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Questions Remain, But Time Is Right For Sonics To Shine

Wed., Nov. 1, 1995

New arena. Same team. New season. Same expectations. New uniforms. Same coach.

The more the Seattle SuperSonics change, the more they stay the same.

These Sonics look a lot like those Sonics. These Sonics have all of the sleek features of their predecessors. They can run like Olympic sprinters. They can defend like the Marines. They can entertain like Las Vegas. They can beat any team, any night, in any building.

But can they win in May, when fast breaks become endangered species and post play becomes the center of attention?

Can they win in a conference that will force them to face Hakeem Olajuwon one night, David Robinson another and Dikembe Mutombo another?

Can they drop enough jump shots to take the inside pressure off Shawn Kemp? Can Gary Payton become the team leader? Can he quit deferring to the veterans and run the offense his way? And can the Sonics live in harmony with coach George Karl?

Everybody knows it is now or never for this configuration of the Sonics. Lose in the first round of the playoffs, as the Sonics have the past two seasons, and the new arena will become a revolving door, spitting out Karl, or Payton, or Kemp, or center Sam Perkins, or all of the above.

At first glance it seems like a redundant season, but I think it’s going to be delicious.

There is so much spice in the NBA this year.

The Chicago Bulls are back. Michael Jordan is hungry and sharp again. Dennis Rodman is freaky and eerie and maniacal when it comes to rebounding.

The Orlando Magic is a year older and playoff hardened. The Indiana Pacers are lurking again. And that’s just the East.

In the West, the wise Jazz and Suns are poised for one final run before the joints and jumpers of Utah’s Karl Malone and John Stockton, and Phoenix’s Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson give out.

The San Antonio Spurs, even without Rodman, are as dangerous as Dobermans. The Los Angeles Lakers are blessed with a heady belief in themselves.

The Golden State Warriors are speaking to each other again. They are healthy, talented and rid of coach Don Nelson. And the Houston Rockets are simply the classiest, toughest, best team on the planet.

Into this mix the Sonics are thrown. They are the curiosity shop of this season; the favorite team of Psychology Today; a team in need of a couch as much as a bench. But perhaps the daytime-talk-show silliness of last season has faded. No more of that, “Why doesn’t coach Karl like Kendall Gill? Why doesn’t Kendall love George? Why isn’t Kendall playing in the playoffs?”

Gill has gone back to Charlotte, in exchange for David Wingate and Hersey Hawkins. Hawkins is expected to give Seattle the dependable jump shot it has been missing. Will he?

This is a team with something to prove. It is a team with questions to answer. Will every player show up on time for practices, buses, planes? Or will the team’s discipline unravel again?

The Sonics are as good and as lethal as the past four Karl-coached Sonic teams. But are they happier? Can they stay together? Can they avoid an embarrassing playoff three-peat?

Security blanket Nate McMillan starts the season on the injured list, leaving backup point guard to rookie Eric Snow. The center, once again, is Ervin Johnson, who probably was hurt more than anybody in the game by the summer-long lockout. He was cheated out of the post-graduate, center-educating, summer league.

Still, this is the same team, with the same potential to win 50 to 55 games.

More than anything, it needs to be more like teammate Vince Askew. A little nastier, a little more ravenous.

Watching the Sonics beat Chicago last week in South Bend, Ind., I couldn’t help wondering what might happen if they finally averted the first-round disasters of 1994 and ‘95.

Basketball could be great fun again in Seattle. The Sonics could do for this town in May what the Mariners did in October.

It could be 1993 all over again. Imagine that.

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