Between the lockout providing an impromptu crash course in labor law, ever-increasing sophistication in statistical metrics and heightened, coach-like awareness of tactical nuances, NBA writers and fans are more informed today than at any time in history. The net effect of the advancements in fan intellect is decidedly positive (and NO, they do not take the fun out of fandom), but the thing is, for the incredible value they add to our understanding of the game, advanced stats and subtle nuances seldom leave you laughing out loud in an empty room.
Solid defensive rotations, proper spacing on a post entry pass and Usage Rates are fascinating in their own right- and you don’t need me to tell you about how talk of BRI splits and “system issues” gets a party started- but love affairs are sparked by visceral, “HOLY SHIT” moments. I (and probably you as well) am all about these moments. Be it one that sums up perfectly its author, or the matchup in which it took place, or one that defies all logic, the most memorable moment in sports is one in which even the most solid and painstakingly crafted gameplan is torn asunder by the spontaneity of athletic brilliance, and maybe a bit of luck.
Thanks to a mild depression and a case of lockout fatigue that’s left me nearly catatonic, I have taken immense comfort in the warm embrace of the past. Anyone familiar with my work knows that this is hardly my first excursion into the rabbit hole of NBA history. This time, however, I’m embarking on a project that, rather than simply supplementing knowledge of statistics and storylines from years past, allows for a look back, if only momentarily, at the game’s greatest moments, hopefully (we’ll see) through the same prism as the fan bases that actually lived and died with them.
I will be selecting the (well, my) top five highlights in the history of each franchise- and if the first stages of research are any indication, this is going to be a fucking blast.
Before we get this thing rolling, a couple quick ground rules. First, spectacular performances without a defining moment are out of luck. I’ll let my Lakers shoulder the load of this explanation with a couple of examples. One would imagine that Kobe Bryant’s 81-point outburst against Toronto in January 2006 would be in the running, as would 2001’s dominant 16-1 postseason run to a second straight title. Nope. As incredible a performance as each was, Kobe’s 81 was simply an avalanche of greatness, with no one transcendent shot or moment, while the moment that most vividly jumps out from the 2001 title run is (spoiler alert!) Allen Iverson towering over Tyronn Lue.
Second, and more importantly, these moments must be documented on video. Sadly, this limits this exercise largely (but not entirely) to the last ~35 years, but for what we’re dealing with, a visual is necessary in order to a) confirm the greatness of the play(s) in question and b) provide a glimpse into that arena on that night. Of course the on-court action is the star, but several accompanying factors conspire to transform a fantastic play into a defining moment- crowd, teammate and opponent reaction, the backdrop of a legendary arena, the brightness of the lights… speaking of which…
Stakes matter, but are not the primary determinant. There is no shortage of postseason moments featured in the articles to come, but many are probably not what you’re expecting. These are not necessarily the most important moments in franchise history (though some are) they are the most electrifying. For instance, Michael Jordan’s jumper at the buzzer of Game 1 of the 1997 Finals, while really cool (the United Center crowd, MJ’s fist clenched), was, frankly, just a jump shot. I will likely lay waste to this rule in very short order- I leave it to you to judge the validity of my justifications.
Let’s get visceral, shall we?
While there’s no discernible order to the forthcoming batch of articles, I found determining the selection of the jumping off point to be fairly easy. 41 years of history, a steady stream of top-shelf talent, one of the NBA’s best fan bases, two Finals appearances, a championship and still fresh wounds from one of the coldest departures in NBA history. Yep, we’re starting in Seattle. And Seattle only.
Out of respect to the fans in each city, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the late Supersonics will be addressed separately, because these are frankly two distinct franchises. Fans in the Emerald City have suffered enough without having to endure highlights of the Thunder while strolling down memory lane. Meanwhile the folks of OKC, once unfairly vilified as co-conspirators in the most shameful carpetbagging stunt in NBA history, are one of the league’s elite fan bases. Similarly, they have little connection to the franchise’s Northwestern roots, and probably have far greater interest in seeing the best hoops moments in their city’s history.
Plus, this decision serves a practical purpose as well. Thanks to two of history’s best defensive guards and the greatest highlight machine of the early 90s, it’s doubtful that anything from KD and Russ would have made the cut.
Let’s do this, huh? I submit, for your approval (or not), Hardwood Hype’s top five highlights in Seattle Supersonics history:
Shawn Kemp destroys Alton Lister in the 1992 playoffs
Before we had Blake Griffin, there was Rain Main. What’s beautiful here is not simply that he threw down on an excellent defensive seven-footer, but the way in which he rendered Lister’s presence in front of the rim irrelevant. The LeBron-esque drive, the vicious windmill, the explosion of the crowd. And the points. The repeated points at a fallen Alton Lister. This is Shawn Kemp at his devastating best.
Chris Gatling congratulates Shawn Kemp for kicking his ass
As we’ve just seen, there is no shame in getting blown up by Shawn Kemp. Any big man he didn’t get at least once in the early/mid-90s probably wasn’t trying on D. With that said, however, Chris Gatling might have wanted to refrain from manhugging the dude the just emasculated him.
Gary Payton with the steal/dunk/swag vs. MJ in the 1996 Finals
Though it certainly doesn’t hurt, that this happened in the Finals is secondary.
If you had to use one highlight and one highlight only to sum up GP for someone that never saw him play, this would be it. One of history’s great defenders stripping the GOAT, holding him off, attacking the bucket (the dunk was admittedly a pleasant surprise) and letting him know about it. Gary Payton, swag personified.
Dennis Johnson's overtime block in Game 4 of the 1979 Finals
Long before The Glove was locking opponents down, another of the league’s great perimeter defenders helped the Sonics deliver an NBA title to Seattle. This is its signature moment. Down two in the dying moments of overtime, Bullets’ guard Kevin Grevey elevated for jumper that might have sent the game to another extra period. Flying in from his left, however, a young Dennis Johnson managed a clean block that secured the game and a commanding 3-1 series lead for the Sonics.
GP to Rain Man in Dallas (and about 400 other times)
Hey, I almost made it through one post before breaking my own rule about specificity, but the omission of a Payton-to-Kemp oop would have been a bigger crime. You might have your own favorite in this category, but we’re on the same page. Not many things in the world of sports are more quintessentially 1990s than this:
And here’s a bonus clip (probably not to fan in Seattle- sorry guys!), because I don’t think the sight of Kevin Durant hitting a game-winner while wearing Sonics’ gear will ever not trip me out.
One final note: I really want to hear from you. Let me know what you think by chiming in on the highlights I’ve put forth, or supplying your own. I not only welcome your feedback, I eagerly await it.