This time of year is always bittersweet. While the NBA finals dominate the national sports conversation, Nate McMillan is reminded of his greatest accomplishment and disappointment as a professional basketball player.
Fifteen years ago he helped the Seattle SuperSonics rally from a 3-0 deficit to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the championship series to come within two wins of claiming the city’s first NBA title since 1979.
It was the last great hurrah for the franchise that now resides in Oklahoma City.
“You could almost say if we had won that year, the team would still be in Seattle,” McMillan said. “I know we can never say for certain what would have happened, but at least that’s what I believe.”
Who’s to say what might have happened if things had turned out differently?
Maybe former owner Barry Ackerley wouldn’t have sold the team to Howard Schultz, who sold the team to Clay Bennett, who moved the Sonics after 41 years in Seattle.
Maybe Shawn Kemp wouldn’t have forced a trade and been shipped to Cleveland for Vin Baker.
Maybe Gary Payton would have retired in Seattle, and maybe McMillan would be coaching the Sonics instead of the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I try not to play the what-if game because you can’t win that game,” Kemp said. “But I’ll admit, it’s hard not to. We had something good and if we could have finished it off the right way – with a championship – that would have changed everything.”
After all this time, the pain still hasn’t gone away for the members of the 1995-96 Sonics.
For most, it was their final brush with greatness and as close as they would get to the Larry O’Brien championship trophy.
Only Payton returned to the NBA finals, winning a title in 2006 with the Miami Heat.
For the rest, they live with feelings of regret and remorse, which is a bitter consolation prize for one of the greatest teams in Sonics history.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Hersey Hawkins, the former Sonics standout and the Trail Blazers’ new player- development director. “I don’t know if you ever really get over losing in the finals.
“I still have never watched one of those games because it actually hurts to think that we lost that series. I thought we were a more talented team. I thought it was our year.”
Before the 1995-96 season, the Sonics added Hawkins to replace the mercurial Kendall Gill. The sharpshooting guard was considered the missing piece to the championship puzzle.
“It was a veteran team,” Hawkins said. “A lot of guys were at a point in their careers where you had gotten all of the personal accolades or whatever recognition that you needed and it was more about team and trying to win it.
“From that aspect, there was no selfishness. Everybody just played and had one goal in mind: win a championship.”
The Sonics also added 36-year-old Frank Brickowski and returned everyone else to reprise their roles.
Payton ran the show. Kemp tormented opponents in the paint. Detlef Schrempf and Hawkins dropped daggers from the wings. And Ervin Johnson, the fifth starter, usually played a few minutes before Sam Perkins took over at center.
Aside from the smooth-shooting, longball specialist, the other reserves (Vincent Askew, David Wingate, Eric Snow, McMillan and Brickowski) brought a nasty defensive edge to the court.
“We had versatility and such a lock on how we could play and how we wanted to play,” McMillan said. “We could take you out of whatever you wanted to do.
“We could trap the ball. We could play big. We could play small. I thought we were that good that year.”
They were good, but not at the beginning of the season while compiling a 6-5 record after 11 games and 13-7 after 20.
The Sonics shook off the sluggish start and won 51 of the next 62 contests, including winning streaks of 14 and nine games.
They finished with a 64-18 record, the most wins in franchise history. They lost just two games at KeyArena.
Payton, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and Kemp were selected to the All-Star Game. They were in the prime of their careers, buoyed by a city that celebrated and cheered their accomplishments.
“The energy around the city was felt,” Kemp said. “Even if you didn’t see what was going on or were out there experiencing it, you felt it. It’s hard to describe what a buzz is, but there was a definite buzz around town unlike anything I remember.”
There was also a healthy dose of skepticism because the Sonics lost in the first round the previous two years, including a 3-2 gut-wrenching series defeat to Denver in 1994.
After a convincing 3-1 series win over Sacramento to open the ’96 playoffs and a sweep against Houston in the next round, the city was caught up in Sonics-mania.
Sir Mix-A-Lot’s catchy tune “Not in Our House” boomed on the radio, a Sonics flag hung from atop the Space Needle and Ackerley, the billboard magnate and media mogul, plastered the team’s cartoonish logo all around town.
“You really don’t appreciate it until you step away from it,” Schrempf said. “As players you’re so concerned and thinking about yourself and your season and what you have to do to get ready for the next game.
“It was a great time for basketball in Seattle. We had the greatest fans. People were lined up at the airport in the middle of the night when we came home all the time. And you start to think, that’s how it is, but it really isn’t. You ask players in Sacramento or for the Los Angeles Clippers. That just doesn’t happen.”
The day before their decisive game against Utah in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, Snow whipped 5,000 fans at a Westlake Center pep rally into a frenzy. The backup point guard yelled: “Super” and the crowd chanted “Sonics” for several long, loud minutes that still echoes in the memories of Seattle sports fans.
The team needed every bit of mojo to outlast the Jazz for a 90-86 victory that gave it the conference title.
“That was a Sunday afternoon game and I remember driving home three hours after the game and there were still people celebrating as if we had won the title,” McMillan said. “The city was just going crazy.”
Next up: Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Jordan and a Chicago team that won an NBA-record 72 regular-season games. The Bulls raced through the playoffs with a 12-1 record and no one believed the Sonics would stand in the way of their fourth NBA title.
“They had Michael and Scottie – two of the top 50 players that have ever played this game – so yeah, they had a pretty good team,” Hawkins said. “But beyond that, from top to bottom we were more talented as a group.”
Still there were ominous signs for the Sonics, who were making their first trip to the finals since their 1979 championship.
“Once we got there it was obvious to me that experience counts in those situations,” McMillan said. “I recall we were in awe of everything about the finals. When we got off the plane and traveled from the airport to the hotel, we had a police escort. Right then you knew you were in the finals.
“I remember somebody with a camcorder and I said to myself, ‘That’s not good.’ Just because we were happy to be there, as opposed to it’s a business trip. I saw that camcorder and thought, ‘We’re not ready.’ ”
Sure enough the Sonics fell behind 3-0, which included a disheartening 108-86 defeat at KeyArena 15 years ago Thursday.
Unable to play because of back spasms, McMillan took a cortisone shot before Games 4 and 5 to relieve the pain. The Sonics won both games and forced a return to Chicago.
It was the last time McMillan would play, as Seattle fell 87-75 in Game 6.
Without Kemp, the Sonics wouldn’t have won any games against Chicago. He played the best basketball of his career and averaged a series-best 23.3 points and 10 rebounds.
“I don’t think you ever really get over it,” Kemp said. “I think you’re able to deal with it, but every year when the finals comes around, it makes me relive it all over again.”