Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and the Oklahoma City Thunder are the feel-good story of the NBA. Following years of development and playoff defeat at the hands of teams higher on the totem pole, OKC birthed their first Finals appearance after completing a “delayed sweep” on the San Antonio Spurs. For as thrilled as I was for the young boys, I couldn’t shake the feeling this felt somewhat like deja vu. That’s because it was. Residents of Seattle, now is when you stop reading.
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were once considered the finest young tandem in basketball with a ceiling comparable, if not higher, than that of a young Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal in Orlando. Payton was the premiere defensive guard (maybe point guard period) and sh*t talker of his era* while Kemp was a highlight waiting to happen as well as the predecessor to the modern day Blake Griffin. Plus, they had two of the ’90’s best nicknames in “The Glove” and “The Rain Man” if that accounts for anything. In 1996, GP and Kemp needed all seven games in a Western Conference Finals matchup against John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz. The victory put to rest years of playoff agony.
Three years earlier, Charles Barkley delivered one the greatest playoff games in history against Seattle with 44 points and 24 rebounds in Game 7 of WCF. A year later, the Dikembe Mutumbo moment happened. In 1995, after winning Game 1 against the Lakers in the opening round, the Sonics would proceed to lose the next three.
Those setbacks in mind, Kemp’s admission following beating the Jazz in Game 7 saying the victory was the “greatest moment of his life (so far)” held so much weight. You know, the birth of his small village of children not withstanding. However, it was Nate McMillian’s revealing quote which vividly painted the picture of the pressure Seattle faced that hit home. “It’s been very difficult to listen to all our critics call us chokers for two years and then go home every summer and have people ask, ‘What happened to you guys?’,” said McMillian. “This loss would have haunted us forever, but we’re still playing, and we’re happy that we’ll never have to endure that stuff again.”
Maybe a gift, possibly a curse, but hindsight provides us context on how the Sonics story ended.
1. Seattle had the (un)lucky distinction of playing the Chicago Bulls in the Finals, who just so happened to win 72 out of a possible 82 games that very same regular season and 12 out of 13 in the playoffs to that point.
2. They’d lose the first three games only to win the next two.
3. Eventually losing in six, the Sonics played the Bulls tough even forcing Michael Jordan into one of his worst Finals shooting performances ever (22 points on 5-19 from the field). The glass half full approach says Mike nearly dropped a triple-double, though (22-9-7).
4. The world still despises Randy Brown for his actions immediately following Game 6. On Father’s Day, Randy? Mike’s first title sans his pops? Could have you have any less couth?
5. The Payton/Kemp dynamic would only last one more season. G.P. would give Seattle everything he had in the tank before being traded to Milwaukee. He’d then become the point guard for a Lakers squad featuring Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone allegedly attempting to woo Vanessa away from Kobe, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. They’d lose in the 2004 NBA Finals and on the tail end of his career he’d capture that coveted championship with the Heat in 2006. Kemp, on the other hand, never met a condom he liked. That’ll be the last Shawn Kemp procreation joke that’ll be told here this evening. I promise.
The Thunder’s road to the NBA’s mountaintop has been far less rocky. Since first entering the playoffs in 2010, they’ve lost to the eventual world champs each year (Lakers, Mavs). They do, nevertheless, represent the arrival of a new era out West; the same distinction Seattle held after getting over the hump. The future holds bright for Oklahoma City, too. And pending Sam Presti can somehow find a way to secure Harden and/or Serge Ibaka (Harden if it’s one or the other), it’s easy to see why the world has them pegged for multiple championships spanning far into this decade.
Having said that, the first ring is always the hardest to land. Trust me, I’m a living testament. On the bright side, at least Durant, Russie and Harden don’t have to go through the ’96 Bulls to get there.
* – If an all-time “shit talkers” team is ever drafted, Gary Payton is without question the team’s point guard. This is not up for any sort of debate. He may be the greatest ever, period. See?
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