SEATTLE – Looking back on it almost 30 years later, a couple of days off in Boston are among the most important days in Seattle Sonics history.
Those Sonics of 1977-78, like the Sonics of this season, were in a deep, early-season crisis. That team started the year 5-17 and Lenny Wilkens, who was the team’s general manager, had replaced Bob Hopkins as the coach.
In his first game as Hopkins’ replacement, Wilkens’ Sonics almost squandered a 17-point lead to Kansas City before holding on to win by one.
The next day at practice in Boston he decided to dramatically change his starting lineup, and the team went on a winning binge that didn’t stop for almost three years. Wilkens replaced Bruce Seals, Paul Silas and Slick Watts with Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma, and the entire franchise exploded on the rest of the league. Wilkens put the ball in Williams’ hands and let the team jet to the top of the NBA’s West.
The crisis was averted, and the city fell even deeper in love with the Sonics.
That first year under Wilkens, the Sonics took the Washington Bullets to seven games before losing in the NBA Finals. The next season, they won the franchise’s first – and only – world championship.
“The guys bought into the changes,” Wilkens said on Thursday after being named the Sonics’ new vice chairman. “I think we won 10 straight. I wanted to let Gus get out in the open court because he had such confidence that he could just go at people.”
Wilkens, who has the most coaching wins (1,332) in league history, built a trust with his players and continued a trust with the city that started when he came to Seattle in a trade with St. Louis in 1968.
Now, just as he saved the 1977-78 season for the Sonics, he is being asked to help save the franchise again. He will be a diplomat, assigned to lobby the Legislature and convince the public that a largely publicly financed arena is needed to save the sport in this region.
It is the most positive step taken by Clay Bennett and his ownership group since Howard Schultz bailed on this city last July.
Few sports personalities are more connected to their towns than Wilkens is with Seattle. He was an All-Star here as a player. He was the architect as well as the coach of the championship team. Two years ago, after he was fired as coach of the New York Knicks, he returned to Seattle and became an analyst for Fox Sports Northwest.
But let’s not be naive. If there continues to be no local ownership, Wilkens may be no more than window dressing. But at the same time, Wilkens isn’t some slickster Bennett is trotting out. He is the real deal, and he wants the team to stay.
“The Sonics belong here,” he said Thursday.
Wilkens is the face people know. He is the trusted, local-basketball person these new Sonics have needed to make a legitimate pitch for a new arena.
For Wilkens, saving the sport in Seattle, as he did in another way in 1977, can be the perfect legacy and fitting ending to his Hall of Fame career.
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