This Day In Sports: A love affair that ended too soon

December 20, 1966: The NBA awards a franchise to Seattle, to be christened the SuperSonics and to begin play for the 1967-68 season at the Seattle Center Coliseum. The Sonics debuted on October 13, 1967, with a 144-116 loss to the Warriors in San Francisco. The team’s first star in that inaugural season was Walt Hazzard, the former UCLA standout who had been acquired from the L.A. Lakers. Hazzard was traded in 1968 to the Atlanta Hawks for Lenny Wilkens, who would become a cornerstone of the Sonics on many levels, first as a player-coach.

Wilkens was a popular figure, and when he was dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1972, it was a highly unpopular move. While Wilkens was finishing his playing career in Cleveland and Portland and transitioning to coaching full-time, the legendary Bill Russell spent three seasons coaching Seattle. When Russell left in 1977, it indirectly opened the door for Wilkens’ return. When the Sonics started the 1977-78 season at 5-17, they fired new coach Bob Hopkins in order to bring back Wilkens.

One season later, Wilkens had Seattle at the top, with an NBA championship in 1979. The Sonics were led by Finals MVP Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, John Johnson and Downtown Freddie Brown. Stars in the franchise’s later years included Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. All in all, the Sonics had a storied history and a rabid following and won the NBA championship in 1979. During its 41 years in Seattle, the franchise had a winning record (1,745-1,585).

But in 2008, new owner Clay Bennett uprooted the team and moved it (and rookie star Kevin Durant) to Oklahoma City, where it now plays as the Thunder. Bennett had initially pushed hard for public finding to build a new arena in Seattle, but within two years had given up on that effort. The City of Seattle sued Bennett, and included in the settlement was the stipulation that the Sonics’ banners, trophies and retired jerseys remain in Seattle. And should a future NBA team play in the city, it would have the right to use the name Sonics and sport the team’s logo and colors. With Key Arena’s total makeover into Climate Pledge Arena for the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, there’s always hope that the NBA could be back someday.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)

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