NOTE: Following is the second installment of a four-part blog series on the NBA Finals. The author, while working for newspapers in Olympia and Bremerton, covered three games in Portland during the 1977 Finals between the Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers, and all games of the 1978, 79 and 96 Finals in which the Seattle SuperSonics competed.
Few would have imagined Seattle in the NBA Finals at the start of the 1977-78 season. Fewer still would have regarded the occurrence as anything but fantasy on Nov. 30 when the Sonics were 5-17 and first-year head coach Bob Hopkins, a former Bill Russell assistant, was fired.
Hopkins, on opening night of that season, started Mike Green at center, Bruce Seals and Paul Silas at forward and Fred Brown and Slick Watts at guard.
Lenny Wilkens, who had begun the year in Seattle’s front office, stepped in for his second tour of duty as the Sonics coach and soon remade the starting five to include Marvin Webster at center, Jack Sikma and John Johnson at forward with Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson in the backcourt.
And with Brown and Silas thriving as off-the-bench forces, the moves turned out to be golden. Seattle won 11 of its next 12, went 42-18 after the aforementioned start and opened the playoffs by beating the Los Angeles Lakers in a best-of-three miniseries.
Next up were the defending champion Portland Trail Blazers, a clockwork collection of players meticulously coached by Jack Ramsay who had posted a 50-10 record before Bill Walton went down with an injury.
When the Sonics reached Rip City on April 18 for Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, Walton was deemed healthy and the Blazers were overwhelming favorites to repeat as champions.
But Webster, known also as The Human Eraser for his shot blocking prowess, scored 24 points and rookie standout Sikma grabbed 11 rebounds against power forward extraordinaire Maurice Lucas, and the 12,666 in Memorial Coliseum could hardly have been quieter after Seattle’s 104-95 triumph.
“I’m not leaving here,” one fan shouted defiantly as myself and other reporters made our way toward the locker rooms, “until somebody tells me how we lost!”
Similarly unconvinced was Ramsay, who afterward declared, “The seventh game’s here!”
But there was no seventh game — not in that series, at least — since Walton reinjured his foot in Game 1 and the Sonics won in six.
They followed by beating Larry Brown’s Denver Nuggets in six games, and then awaited the Washington Bullets in Seattle’s first NBA Finals appearance.
Back then, the league was still struggling for exposure in the pre-ESPN world and the finals were called the NBA World Championship Series.
The old Seattle Center Coliseum was nonetheless packed with 14,098 fans and the Game 1 din was deafening as the Sonics, behind an extraordinary shooting display by Brown, rallied from a 19-point fourth quarter deficit.
The turning point came in the final minutes when Brown missed a long jumper — remember, the NBA would not adopt the ABA’s 3-point shot until the 1979-80 season — but Silas rebounded. Without hesitation, Silas kicked the ball back out to Brown, and his next shot got nothing but net.
Already in a lather, the crowd became even more raucous as Seattle concluded a 106-102 victory and the Sonics hopped off the court in jubilation.
At the other end of the Coliseum, however, Washington coach Dick Motta made a statement that would come back to haunt Seattle.
“The opera ain’t over,” he said, “until the fat lady sings.”
An unusual 1-2-2-1-1 format, presumably for TV, stretched the series over 18 days, the longest for any playoff series in any sport. The 1989 World Series, which was interrupted by an earthquake, lasted 15 days.
So Games 2 and 3 were played at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., and the Bullets’ frontcourt trio of center Wes Unseld and forwards Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge ran roughshod as Washington tied the series with a 106-98 win.
Seattle responded with a 93-92 win in Game 3, however, surviving a late Bullets rally that saw Dandridge miss at the buzzer.
Game 4, played in the Kingdome because the Coliseum had been booked for a mobile home show, was the series turning point.
The Sonics were up 15 with two minutes left in the third quarter only to find themselves down two in the final seconds. Brown’s baseline jumper forced overtime, but Washington backcourt reserve Charles Johnson then nailed three quick buckets as the Bullets stunned Seattle 120-116.
“I’m at a loss,” Sikma would say later. “I’m not really sure what happened.”
Tied at 2-2 instead of up 3-1, the Sonics gutted out a 98-94 win at the Coliseum before being blown out 117-82 in Landover. The 35-point margin was the largest in a Finals game until 1998.
Since players and writers traveled together back then, a group of us boarded a tram at Dulles International Airport in Sterling, Va., to take us to our flight. Carrying my portable typewriter (laptops did not exist then) and two other bags, I was leaning against a wall in the tram when I felt a firm forearm nudge my back.
“Enjoying yourself?” asked Silas, who had authored the playful bump. “Not really,” I said. “This hasn’t exactly been a trip to the beach for us (the writers), either.”
At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, Silas was a very strong man with a very deep voice and a wonderful sense of humor. He was also the best competitor — not the best player, mind you, but the best competitor — I’ve ever seen.
Breaking into a broad smile, he laughed heartily, slapping me on the back and then saying, “Yeah, I guess that’s true. Only got one more game, though. One more.”
Back in Seattle, with the team holding its pre-Game 7 practice at Seattle University, Silas expressed concern that his teammates weren’t preparing themselves emotionally for the task at hand.
“I’m just not sure they’re ready,” he said. “I’m not sure they understand what’s at stake.”
Silas, after all, had been an integral part of titles for the Boston Celtics in 1974 and 1976. So he knew what it took.
Game 7 was tense, with the Sonics never developing a rhythm and trailing much of the way. Dennis Johnson was 0 for 14 in that contest, and Williams was 4 for 12.
Still, down 11 in the fourth quarter, Seattle scrambled to within four in the final two minutes. But when one of the Bullets missed — I can’t recall which one — a primal battle for the rebound ensued, and as Silas, Webster and Washington’s Wes Unseld fought for the ball it bounced neatly to Mitch Kupchak, who was fouled as he scored.
Though Kupchak’s free throw put the Bullets lead at seven, but Silas’ tipin later made it 101-99. Silas then fouled Unseld, a 55 percent free thrower. But as Silas often did despite being a less than exemplary shooter, Unseld made his foul shots when they counted, and the Bullets won 101-99.
Unseld, fittingly, was named the series MVP. He was an especially sentimental favorite among the writers after Hayes, immensely talented but a classic crybaby, had criticized him after the Bullets’ Game 1 loss. Known as the Big E, Hayes had fouled out of Game 7 and was not major factor in Washington’s win.
Silas summed up the feelings of many after Game 7 when a Washington writer asked if he was happy for Hayes. “Elvin? No sir, not him. When it was nut-cuttin’ time, he wasn’t even out there. I feel nothing for Elvin Hayes. To hell with him.”
Sadly for Sonics fans, Silas had proven prophetic when he questioned whether his teammates were ready for Game 7. And given his remark about the opera singer, so was Dick Motta.