Monday, July 25

Sonic Library: What's Happenin'?

It’s funny, but in a way, Blaine Johnson was blogging before blogging was blogging. He was blogging before the internet, before computers, before all of it.

Johnson just called it reporting.

And that roundabout description is the best I can muster for Johnson’s roundabout book, What’s Happenin’? A Revealing Journey Through the World of Professional Basketball.

Ostensibly about the 1976-77 Sonics, Johnson’s book contains as many paragraphs about the author as it does the subject, which is fine if the author is Spencer Haywood, but, hey, if I wanted to read a book about Blaine Johnson … wait, who wants to read a book about Blaine Johnson?

The answer is very few people, which explains the book’s less-than-prestigious standing amongst the Sonic Library. Still, despite Johnson’s best efforts to derail his book with wandering bouts of navel-gazing, there are a number of reasons to recommend Johnson’s tome. The man has a knack for phrasing (Dennis Johnson: “Kind of a black Huck Finn”) and getting people to talk, whether it’s the recalcitrant Bill Russell, the not-so-recalcitrant Slick Watts, or any of the myriad of characters you run across in a tale about 1970s NBA basketball.

That ability to get information is a boon to the latter-day Seattle hoop fan. My knowledge of ancient (all due respect to our 50+ year old readers) Sonics history is limited, and What’s Happenin’ does a stellar job of introducing us to the backstories of Seattle basketball in the mid-70s. From Russell’s enmity towards anyone and everyone (the Sonics’ coach even made an enemy of Wayne Cody, who would seem to be the most amiable – if not rotund – man in King County), to Slick Watts’ unending sparring with those he felt denied him his rightful place as a Sonic hero, to a bizarre mid-season dustup involving Bob McAdoo, a Buffalo Braves ownership change, Sam Schulman on a Hong Kong business trip, 327 other complications … well, it was 1976, and the only thing simple back then were the plots on network television.

Unfortunately, Johnson spends an inordinate amount of time congratulating himself for scoring interviews with the reclusive Bill Walton, so much so that the reader begins to wonder if the book is going to be about the Portland TrailBlazers. Further, he delves too deeply into his hardships on the road and his poor relationships with certain members of the Sonics, both of which only serve as detractions from his ability to tell a story.

A reader can easily contrast the style of What’s Happenin? to Curt Sampson’s Full Court Pressure, a classic tale of early 90s Sonic craziness. In Sampson’s book, the emphasis is on the Sonics with the author playing a minor role, a style with which I am much more enamored. Johnson’s style – emblematic of the 70s, I suppose – tends to cause the reader to skip ahead for large chunks of the book, hoping to find choice tidbits about the team’s activities, rather than the author’s.

In one ironic passage, Johnson relates his first encounter with Julius Erving. The Doctor was making his first west coast jaunt after jumping to the NBA, and Erving’s talents were already causing a stir. Trying to impress the media-besieged 76er with some inside dirt, Johnson makes a point of referencing The Legend of Dr. J, a book Erving had done with Marty Bell. Johnson felt he was able to reach a little deeper into Erving’s mind.

“I made several references to things that had been expressed in the book,” Johnson writes, “feeling he would be appreciative that a reporter was coming from a point of informed reference.”

Later, as the interview scrum concludes, Johnson makes reference again to the book, pointing out that he thought it was very well done.

“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Erving retorts as he gets into a departing car. “I’ve never read it.”

On first blush it appears to be some welcome self-deprecation from the author. But that relief quickly vanishes as Johnson concludes the story with this gem: “He didn’t even read the fucking book. How does that make you feel, Marty Bell?”

It’s a petty and silly conclusion for Johnson to make, and winds up only belittling himself rather than his intended target.

But enough about Blaine Johnson. The two main characters of the book are clearly Russell and Watts. Russell, brought to Seattle only a few years before by owner Sam Schulman to inject some passion and (hopefully) victories into the Sonics, appears to be losing his passion for the whole business of NBA basketball. Removed from his players, Russell yearns for his halcyon days in Boston, and is frustrated by what he deems lack of team spirit and effort from his present-day club. His sparring with Johnson throughout the book makes for enjoyable reading, and the frustration Russell feels is tangible. With Johnson’s book in your brain, it becomes rather obvious that Russell was kicked out of Seattle, regardless of what his fans claim today.

Watts, meanwhile, is basking in the glow of stardom. An undrafted free agent from Xavier University, Watts was fresh off a number of accolades in the previous season, and while he burns at every perceived slight, his charming personality shines throughout the book. Clearly, he’s a decent player on an awful team, but he’s beloved by the city all the same. Ironically, neither Watts nor Russell would be associated with the Sonics within a year (and, for that matter, neither would Johnson).

It is in the jockeying with Watts and his teammates that Johnson does his best work in the book. All losing teams bitch about their coach – it’s a trite story often told. But the author does a fine job of getting angry, bitter players to open up, even after they feel he’s betrayed them by revealing locker room secrets.

Is What’s Happenin? a great book? Hardly. Is it a fun romp through NBA basketball during the Carter administration? Not exactly. It is, however, an important piece of Sonic history, and, meandering chapters aside, deserving of a spot on every obsessive Sonic fan’s bookshelf.

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