June 17, 1996 in Sports

Sonics Gain Very Useful Experience

John Mcgrath Tacoma News Tribune

In the end, the NBA Finals looked a whole lot like they did at the start: With the Chicago Bulls possessed of confidence, possessed of purpose - possessed, period - and the Seattle SuperSonics looking as though they were happy to have been invited to the party.

In the end, as in the beginning, Michael Jordan was an incomparable pillar of emotional strength and Ron Harper created jackhammer-throbbing headaches and Dennis Rodman proved to be both a thorn in the side and a pain in the posterior, a man for whom the Sonics had no solution.

In the end, Chicago had the regal selfassurance of champions, while Seattle was forced to look at its performance in terms of a learning experience.

But to consider this six-chapter book strictly by its bookends would be to dismiss how the Sonics, against all odds, briefly brought the City of Big Shoulders to its knees. Against all odds, the Sonics turned a victory procession into a terrific series culminated by an unforgettably gripping tableau: Jordan sprawled on the United Center floor, emotionally spent on a Father’s Day that conjured memories of his late dad James.

And though Michael and The Jordanairres would’ve been no less satisfied with the four-game sweep they failed to execute in KeyArena, it was the Sonics’ refusal to go gently - their absolute insistence on getting back on a plane for the return trip to Chicago - that made the 1996 NBA Finals so meaningful.

“I can’t thank my team enough for the spirit,” coach George Karl said after Bulls’ series-clinching 87-75 victory. “They have rejuvenated my spirit for basketball, and my team is pretty special in my mind. And even though we did not play well here in Chicago, I think we showed the nation that we had a big heart and played with a lot of pride.”

Said ailing Sonics tri-captain Nate McMillan, whose presence on the floor symbolized the very virtues Karl talked about: “We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t now how to come out, how to be focused. This was a learning experience for us.”

Now comes the real learning experience for the second-best team in the NBA: The Sonics are discovering there is no category, in any record book, for Scares Thrown At Championship Teams. Fun as it was to frighten the psychologically challenged fans of Chicago, there is no reward for making life miserable for somebody else.

The only reward is the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which Sunday night was presented to the Bulls for the fourth time in six years. Here’s another lesson for the Sonics to ponder: These best-of-seven championship duels are slightly less imposing when you don’t wait until the score is 3-0 before deciding to clench your fist.

“Any time you lose, you try to learn from your mistakes,” said Shawn Kemp, whose inspired professionalism became a surprising staple of this series. “What we’ve realized now is that in that in The Finals, you have to come and play in Game 1 and 2. It’s hard to come back from three losses . . .

“There are no second-place winners. We realize that. The thing you have to do is take it, and take it in the right way: Just keep working, and work harder. At this point, it doesn’t come from the physical ability on the court. A lot of it is mental stuff.”

The mental stuff. In Game 6, the Sonics made a succession of injudicious passes, took one ill-advised shot after another, and revealed a confounding indifference to such fundamental tenets as boxing out under the boards.

The mental stuff. In Game 6, it translated into 19 rebounds for the Bulls forward Rodman, and zero rebounds for starting Sonics center Frank Brickowski.

“An interesting stat sheet,” acknowledged Karl. “We had good looks; they had a lot of misses. They got all their extra shots and all their extra possessions because of their ability to rebound the ball.”

The mental stuff. By the time the Sonics figured out the mind games, they were trying to avert a sweep in the blood-and sweat portion of the tournament.

“You spend time wondering how the refereeing is going to be, and how Dennis Rodman can get into your head,” said Gary Payton. “We learned how to walk away from that stuff - that the only thing that matters is good, hard basketball. We’ll win more games without having that distraction.”

The Sonics will win more games, distractions or not. But if they are to return to this stage, they’ll have taken an introductory course in World Championship Basketball.

“What this means is that we have to wait another year,” said Detlef Schrempf, plopping his feet near an ice bucket - the one players use to soothe the pain of tendinitis. “We have to wait another year.”

He gets it.

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