Victorious Combustion

June 2, 1996: On to the NBA Finals: Coach George Karl and star Gary Payton, often at odds, could agree forward Shawn Kemp fueled Game 7 win over Utah

By: Art Thiel


The Seattle Supersonics led by coach George Karl and star player Gary Payton were capable of astonishing highs and astounding lows. It all depended on the pair’s combustible personalities.

Long-time Sonics assistant coach Dwane Casey was asked how the two managed to survive each other en route to the 1996 NBA Finals.

“Gary believes George is crazy enough…” said Casey, smiling, “to kill him.”

Following two seasons of early playoffs exits, relative to the talent on hand, the 1996 Sonics seemed to have in their collective rage fine-tuned.  They won 64 games during the regular season to only 18 losses, good for first in the Pacific division. They beat Sacramento in the first round and swept Houston in the second round. That set up a Western Conference finals against against the Utah Jazz and the formidable tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone, who were later voted among the NBA’s all-time Best 50 Players.

After going up 3-1 in the Western finals, the Sonics lost two in a row, including an ugly 35-point defeat in Game 6 at Salt Lake City. The series returned for Game 7 at the now demolished KeyArena to make way for a brand-new New Arena at Seattle Center. Fans were filled with dread the volatile Sonics would somehow manage to self-destruct again.

There was no regression to earlier misfires. Karl and Payton found a way and, well, the right intermediary: Forward Shawn Kemp, an all-time local favorite.

In a brutally intense game inside the springtime hothouse at Seattle Center, the 6-10 Kemp seemed at 26 to have come of age. After averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds during the season, Kemp poured in 26 points and pulled down 14 rebounds against antagonist Malone, who was mercilessly pestered by fans in unison before Malone would shoot free throws through the conference finals.

“It was one of the loudest arenas in the NBA,” said Sonics assistant coach Terry Stotts. “That whole series, people were counting down how long it took him to shoot free throws. When he missed the first one late in game 7, I didn’t think it could get any louder. And then after he missed the second one, it got even louder.”

The draining, dramatic 90-86 win sent the Sonics to their first NBA championship series since 1979. Unfortunately for them, it was against the Chicago Bulls team led by all-time greats Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, which won 72 regular-season games and was believed by many NBA followers as the best of Bulls teams that would win six NBA titles in eight seasons during the 1990s.

The weary Sonics, missing injured team captain and future NBA head coach Nate McMillan, lost the first two games in Chicago and went down 0-3 with a home loss. They rallied for two wins back on the Seattle Center campus, but the Bulls put down the hammer in Game 6 at Chicago Stadium.

The Game 7 conference finals win over the Jazz turned out to be the apex moment for a franchise that slowly pulled apart over the next decade. By 2006, the Sonics were sold to buyers from Oklahoma City, who moved the team there in 2008 after 41 years in Seattle.