From the onset, you knew something was different about the brash point guard from Oregon State. I recall the media’s befuddled analysis of Gary’s arrogance as he wore a hat donning only his initials at his introductory press conference. Or when he proclaimed doubt over ever being a back-up to the already loved Nate McMillan. It was something the city hadn’t seen in some time, a man whose body language alone made losing impossible.
Another great thing occurred the following year when Bob Whitsitt, now vilified by NFL faithful, was brought in as the General Manager. At that time, Whitsitt was heir apparent to Jerry West as the best basketball GM going, and he proved it over the next decade by building a contending team every year. He routinely refreshed and reloaded the Sonics’ roster, bringing in superstar after superstar, be it through a trade or the draft. But his best and signature move, was bringing back a two-time losing NBA coaching retread from exile in Real Madrid. That basketball crazed, odd humored, short tempered, aloof, frumpy, balding, physically and mentally scarred man was George Karl.
For the next seven years, the man who admittedly refuses to wear underwear, George Karl, led the Supersonics on a Sherman’s March through the league. His philosophy, coupled with assistant Bob Kloppenberg’s defensive schemes, advanced incendiary treatment of opponents, leaving nothing but ashes and lopsided victories in their wake. All the while, Karl was tormenting and teasing the media who covered him, for no other reason than feeding his own insecurities and twisted sense of humor.
Under Karl’s tutelage, many new superstars and ensemble pieces were developed and polished. All of whom were special not only to Supersonic fans, but also patrons of the Emerald City. Those teams from 1991-1997 are legends to all of us for the character, ego driven identity, soap opera storylines, clamor for leadership, and oh yeah- just winning.
Payton was the identity of those squads. “The Glove” could literally take away your ability to dribble or see six inches in front of your face. While it took a few years to develop, his offensive game soon vaulted him atop all PG’s in the league. Given his size, strength, and wiry frame he could easily post up most guards, slyly slinking past a defender for a usually uncontested lay-up. If you foolishly game planned for that scud in his arsenal, he’d pull up for a jumper, making you pay more often than not.
Where he differed from McMillan is that his basketball ability was only rivaled by his smack-talking prowess. After every dagger jumper or pivotal stop, rest assured you’d hear about it. Whether it was the insensitive act of calling Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf by his original name, Chris Jackson, or instructing a courtside-opposing fan to quiet down before he “threw his wallet at him”…Gary spoke as well as he played. His mastery of basketball and smack talk was displayed every night, and I literally mean every night.
How can we forget the Reign Man, Shawn Kemp? Kemp was, in those years, the perfect power forward. He could leap out of the gym, lull you with the surprising range of his jumper, or scourge your will with a timely rebound. His high-flying dunks would bastardize opponents and fans on the road, frenzy the home faithful, and animate teammates. When the Supersonics met, and eventually lost to, Dennis Rodman and the Chicago Bulls in the 1996 Finals, Kemp was Michael Jordan…Michael wasn’t.
There was the pro’s pro, Detlef Shrempf, the original Euro import. Detlef was a pioneer, opening everyone’s eyes to the talent pool laying in Europe, which until recently remained dormant and unearthed. Like most European players today, Detlef was skilled in every aspect of the game upon entering the league. He could shoot, pass, play defense, play any position, and more importantly do it in a professional and soothing demeanor. “Det” was good at all things basketball, an oddity in a sport where most professionals are usually good at a few.
One of my favorites, although not around too long, was Michael Cage. The under-sized center made up for his height by utilizing his physique. Cage literally muscled every rebound within his mitts, cleaning more glass than an elementary school janitor. His biology seemed inhuman, malleted out of oak and cinderblock over the carbon and water of his peers. Adding to his persona was his resistance to abolishing his Jheri Curl locks, and no one was man enough to question him on it.
During times of my life where feelings of defeat, sadness, or rage are too consuming, I seek out numerous things to interrupt the mood. Sometimes it’s “substances”, hip-hop at unhealthy decibel levels, aggression aimed an innocent bystander, or I’ll just play images of certain Seattle sports icons in my head. Without a doubt one of the most recalled and wonderful of these icons is Big Smooth, aka Sam Perkins.
Sam Perkins played at a different speed than all others. Usually that trite description is saved for the inhumanly fast - Michael Vick, Randy Moss, Ichiro. In the case of Big Smooth however, it was just the opposite. From all appearances he methodically and coolly sauntered up and down the court without haste or any sense of urgency. It’s as if he knew the outcome of every possession or defensive attempt before anyone else did. He knew where everyone was going to be before they did, so why rush? Whether knowing exact corner and second to accept an assisted three-pointer or the tactical trajectory of a full-court rebound and outlet, Big Smooth seemingly knew what others didn’t.
There were countless great players and moments passed to us through those Karl lead teams, some more recognizable than others. Derrick McKey, with his ever-frustrating denial of the skills within him. Vincent Askew for being the everyman refusing to give up his roster spot. Frank Brickowski’s admission that his role was to annoy and intimidate given his lack of basketball ability. The classy and tenacious Hersey Hawkins always representing himself as the consummate professional. They were all great and equally adored.
Last but not least, there was Mac10, Nate McMillan, Mr. Sonic. By that time in his career Nate had fell victim to age and a weathered frame due years of diving, hustling, willing, and gutting out countless Herculean performances. When able to suit up, the team took on the demeanor of hungry, tenacious, and deadly hyenas, over that of sleek and dangerous cats.
Nate just had that in him, that one intangible that you’re constantly seeking out and weary of all at the same time. It’s no wonder that the next great moment in Sonics lore came with Nate barking out his all-knowing wisdom from the sidelines and not the floor.
A quarter into the 2000 season, then assistant McMillan, was asked to return dignity to the post of “Supersonics Head Coach” from the befuddled and whiny Paul Westphal.
The following year he made the playoffs with a dangerous seventh seeded-squad, pushing the Spurs to a fifth game. The next two years Nate’s teams, our Supersonics, hovered either right at or below .500. Those two years caused many journalists, fans, and even Supersonics management to foolishly hesitate on offering an extension of his contract beyond the 2004-05 season, the final year of his contract.
To anyone without the smarts of Lenny Smalls, Nate’s coaching woes dealt with circumstances and a learning curve, not aptitude. Anyone who religiously followed the Sonics those years knew he possessed a great coach within himself; he just needed time to find it. He finally did in the 2004-05 season.
From all outward appearances and media predictions, the 2004-05 season spelled doom for an already shaky franchise. The team consisted of ten free-agents, a free-agent coach, questionable draft picks, and yet unrealized youngsters. A biblical catastrophe was in the forecast, with only the expansion Charlotte Bobcats predicted to be less formidable.
The season opener only cemented to the faithful what we’d been denying all off-season, when the lowly Clippers handed the Supersonics a 30+ point loss. After that game however, we no longer saw a team picked second worst in the league, we saw one of the best.
McMillan’s Supersonics unleashed a yet unseen brand of basketball on the NBA. More European than anything else, they were nearly impossible to stop. The philosophy was simple - spread the floor and shoot early or late…to insure your defenders were always working and on edge. Nate’s formula was perfect given the personnel; jump shooters and rebounders…with little or nothing in between. So perfect, it made then-Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich murmur “it’s impossible to coach against…you can’t guard the whole floor”.
Obviously, the first name that leaps to the forefront from that squad is Ray Allen. When the Sonics obtained Ray via the Gary Payton trade, all we knew was he was an All-Star as a shooting guard. What we didn’t realize then, and what’s still unknown to casual fans of the game, is that Ray Allen is not only an All-Star, he’s arguably a top five player.
If you researched the term “fundamentals of a jump shot” in a technical manual, the diagram would be of number 34. But, to many Seattleites’ surprise, that’s not all he can do. He can drive by you with his conspicuously strong body and crippling basketball IQ, he can rock you into complacency before firing off a lasered dime, or turn an opposing arena into a vacuum with a timely and crushing go-ahead three. Ray Allen’s a superstar, a true superstar.
The second option on that team was the unassuming yet fatal Rashard Lewis. Sweet Lew, as he came to be known, had then and now the ability to drop in 25 points without ever realizing he was on the court. Occasionally you’d get a glimpse of his presence with a timely alley-oop smash or base line charge to the hole, but most of the time his greatness is visible only through a box score. Truly a ninja in all aspects; silent, deadly, and invisibly present.
As all great teams require, that squad had a “goon”. For that year, Danny Fortson behaved and gave all of us a window into the minds of GMs who repeatedly believed in his ability. Most nights his playing time was limited, being he was a marked man in the league. All that was required for Danny to draw a foul was the lifting of a brow - signaling the ill intent about to be unleashed. When he was in, he was an artist. Along with the artistry came periods of incredible intellect, the type of natural intellect therapists could only dream of.
Danny knew the right moment, person, and way to appall an opponent to gain maximum effectiveness. This was never more evident the time he “accidentally” fell on Kevin Garnett in the closing seconds of a hotly contested game. The descent pinned KG to the hardwood. Danny had also developed some sort of “muscle soreness”, causing delay of in hoisting himself off of Garnett or the ground. What it lead to was KG being unable to assist offensively on the other end, placing a bow on a coveted road victory. Beautiful, his performance on that play and that season, was beautiful.
Reckless, colorful, and free-spirited are words best describing that teams gunslinger, retrievable from the bench, Vladimir Radmanovich. Ever the wild card, Vlade personified what it is to be a shooter. His philosophy was simple; once I get the ball I’m going to shoot - truly a coach’s dream and nightmare rolled into one 6’10” Yugoslavian package. When he was on, he could bring down an arenas’ excitement with the precision of Carlos Hathcock, when he wasn’t his lack on conscience told him to shoot more. That’s the beauty and uniqueness of a shooter, no ounce of common sense telling them “no”.
We’ve seen a smattering of gutty and epic performances from our Seattle teams over the years, but all others pale in comparison to that 2004-05 Supersonics squad. History will overlook the feats of that team, steering your eyes to the 2001 Mariners and 2005 Seahawks based on the dominance of their performances. Unlike the aforementioned teams however, those Supersonics weren’t as imposing, or even as talented, as those who faced them.
The only thing that stopped that squad from achieving the most surprising, improbable, and miraculous championship in professional sports history, was the loss of too many soldiers due to injuries – eventually forcing Nate McMillan to start undrafted rookies against the eventual champion Spurs.
Adding to the magic of that season was the revitalized enthusiasm of our constant star of any Supersonic memory. It’s as if this man was seated next to us all those years, passing you the pretzels, doubling your contempt of a ref, or sharing a primordial yelp after a thunderous dunk. His uncanny ability to puppeteer audible sounds into visual scenes of the mind, all while remaining entertaining, unbiased, relevant, and tragically funny is what made him the best in the business. That man is Supersonics announcer, Kevin Calabro.
It’s difficult to describe Calabro to anyone who’s unfamiliar. His soul is comprised of anything and everything “cool”. He’s a musician, comedian, actor, interviewer, analyst, talk show host, artist, writer, he’s everything you ever wanted to be. Kevin just happened to choose broadcasting as the outlet of his genius.
The thought of portraying this man makes me ill, as there’s no human way to do him justice. So I’ll let Kevin do the talking, relaying some of his greatest on air moments, sayings and nicknames;
- The throaty growled call of an Antonio Daniels drive to the hoop with “and Daniels rumbles to the bucket wearing nothing but a salty look of scorn”
- The hilariously taboo labeling of a pivotal three-point shot “The Shocker, two in the cake and one in the pudding, baby”
- First used in reference to Nate McMillan, any ridiculously hot shooter – one who couldn’t miss regardless the distance - would get “he’s having an out-of body experience…he’s in a different time, different space, all he sees is white light and he feels fuzzy all over. Someone call Art Bell…(in an Art Bell impersonating voice) “Call the wild card line at….”. This one later evolved into the proclaiming of a player had been abducted by aliens…ending with the same Art Bell references.
- Last February, during a down point of the game, Calabro was reading a promotional tag for Black History Month. Upon completing the written text, he informed all of us “for my money, the best way to celebrate the month is by listening to Herbie Hancock”. He meant every word.
- The call that was made for Kemp “get on that magic carpet and ride” for every high-flying dunk.
- In the 2004-05 season, Vladimir Radmanovic became known as “Broadway Joe” to KC, for his wearing of a fur jacket. That digressed into Calabro singing “New York, New York” in a Sinatra tone whenever Vlade made a key play, eventually leading to him singing an unknown Sinatra song, changing the lyrics to simply “Oh Vlade”.
- The ever-present “flying chickens in a barnyard”, which seemed to be belted out at his choosing, not directly related to any particular situation or player.
- The description of Kevin Willis as “he has such small arms, it’s like you took your sisters Barbie arms and stuck them on your GI Joe. He just looks like a T-Rex….”
- While the specifics escape me, I do recall a game where Kevin called five or so minutes of a Supersonic vs. Minnesota game, as if it were a hockey game. The ball was the puck, the fans were cold, and he babbled on with “blue line” this or “icing” that.
- He once called a Sarunas Marciulionis assist to Detlef Schrempf by simply stating “the ruble to the douche…money!”
- The Glove, Reign Man, Detonator, The Collector, Top Cat, Mac Ten, Cool Hand Luke, Sweet Lew, Quiet Man, Junk Yard Dog, Bones, The Chef, The Agitator, Nick Collision, Heavy D, Big Ben, Big Paper Daddy, The Fiddler, Big Smooth, The Gate, and The Hawk.
As I did in recalling memorable times, players, games, and moments with the team; I’m sure there’s some great Calabro signature calls or nicknames I passed over. That’s not any product of disrespect, just a product of limited writing ability. The subject of The SuperSonics as a whole is too large and joyous of a topic to describe in entirety.
In writing this article, I enlisted the assistance of many individuals, ensuring that everyone’s input or memories had some input. In doing so, I found that even the casual fan, one who couldn’t name a single-player on today’s roster, had a Supersonic memory, in some shape or form, to share. Feelings of regret and sorrow were conveyed by all as well, regardless of their allegiance of the team.
Simply put, my research proved the idea, thoughts, images, and memories of the Supersonics fell neatly within one specific word's definition; the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought; i.e., Culture.
The great Bill Maher once reminded us that the “bigger the coffee order, the bigger the a**hole”.
I’m sure Seattle City Council President Nick Licata was sipping a Starbucks half-caf-breve-sugarfree-extrahot-soy-latte when the elitist in him told Sports Illustrated that the Sonics leaving town would have "close to zero" cultural impact.
Known very well to friend and foe as "pehawk" in our fan forums, Ryan Davis will be providing a fresh voice on the Seahawks, Seattle sports in general, and life in a nutshell. Feel free to send your thoughts, recriminations and mule sniffs to Ryan here.