Super Bowl Sunday, January 20, 1980, saw the Pittsburgh Steelers' dynasty of the 1970s in its final throes, their Grand Finale vs. the upstart Los Angeles Rams, led by QB Vince Ferragamo and a stout defense. That game, however, was played in the afternoon/early evening on television sets across America. The prelude to Super Bowl XIV was CBS's national broadcast of the defending NBA World Champion Seattle Supersonics' trip to the Boston Garden to play the Celtics, led by rookie sensation Larry Joe Bird, "Tiny" Archibald, Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell and a still-playing Hall of Fame Center in Dave Cowens, who was to retire from the Celtics at season's end.
This was the season before Boston won its first NBA title in twelve long years, before the vaunted Celtics Hall Of Fame front court was assembled, and yet this Super Sunday 1980 classic proved to be an epic battle of the highest order. It was as entertaining as it was intense.
The Sonics led by three points at the half and eight entering the 4th quarter. But the Celtics came roaring back in front of the usual frenzied sold-out Boston Garden faithful, taking a three-point lead on a Bird free throw, and the visitors from the Pacific NW found themselves with but one tick left on the game clock to try and tie matters up and force an overtime session. At this point, after several timeouts and much dramatic delay, Seattle ran an amazing out-of-bounds play that had John Johnson hurling a cross-court pass to Dennis Johnson, who was the third option on a play of extreme desperation. DJ caught the ball, whirled and unleashed a tying 3-pointer from just in front of the press table, which he then tumbled onto as the ball ripped the cords at 0:00, forcing the first of two extra sessions.
As a Sonic fan since their expansion season of 1967, this one game stands out in my mind as the most impressive and powerful the team ever was. I have a somewhat blurry but very watchable copy of the game and I'll check it out every few years just to remind myself what a great team the Sonics were and how entirely different professional sports, and specifically the NBA, was then. It is important to note that this was a Celtic team that was to go on to win NBA titles in three of the following six seasons; but at this stage of their development they were clearly not up to the challenge of going toe-to-toe, even on their home court, with a Supersonic team that was at the absolute height of its powers in the mid-winter of 1980. The Sonics' Sunday afternoon double O.T. win was its seventh (of eight) in a row, with four of those coming on the road.
The Sonics played the Celtics one more time a month later, on Feb.17, in Seattle's jam-packed Kingdome, once again a CBS national broadcast. As before, they defeated and demoralized a Celtic squad in what was their eighth victory in succession, leaving the Soops' record at a gaudy 44 and 16. It was evident to all that the Celtics couldn't match the Champion's grit, talent and, above all, supreme confidence in that match-up either, losing 108-109 (missing a chance to win on a failed M.L. Carr jumper from the top of the key at the buzzer), and going scoreless on their final five possessions after leading 108 - 101 with 2:47 to play.
These two games with Boston during the 1979-80 season, beginning with the Super Bowl Sunday tilt, were, at the time, hugely significant in that they paired the two teams with the NBA's best records in their respective conferences at the midway point of the season, and were viewed by many as a preview of the coming spring's NBA Finals. But as it turned out, neither the Celtics nor the Sonics made their way to the Championship series, both bowing out in their conference finals in five games. This left the Lakers--with their rookie point guard, one Earvin Johnson (who somehow did not win even co-rookie of the year honors with Bird), and the league's MVP, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--to square off with Dr. J and the 76ers for the 1980 NBA World Championship. But I submit that, aside from winning the championship the prior season, the 1980 Sonics team was stronger all around and definitely a much more self-assured group that carried themselves with a swagger that was most evident in their two match-ups with Bird's Celtics that season. The '80 Sonics won 56 games and led the Pacific division for most of the season, just ahead of the soon-to-be Showtime Lakers of Kareem, Magic, Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes and even ex-Sonic superstar Spencer Haywood, although he was but a shadow of the player he was when his NBA career started with Seattle a full ten years earlier.
Even still, this Sonics squad took out the Trailblazers 2-1 in a first round mini-series and then survived a seven game war with a very talented Milwaukee team before facing off with Jerry Buss's Lakers in that season's Western Conference Finals. The guys in green and gold even went up in that series one-zip, winning an amazing Game 1 108-107 at The Fabulous Forum with Fred Brown scoring 34 points and putting on a shooting display, the likes of which I have seldom seen before or since. That game is available to view on YouTube in 12 parts and it is still today quite a sight to behold.
What followed that first game victory was all bad with respect to the Sonics, their Championship and the personnel. Games 1 and 2 of that year's Western Conference Finals were played on back-to-back nights, Tuesday and Wednesday, to suit CBS, and this after Seattle had but one day's rest after beating the Bucks in a scintillating Game 7 at the Seattle Center Coliseum Sunday afternoon. After following up the Game 1 win with another strong performance in a close contest in Tinseltown, the team headed back to Seattle feeling good about things with the series knotted up at one. The two games in the Jet City, though, were to be played at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the University of Washington campus. That foretold trouble, and big trouble at that. The Sonics, as defending Champs, lost a hotly contested Game 3 on a Friday night and came back strong on Easter Sunday, leading by 23 points in the early part of the 3rd quarter, only to see the Lakers go on a combined 35-2 surge over parts of the late 3rd quarter and at game's end to effectively end the Championship-era Sonics as we knew them.
Instead of the series being tied up at 2-2, the Soops were down 3-1 heading back to L.A. It was there that Showtime began and DJ and Gus as a backcourt ended, and it got only worse from there. There were no playoffs at all for the Sonics the following season; DJ was in Phoenix leading the Suns to the Pacific Division crown while The Wizard, Gus Williams, held out in a contract dispute that lasted the entire 1980-81 season; and the Lakers passed by us in the NBA express lane, winning five NBA titles during the '80s. The Celtics, on the other hand, had a 1981 Finals win over Houston's Rockets after acquiring Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in Red Auerbach's 1980 draft day robbery of the Golden State Warriors in a deal that involved the opportunity to pick, at number one overall, 7-foot center Joe Barry Carroll out of Purdue and a F/C named Rickey Brown at the 13th spot.
One can only wonder about what might have been if the DJ-for-Westphal trade hadn't been made and if then-team owner Samuel Schulman was a little less tightfisted about player salaries. Perhaps keeping our All-Star backcourt intact and adding a player such as Bernard King or Alex English in a trade or in a free agent signing could have brought us another title run or two. Certainly not trading away a rising star such as Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson to the Pistons would have helped. But alas it was not to be, and the '79 NBA World Champions remain to this day as the only major professional sports title winners in the 34 years that have passed by since that glorious performance in the Boston Garden on Super Bowl Sunday 1980.
Perhaps we as a city are due. I would vote in the affirmative, wouldn't you? Perhaps this Super Bowl Sunday night will set loose the joy and glory that we all have been missing out on as sports fans in Seattle these many years. We'll find out together by around 7:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time this Sunday evening. I, myself, am making plans to attend another Parade of World Champs in the streets of downtown Seattle, perhaps as early as this Tuesday at noon. GO HAWKS!
Editor's note: Obviously this was written before last Sunday's game. Matthew got his wish to attend a Champion's Parade!