three seasons prior to 1993. But two weeks before the start of the season, James angrily resigned, upset with the Pac-10's investigation into the football program and the school's administration. "I couldn't stand the league or our upper campus [administration]. I didn't want to be around them," he told The Seattle Times in 2003. Husky football, once the power of the Pac-10, really has never been the same.

Kaz Sasaki

AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy

The expression on Kaz Sasaki's face after Game 4 of the 2001 ALCS says it all.

4. Alfonso Soriano delivers crushing blow, Oct. 21, 2001
In a David Copperfield season, the Mariners tied the major league record with 116 wins. They trailed the Yankees in the ALCS, 2 games to 1, but led 1-0 in Game 4 after Bret Boone's homer in the eighth inning. However, Bernie Williams tied the game in the bottom of the eighth with a homer off Arthur Rhodes, and Soriano hit a walkoff homer off closer Kazuhiro Sasaki in the ninth. The Yankees clinched the series with a 12-3 win in Game 5.

3. Seahawks lose to Steelers, Feb. 5, 2006
Only one team has lost a Super Bowl despite gaining more yards and committing fewer turnovers than its opponent. The officiating was so bad in Pittsburgh's 21-10 win that the controversy has its own Wikipedia page, titled "Reaction to officiating in Super Bowl XL."

2. Sonics lose to Nuggets, May 7, 1994
Yes, this hurt more than the Super Bowl loss. With Michael Jordan in retirement, the NBA title was up for grabs, and Seattle -- which had lost Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to Phoenix the season before, in a famously poorly officiated game that saw the Suns shoot 64 free throws -- finished with the league's best record. But championship dreams ended with a stunning first-round loss to the Nuggets. The Sonics had lost only four times at home all season, but Dikembe Mutombo blocked a couple of shots in overtime, and Seattle became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8.

1. City agrees to buyout with Sonics owner Clay Bennett, July 2, 2008

David Schoenfield is an editor for Page 2.


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?