The Sonics are my hometown team. I actually delivered The Seattle Times so I could buy tickets to their games. My Cleveland High School yearbook was full of “looking forward to reading your Sonics stories in the Times” sentiments. During my childhood I’d become accustomed to the faces of Lenny Wilkens, Rod Thorn, Bob Rule, Spencer Haywood, via games or clinics at the community center.
In this age of professional athletes as unapproachable mini-corporations, it’s often easy to forget that NBA players are people, too. But that’s what flashes before my eyes, like a 17-year news reel, as the Sonics flee for OKC: The people moments.
Like Nate McMillan calling me during a personal crisis and asking about my youngest daughter, Mika, who’d had complications at birth. Or McMillan, Gary Payton and I discussing how to attack Michael Jordan during the very minutes leading up to Game 6 in Chicago during the 1996 NBA Finals. I was in the locker room after the NBA-allotted access time and a security guard told me to leave, but McMillan and Payton told him, “He’s with us.”
I remember shooting baskets at the backyard hoop of Jack Sikma’s Medina palace. Beating the X-Man, Xavier McDaniel, at “my” gym at Seattle University’s Connolly Center, by sinking a shot from mid-court and one from behind the backboard. Or discussing race issues with McDaniel, Dale Ellis and Kevin Williams in the back of the Sonics team bus, on the way to games on the road.
Oh yeah, for many of my 17 years on the Sonics and NBA beat, the writers traveled with the team — on commercial flights and from airport to hotel, and hotel to arena and back on the team bus.
That’s how I’d figure out with Tom Chambers and Danny Vranes where in Dallas or Miami we were having dinner. Or how I arranged to go Christmas shopping with the Big Smooth, Sam Perkins. Or hunting for clothes with Ellis in New York City, with him picking up the dinner check afterward.
Vince Askew once placed a scratchy call — from a cruise ship, where he was vacationing with his new wife — to inform me that he’d been traded. James Donaldson and I took a spectacular walk with his golden retriever at sunset along the beach near the La Jolla, Calif., coves. I once was spellbound as Maurice Lucas first explained the stock exchange, then how to jam an elbow into a posting opponent without the referees noticing.
The front office was full of memorable people, too. Lorin Miller and the late Gary Wortman schooled me in player evaluation. Les Habegger and Wally Walker sprung for plenty of breakfasts and just plain talk up on Queen Anne Hill. Frank Furtado booked me time in the team’s hyperbaric chamber, which helped me overcome a severe ankle sprain. Tom Newell still is a friend, as is Bob Kloppenburg, who also was an indispensable coaching mentor, along with Ernie Woods.
Then there is post-Game 7 of the 1996 Western Conference championships when, with the confetti raining from the roof of a celebrating KeyArena, I stole a look at Frank Brickowski. I’d covered Brick when he was just a Sonics rookie out of Penn State and he’d always been a source of comic and human relief for me. A veteran who helped the Sonics beat Utah to advance to the league-championship round, Brick’s face was contorted with unbridled joy. For those fleeting seconds, it was as if he were a kid again. It was a poignant reminder, one that stays with me, that these, after all, were games.
Glenn Nelson, former Seattle Times Sonics/NBA reporter, 1982-1999