Seattle-area basketball fans tuning in to the opening episodes of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” a week ago hoping for a much-welcomed sports diversion were instead dealt what might have seemed like an unnecessary and unexpected dagger to the heart.
Or, depending on your age, maybe even an entirely new lesson in some unfortunate Seattle basketball history.
Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen was really a Sonic for a little while?
Yes he was, as the second episode of “The Last Dance,” which details Michael Jordan’s final season with the Bulls, made painstakingly clear a few minutes in, showing the famous (infamous?) photo of Pippen in a Sonics hat during the 1987 NBA draft.
Turns out, the Bulls’ 1997-98 season, which is the subject of the 10-episode series, was also Pippen’s last season with the Bulls (other than a return for a few games at the end of his career), and the second episode focused heavily on his contract squabble with the team that led to his eventual departure, which in turn led to chronicling how Pippen became a Bull in the first place.
Which led to the picture of Pippen in a Sonics hat.
Yes, the Sonics really did draft Pippen and then trade him to the Bulls, and yes the team came to greatly regret that move.
But as is almost always the case in these things, it’s a little more complicated than simply saying all Seattle got was Olden Polynice – a center who would average 7.8 points in his career and just five points in five seasons with the Sonics – in return.
So, consider this a refresher on how Pippen briefly was a Sonic in 1987 – as well as the maybe more-forgotten story of how he almost became a Sonic again a few years later.
The Sonics entered the 1987 draft coming off one of the more surprising seasons in team history, having gone 39-43 to squeak into the playoffs as a seven seed, but then getting hot in the postseason, upsetting Dallas and Houston and advancing to the Western Conference finals against the Lakers. There, they were swept by one of the best Lakers teams ever.
But Seattle seemed a team on the rise with a three-headed scoring monster of Dale Ellis, Tom Chambers and Xavier McDaniel each averaging 23 or more points per game. Seattle also had a good young point guard in Nate McMillan, who had averaged 8.2 assists per game in what was his rookie year.
What Seattle felt it was missing were some big guys up front to add defense and toughness, especially in a conference that at the time featured the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon.
Entering the draft with two first-round picks – their own and one from the Knicks for guard Gerald Henderson – the Sonics and general manager Bob Whitsitt, whose propensity for pulling off major deals had earned him the nickname “Trader Bob,” aimed to try to address their issues up front.
The day before the draft, rumors swirled of a possible swap of picks between the Bulls and Sonics, who would go on to be involved in a number of deals over the coming years.
As portrayed in “The Last Dance,” the Bulls were enamored with Pippen, a 6-8 swingman who had been a star at NAIA Central Arkansas and then solidified his standing as a likely top-half-of-the-draft pick with standout play in predraft camps.
The reported deal had Seattle giving the Bulls the fifth overall selection that it had gotten from the Knicks and Chicago giving Seattle its choice at No. 8 – with Seattle also getting a second-rounder in 1988 or ’89 as well as the right to swap first-round picks with the Bulls in ’88 or ’89 in return.
The deal was contingent on a few things – mainly, Pippen being available at five and Georgetown guard Reggie Williams not being available at five.
According to reports at the time, the Sonics would have kept the fifth pick to take Williams if he were still there – Williams had just led a seemingly undermanned Georgetown team to the Elite Eight, and Seattle apparently viewed him as ready to immediately help. Pippen, the view was held by many, might need some time to adjust, having played in college at a lower level.
But the Clippers took Williams at four, leaving the Sonics to take Pippen at five for the Bulls, with the trade having been rumored but not yet made official.
The Sonics also hoped that taking Pippen would result in a little run on guards for the next few picks. Seattle also had the ninth pick in the draft and had its eyes set on Alabama big man Derrick McKey.
The way the Sonics viewed it at the time, the move worked – seeing Pippen off the board, the Kings and Cavs took guards at picks six and seven (Kenny Smith and Kevin Johnson) – leaving the Bulls to take Polynice at eight for the Sonics and Seattle to then draft McKey at nine, and the trade quickly made official.
The 6-11 Polynice had helped lead Virginia to the Final Four at the Kingdome in 1984, adding a defensive and intimidation presence in the middle that the Sonics coveted. The 6-9 McKey was also known for his defense and all-around game.
Had McKey not been available, the Sonics were reportedly going to take forward Horace Grant, who instead went to the Bulls at 10.
“What we may have done is add two potentially great big men,” Sonics assistant coach Bob Kloppenburg was quoted as saying by the Seattle Times the day after the draft.
While Pippen quickly emerged as the missing piece the Jordan-era Bulls needed to become one of the greatest sports dynasties ever, Polynice would play three seasons for Seattle and part of another before being included in a trade with the Clippers that netted Seattle center Benoit Benjamin in 1991 (Polynice later returned to play for Seattle in 1998-99 as well, and don’t get us started on Benjamin).
The other parts of the deal didn’t yield much on paper, but intriguingly again involved Chicago – and in a roundabout way could be viewed as helping at least a little bit in the Sonics later landing two of their best-known players.
Seattle eventually traded the second-round pick back to Chicago for guard Sam Vincent, and then later traded Vincent back to the Bulls for Sedale Threatt, a starter at guard for Seattle for most of the 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons.
And then prior to the 1989 draft, the Sonics exercised the option to swap first-round picks with the Bulls, moving from 20 to 18.
Seattle then traded that pick back to the Bulls (we said this got sort of complicated) for 7-foot center Brad Sellers – if you watched the documentary, Sellers was the player the Bulls settled for in the 1986 draft after Jordan insisted on playing late in the year and the Bulls made the playoffs rather than get a lottery pick.
With Sellers in hand, the Sonics then traded their first-round pick in 1990 for Golden State’s at 16 in the 1989 draft, adding to their own at 17.
At 16, the Sonics took guard Dana Barros out of Boston College, the player they most wanted.
As Glenn Nelson of the Seattle Times later wrote, getting Barros meant the Sonics could use their next pick to “take a gamble” on an intriguing forward who was just a year removed from high school named Shawn Kemp.
The Bulls, who had picks at 18 and 20, reportedly were ready to take Kemp.
A couple months later, in August, 1989, the Sonics would get that 1990 first-round pick back from Golden State in exchange for center Alton Lister, a trade made easier by the additions of Sellers and Kemp.
Good thing, as that pick ended up in the lottery, where the Sonics got the number two selection the following June and took a guard from Oregon State named Gary Payton.
Pippen’s near-misses with Seattle didn’t end there.
After the Payton-Kemp-led Sonics went 63-19 in 93-94 but were bounced out of the playoffs in the first round, Seattle weighed a blockbuster move prior to the 1994 draft – trading Kemp, guard Ricky Pierce and a first-round pick to Chicago for Pippen. Jordan was then in his baseball-inspired first retirement, and the Bulls viewed getting Kemp, four years younger than Pippen, as a player to build a future around whether or not Jordan returned.
Seattle, meanwhile, viewed Pippen as a potentially steadying force on a team whose – for lack of a better way of saying it – maturity issues had been viewed as leading to the early playoff ouster.
George Karl, the coach of the Sonics at the time, wrote in his 2016 autobiography, “Furious George,” that he called Jordan (the two had known each other for years as fellow North Carolina alums) about the deal.
“Do it,” Karl quoted Jordan as saying. “Scottie can make your other players better. Kemp can’t.”
But corroborating reports at the time, Karl wrote that the deal was killed in part after rumors leaked and fans angrily took to the airwaves of KJR-AM 950 – then the flagship station of the team and owned by Sonics owner Barry Ackerley – to protest any potential trade of Kemp.
“While we dragged our feet on draft day, (Bulls general manager Jerry) Krause got desperate,” Karl wrote. “He called to tell me the Bulls would drop the demand for our number one pick. He offered a big chunk of money in the next call. Then he called back to double it. Literally minutes before the draft started, Ackerley backed us out of the deal. When I delivered the bad news, Krause dropped f-bombs and called me names. We’d keep Kemp, they’d keep Pippen.”
The two teams would meet two years later in the NBA Finals, where Pippen’s Sonics history was a heavily-discussed subplot, Jordan saying he was glad the 1994 trade hadn’t worked out.
And maybe it only made sense that episode two of “The Last Dance” ended with scenes of Pippen and Jordan commenting on Pippen wanting to be traded by the Bulls – interviews conducted on the floor of KeyArena when Chicago was in town for a game against the Sonics.
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