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Original Issue


First major league franchise in the Northwest, the SuperSonics of the National Basketball Association are a big hit in town so far, but then the season hasn't opened yet

Seattle is located down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on Puget Sound, west of the Cascades, east of the Japan Current, nestled in Boeing's pocket and, at present, in the apple of Charlie Finley's eye. It is the largest city in the Northwest, 19th in the nation, with a metropolitan population of more than a million and a half and one new major league franchise—the Seattle SuperSonics, or Sonics or SuperBabies, as they are also, affectionately, known. For the first time, the National Basketball Association has moved into virgin territory ahead of its football and baseball competitors.

The NBA accepted Seattle and San Diego as expansion teams for this season. Both are fresh new franchises in burgeoning Pacific areas, operating under bright, able leadership—the San Diego Rockets are in the capable hands of General Manager-Coach Jack McMahon—but there is one big difference between them. The Rockets are one of seven established major league teams in the Los Angeles-Orange County-San Diego corridor, an area hardly the size of Delaware. The Sonics, on the other hand, are the lone big-league franchise in the entire northwest quadrant of the nation, an area stretching north from San Francisco and west from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Seattle represents the final frontier for expansion, so it is witnessing one of the last of those wonderful, childish times of innocence and pride that have touched so many U.S. cities in the last 15 years—when our city finally got in the major leagues, when our ball club first came to town. It all began that breezy April morning in 1953 when the Braves came down Wisconsin Avenue into Milwaukee. The parade ends at last, now, under the Space Needle in Seattle. The time is over. All the country has majors now. There are no more wide-open spaces left.

Curiously, unlike most of its expansion predecessors, Seattle made little effort to get the franchise. But once the city woke up to find it did at last have one, it began to embrace the team properly. In April, six months before the season would start, excitement was at such a pitch that a coin flip between Seattle and San Diego—to determine which would draft first—was broadcast live back to Seattle from San Francisco. Presumably, this was a first for coin flips and, burdened with the responsibility of reporting this historic occasion, Hank Greenwald, the incisive and witty San Francisco announcer, broadcast it all in the phony death whisper that usually distinguishes golf broadcasts. Seattle lost the flip.

Still, the interest grew, undaunted. A booster club, the UltraSonics, was swiftly assembled. Club officials were invited to speak all over the state. Season tickets were pushed. The newspapers reported scores of the practice "horse" games that groups of the Sonics played against each other.

To preside over the club's black-tie opening-night ceremonies on October 20, a civic group that calls itself, descriptively, Seattle Welcomes The SuperSonics Committee, was also formed. In its enthusiasm, this organization proposed a half-time show that, calculated conservatively, would have lasted for 2½ hours. The climax would have been a Hollywood star ("preferably female") descending a red carpet stretched down the aisles from the top of the Coliseum to mid-court. Reaching that point, she (preferably) would lead the assembled 13,000 in the singing of Hello, Sonics. (What this country needs is federal legislation outlawing any more versions of Hello, You-know-who.)

The Sonics are run by a triumvirate. Don Richman, a TV writer from Studio City, is the general manager; Dick Vertlieb, a stockbroker from Los Angeles, is the business manager; Al Bianchi, a former journeyman guard, who spent most of his career in Syracuse, is the coach. Bianchi is described by Richman as a "quality dead-end kid" or a "quiet assassin." The players under his command are the usual band of kids and very-nears and Al Bianchi-type hangers-on who make up expansion teams in every sport. The biggest names are Tom Meschery, a poet, who is on leave of absence from the Peace Corps to play two years with the Sonics, and Walt Hazzard, who lost his job with the Lakers when his tenant, Archie Clark, beat him out.

On the surface, it might appear that the two guys in from L.A.—the TV fellow and the Merrill Lynch hotshot—are on the scene to try a quick fleecing of the locals. But this is not the case. Richman and Vertlieb came to Seattle at a considerable financial and emotional cost. They had to uproot their families, and they both left far more lucrative jobs. "I was making a lot of money," Vertlieb says, "but I found I just wasn't satisfied. We're both frustrated athletes and sports nuts, and the more Don and I talked about this the more I knew we had to try it. I gave up my stockbroker's license. This is it. If we didn't do it, we knew we'd spend the rest of our lives wondering why we didn't take the chance."

They got their backing from Eugene Klein and Samuel Schulman, the San Diego Chargers' owners, who took about 70% of the Sonics, which cost them $1,750,000. The rest is held by smaller stockholders. Richman and Vertlieb have what they describe as a "participating" stake in profits. Both have been associated with sports before. Vertlieb coached in high school and was an assistant at USC, where Richman worked as sports publicity director. Richman also ran the Chargers the one year they were in Los Angeles, and his public-relations firm served as a consultant for the Lakers. Then he got into TV scriptwriting. He wrote for The Donna Reed Show, Gidget, The Farmer's Daughter, Hank, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, Gilligan's Island (in which Hazzard once appeared) and Green Acres. "Then," Richman says, "warmth was out, so I had to go to action." He did Rat Patrol and Tarzan and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. His favorite script was one for U.N.C.L.E., but it never made the air. NBC rejected the story as too "morbid."

Here is the way it went. A character, described by Richman as "Gandhi-like," falls into the clutches of an evil arms magnate who has a bomb planted inside Gandhi-like when Gandhi-like thinks he is just having an appendectomy. The evil one can send radio messages to the bomb, and he plans to activate it when Gandhi-like addresses a conference of the world's disarmament leaders. Luckily, however, the signals from the radio are picked up by the fillings in the teeth of a girl from Newport News, Va. She lets on about this to the man from U.N.C.L.E. The way it all was to work out, she is in the dentist chair, intercepting the signals, when Gandhi-like gets up to speak to the conference (and, unbeknownst to him, get everybody blown up). But the man from U.N.C.L.E. crosses signals, and when Gandhi-like opens his mouth the sound of the Beatles emanates from it, because that is what the girl from Newport News, Va. is listening to while she sits in the dentist's chair.

Now, is Seattle ready for the mind that created this episode? Richman himself is not sure. The Northwest has a California complex. It is jealous of the Golden State; suspicious, too. Yet it is impressed by California, and the natives like to boast that they are on the way to emulating California. "Seattle is where Los Angeles was 15 years ago," goes the accepted ballyhoo line. Richman, recognizing these ambivalent emotions, decided he better come on low key for a change. A mod little fellow, who looks like a seraphic Peter Lorre, he still wears his hair brushed down in front and can't stop snapping off the one-liners ("We have two seasons in Seattle—rainy and the Fourth of July"). "But you see," he says, fingering a dark rep tie, "I am wearing very sincere clothes."

Bianchi, too, appears pleasantly out of place. He moves about in deep open-neck shirts, tight cuffless pastel blue pants and tennis—not basketball, but tennis—shoes. Last year, in Oakland, where he was appearing as assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls, a brassy female voice called out to him: "Hey, Bianchi, how come you wear such tight pants?"

"Hey, didn't you come to watch the game?" Al replied.

Bianchi was never a big name in the pros. One St. Patrick's Day in Los Angeles the Lakers had green nets up, and Bianchi went for 25 points. The story is he went the rest of his time in the league just waiting for some more green nets. His career average was 8.1. Bianchi was asked to explain this at his first Seattle press conference. "It was very difficult to score," he replied, "from my position on the bench." For opening night, Richman is going to get Bianchi to join the black-tie crowd and sit on the bench in his tuxedo.

Is Seattle ready for this? Some sophisticates hold that it is home for the world's square. Richman had a reception for the team—Tonics With The Sonics, it was called—but in the Space Needle the drinks they push are frothy rum meringues that come with sipping straws, one with a candle on top. There is the Cloud Buster, the Milky Way and the Hay Stack, so that you can find a haystack in the—aw, you guessed it. The Sonic players were reading a front-page story the other day that described the travails of Miss Susan Braley, 22, who was pictured in a modest outfit, the hemline falling to just above her knees. Miss Braley had been sent home from her job at the Seattle post office because this "miniskirt" was "too distracting." The paper said "a respected and trusted woman" had been called in to render this decision. The players were aghast. They just stared at the picture and read the story, over and over, shaking their heads.

Seattle is really more like the Midwest than California. It is an honest home town. About 90% of the people came from somewhere else, and now that they have found a home they are loathe to leave it except to go to work at Boeing. There are, it is estimated, 250,000 out-door barbecues in King County, which may be why, during this past uncommonly hot summer, a smog often hung over the city, obliterating the magnificent view of Mt. Rainier. On a clear day, Rainier appears like a bottomless snow-capped shroud above the city, though it is 55 miles away. Tommy Kron, a guard with the Sonics, rented an apartment on Queen Anne Hill, with a view of the city and the mountain to the south. But the Krons were in Seattle for two weeks before the air cleared. Tommy walked out on the balcony one day and there was this monstrous mountain. "Honey," he called to his wife Diane, "you won't believe this, but all of a sudden there's this mountain right outside the window." Diane called back for him to stop playing jokes.

"Everybody here keeps telling me that they are so sorry we are having so much haze," says Mrs. Pat Hazzard. "I tell them, look, I lived in Los Angeles for seven years, and this isn't haze. It is good old smog. But they really don't want to hear that."

Seattle was settled in the 1850s, incorporated in 1869 and burned to the ground in 1889, a week after Johnstown had its flood. Rebuilt, it had its first boom, non-sonic, during the Alaskan gold rush. The port, and the longshoremen who battled there, kept the city growing. It is still a big union town. Then came the aircraft industry, and Boeing. The newspapers eschew most world developments to headline each Boeing sale of a 707. Seattle is a boomtown for real now. Unemployment is low; the workers come from California. Sonic Forward Bud Olsen was amazed to discover that prices were as high as they are in San Francisco. The Olsens and their two little girls had to settle for a house 18 miles outside of town.

The team has already sold 1,500 season tickets, with a total advance nearing $250,000, respectable figures for most established clubs. Atlantic Richfield bought TV-radio rights for the next five years for $1 million, and the local NBC outlet plans to preempt 11 nights of prime time for Sonic games. The Sonics are aware, of course, that the outpouring of love and support for them is not altogether altruistic. Seattleites feel that if they do well by the Sonics, pro baseball and football are more likely to show up next. The Cleveland Indians almost came a couple years ago, and Charlie Finley would probably love to come to the Northwest and its frontier TV territory—if Seattle had a stadium. The voters turned down a stadium bond issue two years ago, but a new and more attractive proposition for a $40 million domed stadium will be on the February ballot. It is a good bet to win.

The Sonic players, if somewhat bemused by the gee-whiz attitude of their new fans, are enjoying it and glad of the chance the fresh territory offers them. They also like their new management and are impressed with Bianchi, who has succeeded in enhancing the good reputation he came with. Hazzard calls him a "budding genius." Meschery says, "There is a chance for greatness there." In manner and strategy, Bianchi has patterned himself after Alex Hannum, who was his coach at Syracuse. Last year, with John Kerr in Chicago, Bianchi helped teach the same basic system, and the Bulls became the most successful expansion team in history. "If any more coaches come in the league copying Hannum," Hazzard says, "Alex can get residuals." While he was with Kerr, Bianchi put the finishing touches on his own style. "Alex's manner is to stand back, look at you, examine, and then act decisively as if there could not be any other way," Meschery says. "Johnny Kerr succeeds with joking. And Al does it just as well his own way, too. He manages quietly, softly. You find yourself hanging on his words, just about mesmerized by his few simple hand motions."

Bianchi will have to make the Sonics run and gamble and scramble to make up for their lack of experience as a unit and lack of size underneath. But then, that was the way Bianchi played and stayed in the league for 10 years. Hazzard says, "You can see Al out there, working, just bringing back our confidence. After all, the first thing he has to do is make us forget that we are all a bunch of castoffs. We know we are, still."

"You turn it around," Bianchi says. "You make that work for you. You say, "O.K., here's your chance, so now show me.' "

Unlike the others, Meschery does not carry the stigma of rejection. He had informed the San Francisco Warriors that he and his wife were going to Korea to work in the district office of the Peace Corps there, and he meant it. Tom Meschery is not the sort of man who would use the Peace Corps as a holdout gimmick. But Richman simply offered him too much money, flat out, and he postponed his Peace Corps assignment for two years, although the Mescherys will work in Korea between seasons. Meschery is among the most sensitive and articulate of pro athletes. He is publishing a book of his own basketball poetry this winter. But he is not a lone intellect on the Sonics. If anything, the team is better in readin' and writin' than in that other r, reboundin'. Plummer Lott, the rookie from Seattle U., is planning to attend law school. Kron is going after a master's in business. Dorie Murrey, the first-string center, is completing his degree in electrical engineering. Forward Henry Akin is also finishing his college studies, and first-round college draft choice Al Tucker received, as part of his bonus, a promise from the Sonics that they would finance the completion of his schooling. Bob Weiss—who joins Hazzard, Rod Thorn and Kron in a most respectable backcourt—has already earned his master's, and his thesis was the basis for establishing a program for intramural athletics in the Philadelphia elementary school system.

The Sonics made a point of considering the personality and character of players to be drafted, instead of leaning solely on talent. Hazzard, the first they selected (after San Diego chose Center Toby Kimball from Boston), possesses the particular qualities that can hasten the formation of a team identity. He comes into the locker room, playing Taps on an imaginary trumpet. The dirge is for Henry Akin, who has just taken another beating in a card game that Olsen introduced called Boo-Ray. "Henry Akin," Hazzard calls out. "Henry, the same old tune." He blows another round of Taps. Akin, perhaps the only chew-tobacco basketball player, eyes Hazzard morosely, but he is suppressing a smile.

Hazzard and Thorn ask Meschery, the highest-paid Sonic, to sign their paychecks so that they can be cashed. Walt follows with a few pointed remarks about the cost of Meschery's new house in the fancy suburb of Mercer Island. Hazzard's own spiffy home is in Bellevue, another high-dollar community. He was the first Negro in the area, and to welcome him his neighbors gave the Hazzards a little party. The very next day Hazzard's 2-year-old son, Scooter, took a large bite out of the arm of a little girl down the street.

Like Meschery, Hazzard had no business being on anybody's expansion list. Unfortunately, the owner of the Lakers, the self-assured Jack Kent Cooke, persuaded himself that Hazzard and Rudy LaRusso were the cause of all the team's problems. It is true that Hazzard's unique playmaking abilities were superfluous on a team whose basic strategy has always been to get the ball to Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and then fall back on defense. For the first 10 games of last season, when both stars were injured much of the time, Hazzard averaged 19.8 points, ninth in the league. He was playing 34 minutes a game and was fourth in the NBA in assists—figures he could easily maintain for the full season with the Sonics. For the balance of last season, however, he played only 19 minutes a game and averaged 7.7.

"Mr. Cooke would come in the locker room and shake hands with everyone else—this is only after we won a game, of course," Hazzard says. "He'd just nod at me. Then he would invariably take my chair. Invariably. I don't understand that man. I don't ask him to like me, but why does he let his personal feelings influence the way he feels about the job his players are doing on the court? I'll tell you, by the end of last season I had lost all confidence. I was just mentally worn down. I love this game, but I would have quit it before I played another season in Los Angeles.

"What they have done to that team! I knew I was going, but Elg couldn't believe it. When the announcement came that Seattle had picked me, he was over in about five minutes, and he just couldn't understand it. He cried. Can you imagine that—Elgin crying? I miss him, I miss Archie. I don't miss anything else in L.A.

"Up here, they treat you like a man. We had a meeting the other day. I spoke to Tom and Rod about it, and we all just got together. We talked about how we've got to play for that man [Bianchi]. We have to go out like this"—he clenched a fist. "No, I don't mean hard. I mean together. I mean unity. We do that, and we can win some games."

"Going in with an expansion team," Tom Meschery says, "is like buying a 50¢ speculative stock over the counter. If you hit it, you hit it big. But it is not just the financial analogy. I don't want to dwell on that. Your pride can go up; and your self-esteem. And the things that disappointed you can all fade away."