"One ...two ...three...four...."
It began as a silly ploy, this 10-count stuff, a grating chant
by Seattle SuperSonics fans to rattle Utah Jazz forward Karl
Malone at the foul line during the opening two games of the
best-of-seven Western Conference finals. Who knew it would
become the Muzak of the series? When the scene shifted to Salt
Lake City for Games 3 and 4, Utah players mimicked the 10-count
at one of their shootarounds. Then a few surly Jazz fans counted
to 10 during Game 3, a 96-76 victory that cut Seattle's series
lead to 2-1, and suggested they were tabulating Sonics forward
Shawn Kemp's IQ. Finally, after Seattle's 88-86 win in Game 4 on
Sunday, which gave the Sonics a commanding lead as the series
headed back to Seattle's Key Arena for Tuesday's Game 5, you
could hear it again. Sonics forward Detlef Schrempf stood in the
shower unconsciously ticking off the familiar digits. He sounded
like a boxing ref counting out a KO. He might as well have been.
But throughout all this, perhaps the most significant count was
taking place in the hallway outside the Seattle locker room at
Key Arena. Taped to the wall was a long scroll on which were
printed the numerals 1 through 15. It takes 15 victories to win
the NBA title, and after each Sonics playoff win another numeral
had been X-ed out. After Game 4, the first 10 numerals had been
Examining this paper, one couldn't help but think of a convict's
homemade calendar. With each X it seemed more likely that the
Sonics would finally be paroled from their prison of
underachievement. "When you look at those numbers, you realize
just how long a road these playoffs can be," says Seattle
forward-center Sam Perkins. "Ten is a long way and 15 is
forever. But after the last two seasons we're just happy to
still be counting."
Despite winning the Pacific Division title in 1993-94 and
finishing second in 1994-95, the Sonics didn't journey past the
numeral 2 in either of those postseasons, getting knocked out in
the first round by the Denver Nuggets in one year and the Los
Angeles Lakers the next. "We were spoiled children then,"
Schrempf said last week. "Now we are grown-ups."
"Forget those teams," added Seattle's All-Star point guard, Gary
Payton, who averaged 20.8 points, 6.0 assists and 2.0 steals in
the series' first four games while outplaying Utah point guard
John Stockton, who averaged only 7.3 points. "This is a
different team, a happy team. We don't gripe at each other
In the opening two games against the Jazz these new, grown-up
Sonics proved they could win at home, at Payton's place, yet in
many ways that only served to transform Salt Lake City's Delta
Center into the key arena. Seattle's mission in the two games at
the Delta Center was clear and daunting: Beat at least once a
Jazz team that owned a 6-0 home record in the playoffs and had
trounced its visitors by 22.2 points a game.
The Sonics only boosted the Delta Center's mystique in Game 3
last Friday when they committed 26 turnovers and were held
without a field goal for over seven minutes in the fourth
quarter. It was their first defeat in 26 days. "Our players
don't like the feeling that's in their guts right now," Seattle
coach George Karl said the next afternoon.
As a fresh means of inspiration, Karl harked back to the Sonics'
only other loss in this year's playoffs, a 90-81 defeat in Game
2 of their opening-round series against the Sacramento Kings.
"No matter how many times we said we were O.K., we had pressure
on us," Karl reminded his players. "That loss had a lot of
viciousness to it. We had to put on our armor to fend off all
the attackers. When we got that wrenching, negative mentality
out of our bodies, we were really O.K., and it gave us the kind
of strength we'd need to win a game in Utah."
In Sunday's game Seattle took a 49-44 lead into the locker room
at halftime, but there was still plenty of doubt in the air.
"There were a lot of blank stares and a lack of energy in that
room," guard-forward Nate McMillan said later. "Sam decided he
had to pump us up. He doesn't make many speeches, so when he
talks, we listen."
The message from Perkins, 35 on June 14, was simple: Stay in the
Jazz's face on defense. Defense will win this game for us.
O.K., so it wasn't exactly "win one for the Gipper," but it
turned out to be prophetic. After the Sonics took a 73-65 lead
into the final period, their offense deserted them. They scored
only 15 points in the fourth quarter but hung on to win with
relentless defensive pressure. Twice in the final 13 seconds,
Utah had an opportunity to take the lead. On the first
possession Seattle forced a turnover. Schrempf picked up the
loose ball and was immediately fouled by Malone. After Schrempf
made one of two free throws, the Jazz was unable to create
anything better than a 30-foot desperation jumper by Stockton
that glanced off the front of the rim.
The only Seattle player to have reached the NBA Finals is
Perkins, who was a member of the Lakers when they lost to the
Chicago Bulls in 1991. At Karl's request the quiet, sage Perkins
has been telling his teammates about the experience of being in
the Finals. "I tell the guys about the joys of packing your bags
to play for the championship trophy," Perkins says. "I tell them
that if you get to the Finals, then the weight of the world is
off your shoulders."
Karl is well aware that history suggests that novices usually
get eaten for breakfast in the NBA Finals. But should this
year's Finals match Seattle and Chicago, the Sonics may be
better suited to run with the Bulls than anybody else in the
league. With Kemp, Payton, Schrempf, Perkins and guard Hersey
Hawkins, Seattle has plenty of scorers and ball handlers to
break down Chicago's swarming defense. If they could just find a
way to stop Michael Jordan...."I'd love the challenge of messing
with Michael's head," Karl said last week. "Maybe we'll
triple-team him. Maybe we'll start with [center] Ervin Johnson
on him. Maybe we won't guard him at all."
After Game 4 Karl could seriously begin to entertain such
thoughts. "As a coach, I've been to 10 once before," he said,
referring to Seattle's playoff-victory scroll and the Sonics'
1993 run to the Western finals. "I love double digits. Wouldn't
it be great if this team put an X through number 11 and finally
had a view of the mountaintop?"
You could almost count on it.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Tough D by Sonics like Perkins and Schrempf made Stockton look like nothing but a passing fancy. [Sam Perkins, John Stockton, Detlef Schrempf and others in game]