That Really Important Series in 1996

When we think of 1996, our fondest memory is one of elation when the Sonics won a seven game punching match with the scrappy, annoying, and very good Utah Jazz to advance to the Finals.

With good reason.

How much did we hate John Stockton and Karl Malone? How dirty did the Jazz play? How many times did the home crowd in Seattle finish its count to ten before Malone's free throw attempts were hoisted? How good did it feel to earn a shot at the Bulls?

It just doesn't get any better than that. Unless, of course, you are old enough to remember Gus Williams throwing the ball high in the air.

Our worst memory of that year, even worse than losing the last game in Chicago, was when the Bulls embarrassed us on our home court to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the series. It may not have been the last game, but it was the decisive one.

As much as those series dominate our 1996 thoughts, there was an earlier one that was just as important. It was in the first round.

To understand why, you must recall the previous two first round series the Sonics had played.

Hearken back to 1994. We had the most talented and dominant team in the NBA. Michael Jordan had retired. This was our best shot at the NBA Title since 1979. We were the top seed and the biggest opponent in our way was the Houston Rockets, against whom we had a history of recent success and with whom we matched up very well.

One problem. Our first opponent was the one team with which we didn't match up well. The eighth seeded Denver Nuggets.

After our guys raced out to a 2-0 series lead, we watched with dread in the next three games as our offense was frustrated by Dikembe Mutombo and our defense was frustrated by their insanely hot outside shooting in very key moments.

The Nuggets also exposed a fatal flaw in our team, which was a lack of cohesion. That chemical imbalance led to a blowup between Gary Payton and Ricky Pierce and a meltdown that lost us the series.

The sight of a victorious Mutombo laying on his back holding the ball in the air is permanently etched in my memory. It was a choke job for the ages that left me seriously depressed for a month.

The Sonics followed this up with a similar failure in 1995 against Nick Van Exel and the inferior Lakers. We were forced to watch another Jordanless opportunity circle the porcelain and left to wonder if the team would ever make it out of a first round series again.

Which brings us back to that round in 1996 when the Sonics were again the top seed in the Western Conference and our opponent was again the eighth seed.

I remember the "here we go again" knot in my stomach when that upstart team came to Seattle and earned a 1-1 split with a chance to win the series on its home court. I remember thinking it was over. I remember being really angry at our guys for putting themselves in this position for the third straight year.

But there was a major difference. This team did have cohesion. This team didn't have a fatal flaw. It was as determined as it was talented. It was simply better than the opposition in every way.

It went on the road with ice in its veins and won two games to take the series.

The opponent in that series? Mitch Richmond and the Sacramento Kings.

So here we are in 2013 and the opponent is Sacramento once again with Richmond playing a leadership role.

Remember how nervous you have been before every Kevin Johnson press conference? Remember that "here we go again" feeling you got when his "whales" were finally announced and it was reported that their offer was just slightly below that of the Seattle group? Remember how frustrated you have been every time David Stern has seemed more sympathetic to Sacramento than to us?

We have good reason to feel that way. We've been burned before. In the grand scheme of things, 2008 makes 1994 look like 1979. We have reason to be suspicious of Stern and to be concerned about the tenacity of the upstart Sacramento group.

But reports, which have been confirmed by Stern, of Mastrov dramatically low-balling his bid should remind us of one important thing. Our team (Hansen, Ballmer) is simply better than their team (Mastrov, Burkle). It is wealthier. It is more organized. It is more determined. Our guys have ice in their veins.

One man's unofficial opinion? It's not over yet, but I believe 2013 will prove to be another fond memory for us.

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