The Friday Fan: Remember when…

(There hasn’t been that great of a response to this, so who knows if it’ll continue. But if you just want to share something, anything, email it in. It doesn’t have to be a 1,500-word essay. Just whatever you feel is unique to your Thunder fan experience. Or something about how the bathrooms smell in Loud City. Whatever. This week’s comes from reader Justin.)

I remember the exact date. It was July 26th, 1996. On that day, my Seattle Supersonics (reigning Western Conference Champions) signed Washington Bullets reserve center Jim McIlvaine to a reprehensible seven year, $35 million contract. Jim McIlvaine was going to make more in 1997 than Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Mitch Richmond, and yes, our very own Shawn Kemp – our rising star who was just a couple months removed from thoroughly dominating the 1996 playoffs.

Many Sonics fans remember this signing because it was effectively the end of an era. Even most NBA fans know what happened next: Shawn Kemp, insulted that his contract was not restructured after his dominant season (arguably the best PF in the league in 1995-1996, certainly in the playoffs), was traded for Vin Baker. After one decent year, Baker spiraled into alcoholism.

Empty promises of ‘hitting the gym’ and ‘next year being the year’ ensued for Baker, whose maximum salary was the Sonics’ to bear for better or worse. He was never effective again; and neither was the team. His salary hung on the our necks like an albatross. Instead of watching two Hall of Fame players dominating the conference for the next half decade, we were subjected to abject mediocrity.

I know this is a Thunder blog, and perhaps that story isn’t pertinent, but bear with me.

I remember all of this so clearly because the day the Sonics signed Jim McIlvaine was the first time I was frustrated with the team, talking angrily with my friends about how stupid the signing was and how McIlvaine’s numbers were worse than Ervin Johnson’s. The unavoidable mediocrity that followed was difficult to swallow.

You see, I started following the NBA in the late 80’s, and took a huge interest in the Sonics when Gary Payton was drafted. Similar to many OKC fans, I was essentially ‘brought up’ in the NBA world with a team that was driving in the fast lane toward success.

We made the postseason eight years in a row. Everyone in the media was convinced that the Sonics were future Champions. Kemp and Payton showed no signs of slowing down. They had a great coach who turned the team around the minute he arrived in town. They had effective role players and a rabid fan base. But, obviously, it never happened.

This July will mark 14 years since Jim McIlvaine was signed to that contract. The Thunder will have made the playoffs, and who knows, maybe they will have a first round upset under their belts, or at least put up a good fight. The Thunder, if they already aren’t, will be the talk of the NBA. ‘Future Champions’. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant. A bunch of effective role players. A coach who basically turned the team around when he arrived in town, and a rabid fan base…

…I was a baby when the Sonics won the championship in 1979. The city is different. The name of the team is different. In my heart, though (corny as it may sound), I still consider this team ‘My Sonics’. And I would hate to see them screw this up twice in my lifetime. Remember that the next time you see me irate at Jeff Green for taking a 22-foot jump shot.

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