June 2, 1996.
It may have been twelve years ago today, but it seems like one hundred. Can it really have only been a little more than a decade since a Utah-Seattle matchup meant so much?
Is it really possible that Greg Gumble mused that Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were about to take the mantle from John Stockton and Karl Malone as the pre-eminent inside-outside tandem of the next decade?
If you haven’t already, go ahead and click that youtube link above. Okay, have you watched the entire thing? Now, roll up your sleeve and check: Are the goosebumps there?
No, how about now?
Of course they are.
That series had everything a Sonic fan could want, everything a basketball fan could want. The key to any classic series – to any classic event – is a hero and a villain. For a Sonic fan of the mid-90s, there was no greater hero than Shawn Kemp and no greater villain than Karl Malone.
While Stockton and Hornacek were certainly despised in Seattle, they weren’t on the same level as Malone, a 250-pound behemoth of a power forward who flopped on defense like a corn stalk in a gentle breeze. Lord, we hated that man. We hated his 18-foot jump shot, which he took while standing in a perfectly straight line, angled slightly backwards, as if his feet were tied to the floor and he was wavering around that axis.
We hated the way he whined the referees for (pick one) not getting calls or getting too many.
But, more than anything else, we hated the way he seemed to take 17 minutes to take a foul shot. The deliberate way he bounced the ball while adjusting his feet, the excruciating muttering while he spun the ball in his hands. While I always wondered what the heck Malone was saying to himself while he readied his shot, I can say with certainty what thousands of Sonic fans across the northwest were saying:
“I hope you miss this shot and tear your achilles while backpedaling down the court, you no-good SOB.”
It was the time he took, though, that came to be his undoing in that 1996 series. That season, Malone shot 72% from the line, but that success vanished in the playoffs. While Malone struggled even before reaching KeyArena (he shot just shy of 60% in the first two rounds), he bottomed out in Seattle, managing only 1 of 6 in Game 1.
That failure was exacerbated by the taunts of 17,072 fans, who began counting down an imaginary 10-second clock every time Malone approached the foul line. Did that countdown impact Malone’s success at the line? It’s difficult to say, but while he rebounded to hit 12 of 16 in Game 2, the big man sputtered in Game 7, hitting only 6 of 12, and, considering the Sonics won by only four (90-86), it’s not out of the realm of possibility to say that the fans had a direct impact on who would play the Bulls for the title that season.
It was one of the biggest moments in Sonic history – not only did the Sonics qualify for the NBA finals for the first time since the 1970s, but they did so by knocking off their arch nemesis, with that nemesis’ greatest weapon being forced into embarrassment.
Quantifying the value of a sports franchise on a city is exceedingly difficult. Financially, the numbers are never really there, and the justification for outlays of millions of dollars for stadia falls apart.
Sometimes, though, you can throw the logical arguments out the window and embrace the emotional ones. Sometimes, you ignore the rational reasoning.
Sometimes, you get the Sonics beating the Jazz in 1996.