Only the winningest team in NBA history could stop the 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics.
Led by head coach George Karl, those Sonics picked, pestered and posterized their way to a team-record 64 regular season wins and their third NBA Finals berth. In the championship series though, Superman (Michael Jordan), Batman (Scottie Pippen) and (Dennis) Rodman, cornerstones of the Bulls team that posted a record 87 combined victories, proved too much for the Sonics and defeated them in six games.
Entering their first season at newly renovated and renamed KeyArena, the Sonics knew exactly what their core of players was capable of.
Shawn Kemp, 25-year-old rimwrecker, was coming off a second consecutive all-star appearance in 1994-95. Trash-talking guard Gary Payton had added 20.6 points and 7.1 assists to his growing reputation as one of the best defenders in the NBA. Forward Detlef Schrempf had suddenly become a matchup nightmare at 6’9, leading the Western Conference by converting 51.4% of his three-pointers. Offseason addition Hersey Hawkins added a highly effective veteran shooter and capable defender to the squad. Ervin Johnson (not Earvin “Magic” Johnson) provided a shot-blocking presence to the middle and was set to play the role of enforcer for a second straight season.
After a 34-12 first half, the Sonics soared to 12 consecutive wins following the all-star break. Their team-record 14 game streak (including two wins before the break) was only broken after they tipped off in Washington just 17 hours after a double-overtime win in Cleveland. As a result of the streak, Karl was named Coach of the Month for February
On March 23, Payton contributed a career-high 38 points plus 11 rebounds and nine assists to a come-from-behind two-point win over Sacramento, but it was backup guard Nate McMillan’s fourth-quarter heroics that propelled the Supes. Down nine with 2:02 to play, McMillan nailed a three-pointer, threw an absolute dime to Payton in the lane and forced two steals in a span of maybe 40 seconds.
McMillan’s gritty play through knee tendinitis epitomized the Sonics lean-on-each-other, another-night-another-hero theme that held through the season.
Kemp’s reputation as one of the league’s most emphatic dunkers had already solidified by 1996, but that season marked new basketball maturity for “The Reign Man.” Kemp began to find open teammates instead of taking lower-percentage shots and added an accurate midrange jumper to his game. He also took a new tenacity to cleaning the glass, averaging a career-high 11.4 rebounds.
The Sonics finished the regular season on top of the Western Conference and backed up their seeding by taking the opening round 3-1 over the Kings. Payton had perhaps the most important contribution to the series win by shutting down Kings star Mitch Richmond, who had averaged 23.1 points and nearly three three-pointers per game during the regular season. Richmond shot only 34% in the Kings three losses.
After a conference semifinals sweep of a very talented Houston Rockets team (featuring Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, Kenny Smith and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler), the Sonics found themselves facing perhaps the greatest pick-and-roll combination of all time: John Stockton and Karl Malone.
The Sonics jumped to a 3-1 series lead over the Jazz, but with Jeff Hornacek bombing away from long range and Stockton feeding Malone for seemingly hundreds of buckets per game, the Jazz forced Game 7.
The night before the series’ final game, Hawkins received a phone call from his best friend, former Duke star Johnny Dawkins. Reinvigorated by his friend’s advice, Hawkins played more physical defense on Hornacek, holding the shooter to a series-low 10 points. Without Hornacek’s normal contribution of 20-plus points, the Jazz fell and the Sonics advanced.
Unfortunately, Michael Jordan could do everything. He still might be able to. The Bulls sprinted to a 3-0 series lead before putting the Supes away in Game 6.
Even with the frustration of defeat, the 1995-96 season was definitive for Payton. He led the NBA in steals with 2.9 per game, threw an uncountable number of Boomshakalaka alley-oops to Kemp and found himself on the cover of the June 10 Sports Illustrated. In 21 playoff games, “The Glove” averaged a herculean 43.4 minutes. He made a playoff-high 41 of the 100 threes he attempted after shooting 32.8% in the regular season. He was voted the Defensive Player of the Year and joined Kemp on the All-NBA second team.
As happens with any great team, the childhoods of many were built around the ’96 Sonics. Walking up to any true Seattle sports fan over the age of 22 and saying, simply, “Vincent Askew,” will more than likely start a long, nostalgic conversation. The memory of Payton and Kemp in ‘96 remains something to hold onto, tell our children about and, most importantly, forget momentarily the events of 2008.
How many players from the 1995-96 team earned their spot on the All-Time Seattle Supersonics lineup? Find out here.