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Worst Chokers In Sports History

Steve Kelley Seattle Times

At least the Buffalo Bills got to the Super Bowl. Even the Minnesota Vikings won NFC titles and the Atlanta Braves won a couple of National League pennants.

But the Seattle Sonics? Go ahead, name a more underachieving team in the history of sports.

The 1972 United States Olympic basketball team? The 1980 Soviet hockey team? Just about any recent University of Michigan Rose Bowl team?

None comes close.

Those teams couldn’t win the big ones. But the Sonics can’t even win the medium ones. Those teams made it past the opening round.

For the second straight season, the Sonics have reached the brink of elimination in the NBA playoffs’ first round. Monday night, they lost to the Lakers 105-101 to fall behind 2-1 in the best-of-five series.

For the second year in a row, the Sonics are setting new standards for choking.

“Maybe they panic. Maybe no,” Lakers center Vlade Divac offered. “But something is wrong with them.”

Let’s state the obvious first:

Seattle point guard Gary Payton is playing at about 80 percent. The broken finger on his left hand is affecting his ballhanding, bothering his passing, killing the Sonics.

The center-by-committee - Sam Perkins, Ervin Johnson - isn’t working. Divac spun Johnson like a top - 20 points, nine rebounds.

Couldn’t Bill Cartwright, his three championship rings and his $1.5 million contract have some impact? Couldn’t Cartwright at least lay his large body on the Lakers center, commit some hard fouls, make Divac work a little harder?

Coach George Karl is getting ideas for his substitution rotation from some planet we’ve never seen. How else do you explain the fact Kendall Gill didn’t play in the second half? How else do you explain Vince Askew’s 26 minutes and Sarunas Marciulionis’ zip?

Gill, Cartwright and Marciulionis, the $6 million men, are the NBA’s most expensive bench ornaments.

The Sonics have won 120 regular-season games over the past two seasons, but they are 3-5 in the playoffs.

Last year, their collapse against Denver began with a fight in the locker room between Payton and Ricky Pierce. Now the Sonics look like they could use a fight in the locker room.

They are playing with all the passion of shoe salesmen.

The are beyond cool. They are frozen stiff.

The Seattle Zombies?

“We are in the process of building a championship character,” Karl said before the game.

Who? Where? When? You would have expected the Sonics to start this game smoking, not choking. But Detlef Schrempf’s first tentative pass was intercepted and turned into two free throws by Anthony Peeler.

Four minutes into the game, the Lakers led 12-2. After 16 minutes, they led 44-26.

The message the Sonics sent? “Mayday! Mayday!”

“We sent the message from the first minute of the game,” Divac said. “We said, ‘Seattle, we can take this game from you.”’

Just as they were better than Denver in last year’s playoffs, the Sonics are much better than the Lakers.

Gill, if given the chance, can have Peeler for lunch. With Nate McMillan hurting from head to toe, there should be 25 minutes waiting for Gill.

But Gill missed two shots and Karl buried him at the end of the bench. Has Karl forgotten the 17 points in 25 minutes Gill scored in the first game? There is something inexplicably evil about the way Karl handles Gill.

Meanwhile, back on the court, Schrempf should be lighting up Cedric Ceballos and George Lynch like a couple of Christmas trees. Instead, he has vanished into some basketball Black Forest.

And Payton, the alleged team leader, has been lifeless since the playoffs began. He has disappeared from the locker room after games faster than a bar of soap.

He should be staying around, standing up for his teammates, challenging them, letting the Lakers know the series is far from finished.

“Obviously, they are feeling pressure,” Divac said. “That pressure is always on their minds.”

Now, for the first time in two years, the Sonics will go into a game Thursday they aren’t expected to win.

Maybe now they will relax. Maybe now, with the burden of 24 months of expectations lifted, they will play with some resolve, show some flickers of life.

“We’ve come back before from this position,” Karl said. “We were in this same position three years ago in Utah, down 2-1, and we came back to win.”

That team had guts. This team has that deer-in-the-headlights look. It shot free throws like the Orlando Magic - 62 percent. It gave away 17 points on turnovers. It played scared.

All season, the Sonics have talked about their pride and togetherness. They have one last-gasp chance to prove it.

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