MAY 31st, 1996
Fatigue and a hangover were delivering alternating left right punches to my body as I made my way carefully down the aisle of the Southwest Airlines 737 that would ferry me from Salt Lake City to Seattle. It was mid morning and if all went as expected we’d land in the Emerald City in plenty of time for me to get to the KJR studios to do a show that I wasn’t looking forward to doing.
Barely 12 hours earlier I had walked out of the Delta Center after game six of the 1996 Western Conference finals admittedly a little shell shocked at what I had witnessed in the last two games of the series.
The Sonics, who had flamed out of the 1994 and 1995 NBA playoffs had roared through the 1996 post season. They dispatched the Kings in four games and swept Houston in the second round before roaring out to a three games to one lead over Utah in the conference finals. They were 10 and 2 in the post season and it sure seemed obvious to everyone that they were finally going to achieve the dream (theirs and their fan’s) of making it to the NBA finals.
Then they lost a three point overtime game to Utah in game five in Seattle. They followed that up with their worst loss of the year, a 35 point shellacking that had the Jazz fans hooting deliriously in their crazy loud home arena and had shaken even the steadiest of Seattle believer’s mind set that the NBA finals were this team’s destiny.
I settled into my seat and heard the flight attendant’s PA crack open as she chirped in a voice peppier than I was ready for at that point my day, “Welcome to Southwest Airlines flight 118 to 83….oh…wait a minute…that’s not the flight number that’s the score from last night’s game. Hahahahaha.”
Turns out we had a Salt Lake City based flight crew for our flight home and they took every opportunity to remind their passengers that the Jazz had laid a whuppin’ on the Supers the night before. As we rolled out onto the runway I was pretty down in the dumps, somewhat convinced that the team’s fate was sealed and a game seven flop in Seattle loomed.
Somewhere between the Wasatch and Cascade mountains I changed my mind. I remember thinking that I sure as hell didn’t want to go on the air that afternoon all down in the dumps. I started feeling like Bluto Blutarsky. I began talking myself into the idea that game seven was in Seattle and that the Sonics were going to prevail in this series. One more win. At home. That’s all they needed.
I remember giving a passion filled opening segment that afternoon on KJR reminding my listeners of everything the Sonics had accomplished and imploring fans to remember that while MOST of the time a town needs its team there are times when a TEAM needs its town.
We all know what happened. My Blutarskyesque speech had little if anything to do with the game seven win. Seattle fans did what they do…they showed up…they pre-funked…and they gave their leather lunged best on a Sunday afternoon. The Sonics responded by giving us one of our greatest days ever as a sports town.
I found myself thinking about this story Sunday night as I thought about the Seahawks loss to Arizona. Fans are down right now and fearing the worst after a day when they arrived ready to celebrate a division title and top playoff seed they presumed was theirs and left three hours later flattened by a result that could be used as the number one example of the cold, hard reality of the NFL: on any given Sunday blah blah blah.
But this wasn’t any given Sunday. Arizona came in with nine wins. There’s an argument to be made that they are one of the three best teams in the league along with two other NFC West members, the Hawks and SF. It’s funny how brutally quick things turn around in this league. Three years ago the NFC West was the laughing stock of the league, a division so feckless they couldn’t even deliver an above .500 team to the playoffs. Now it’s a behemoth with a gaudy 39 and 20 record. If the Rams upset Seattle this week every team will finish the year at .500 or better.
The Cardinals were also desperate and no team is more desperate than a desperate NFL team. They knew before kickoff that earlier results dictated they must win to keep their post season hopes alive. So stoked, they played out of their minds and were able to somehow stay toe to toe with Seattle despite numerous mistakes that Hawks failed to capitalize on. It was, if you can remove your emotion (admittedly an impossible thing to do when your invested in a team as a fan) a terrific late season game. Division rivals playing in crappy weather with one team trying to clinch a title and the other hanging on for dear life.
In the immediate aftermath of the game many fans were predictably irrational on social media. By Sunday night a cynic might wonder if the Hawks had done anything worthy of our adulation this year.
The answer to that, obviously, is yes. Some fans will fall into Warren Zevon mode this week and belt out various versions of “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me” as they assess the Hawks chances moving forward. But that’s the wrong attitude. This team has done more than enough to earn fans trust and faith and belief heading into this week’s game. The Hawks play in a wickedly tough division so it should only come as a mild surprise that they lost Sunday and it’s only right that they’ll finish things off against another crafty division foe in the Rams.
One more win. At home. That’s all the Hawks need. That and their town. They need the 12s this week more than ever before. There’s no time to sit around whining about what happened or complaining of impending doom. It’s showtime and I couldn’t think of a better team with which to go all in. I can’t wait for the Rams game.