Slick Watts's tales
When Big Bill left, they hired Bob Hopkins, which to me was funny because he was Russell’s cousin. You would have thought that the organization wanted a clean break from Russell, given everything that happened and the way it ended – but they gave the job to Hoppy.
Right there, waiting in the wings, was Lenny Wilkens. They had hired him as general manager. They had brought him back to Seattle. He did not leave on the best terms because he wanted to be a player-coach, and Sam told him that he wanted him to be either a player or a coach – but not both. That’s why Lenny was traded to Cleveland.
Everybody knew, though, that Lenny was sitting there waiting to take over. It was kind of like the situation in New York right now, where everybody knows that Isiah is sitting there waiting and eventually wants to take over.
Jack was the other part of our little soap opera. He was from a small college – Illinois Wesleyan – and he was the Sonics’ top draft pick, and nobody knew who he was or from whence he came.
Now that his number is retired and he has won a championship, everybody wants to take credit for Jack. Bob Hopkins is the one who went out and saw Jack play. Hopkins. He said: “Jack can play. He knows how to get into position. He has a step-back jumper.” I remember Hopkins bragging about it, and I remember everybody saying that Hopkins was crazy.
Then Jack began to blossom. He began to show us point guards he could catch the ball. He can slide off and take that jumper. And he showed us point guards he could help on the pick-and-roll.
The pick-and-roll is a part of the game that point guards hate. Because you are going to be knocked around by some seven-footer, and your big guy is either going to let you through, or he is going to switch. Jack knew how to close out that play.
We all loved Jack. He began to flourish, and then Paul Silas took him under his wing, and he got better and better. Just don’t let anybody tell you that anyone other than Bob Hopkins was responsible for Jack Sikma being in Seattle.
Hopkins lost his job – and I probably ended up leaving Seattle – because we started the season 5-17.
Hop had the idea that Marvin Webster should be a point center. He tried to eliminate Fred and me from handling the ball almost completely. I think that is why he lost the job, but everybody has their own opinions.
Fred and I were rolling – we were playing as well as any two guys in the country at the time. Hop just came in and said that Marvin Webster was going to be like Bill Walton. The thing about the NBA – if you win with five guys, then next year every team will have five similar guys. If you win with five new guys, next year everybody will have five similar new guys. They are copycats.
Bill Walton had won the championship in Portland, and Marvin Webster was a defender. Hop wanted him to handle the ball and have everybody cut off him. Everybody was trying to find the next Bill Walton.
Nobody could pass at the top of the key like Bill. He just knew how to do it. Marvin didn’t know how to do it. It wasn’t his fault. He just wasn’t Bill Walton. He kept throwing it away – the ball, our season, and eventually my career in Seattle.
In ’76, Wally Walker – the Sonics’ current CEO – dubbed me “Great Gatsby.” I used to think I was clean. I had a jean suit with Slick embroidered on it. I had a fur coat. I was trying to be like Walt Frazier.
Walt was my hero. Every time I would go to New York or Buffalo, I would buy some threads to look like Clyde. I had black and white gangster-type shoes. I had a fur coat with a hood that I pulled up over my head. So Wally, who we had traded for in November, called me “Gatsby.” In fact, he still does.
I called him “Legs.” Whenever we went to a bar to have drinks, girls would say, “Who is your friend?”
“That is Wally.”
They would say, “Wally, you have lovely legs.”
After they fired Hopkins, Lenny stepped in as coach, which everybody knew was going to happen.
Lenny and I had played against each other. I respect him a lot, and I always said I wanted to be like him when I grew up. Lenny is smooth. He always knows how to handle situations, whether he likes you or dislikes you. He knew how to handle the situation. He would have been a great politician.
However, Lenny didn’t like my style of play. I can understand that. I was a fighter, a survivor, and a scratcher – he was smooth. So I can understand. Ice cream has to have a refrigerator. I wasn’t a refrigerator – I was fire. Fire and ice don’t necessarily mix.
THE FIRST SIGN
One day after Lenny took over as coach, our team went to Canlis Restaurant on Aurora Avenue – one of the nicer restaurants in town.
I had on a black velvet coat, gray slacks, black and gray shoes, gray and black tie. Guess what Lenny wore? The exact same suit. I was sitting at the head of the table. He was sitting at the other end of the table.
Sam Schulman made a statement that set me up. He said, “I wish I had 12 Slicks.” What that did was make it look great to the public, and it made it look great for my image – but it created enemies. Everybody started looking at me differently, especially my teammates.
I went from the lovable, happy Slick Watts to someone who was supposed to be a superstar. As I said before, guys don’t like people to be out of their place. They want to bring you down when that happens, put you back in your place.
We were sitting at this dinner, and Lenny was wearing the exact same suit that I am. Paul Silas and those guys – I love those guys, but they are so full of it – they screamed, “Who is the coach tonight?” They were kidding, but they weren’t. My own teammates started to pull the plug on me.
“Did y’all call each other?” they yelled. They were selling me out slowly, boy. I wasn’t mad. I thought it was funny. I think about it now, and I laugh. Sitting up there, just like twins. The boys were calling me “Coach Watts.” I just put my head down and smiled.
The week after the dinner at Canlis, we were going on a road trip. The pilot of Northwest Airlines came over the loudspeaker when we took off and he said, “We’d like to welcome Slick Watts and the Seattle SuperSonics.”
That did it. That was it. I mean – that was it, man. I didn’t get off the bench that night. Do not mess with brothers who played this game and have been great. No, you stay in your place.
If I had it to do over again, I would have stayed in my place. I was a victim of my own success. I was just a country boy, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was just being nice and being myself, but that was pushing me out of town. My teammates pretended they were kidding, but they were helping me get the boot, too.
I will never forget that.
Little Fella – we called Lenny “Little Fella” since Russ was Big Fella – he didn’t like that too much.
Soon after those two events happened, Lenny and I had lunch at a restaurant in Bellevue.
He sat down and told me, “Slick, this town ain’t big enough for both of us.”
“Coach, all I want to do is play,” I said.
“I want to make some changes out there,” Lenny told me.
We had won three straight with me starting after they had fired Hopkins. He said he wanted to change. I knew I couldn’t play myself out of the lineup because I was still playing well. So I knew he had made up his mind.
If you are at home and your parents don’t take care of you, when your step-daddy comes, you are in trouble. Lenny was my step-daddy, and Russell was my father. Then I didn’t know that, but now, as I look back with maturity, I see that. Lenny wanted his people, and I wasn’t one of his people.
As it turns out, not too many people could threaten Lenny’s reputation. He came in with Dennis Johnson and ran Dennis out of town – after Dennis won the NBA Finals MVP. The reputation with him was he couldn’t stand popular players. Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter – everyone I talked to, they said the same thing.
My biggest thing, as a player and as a person, is my “go-getter” attitude. I wanted to play. I found that I wasn’t a part of what Lenny was about – his philosophy. I was caught between my father and my step-daddy.
Little Fella had Gus Williams, Fred, and Dennis Johnson. I had played against all three of them in practice, and with them in games, so I knew that my talent stood up against all three of them.
Yet, I also knew that my so-called Daddies – Russ and Hop – had gone. I soon found out it was a “Who-loves-you-baby?” type of thing. Lenny was sitting there waiting for Hop to fall. Hop fell. Lenny was in there. After that dinner at Canlis and then that lunch, I knew I was out of there.
After that, I told Little Fella: “Coach, I don’t think you have me in your plans, so send me somewhere else.”
HOW TO DO IT
There was one problem with Lenny having to trade me: I was still one of the most popular figures in Seattle. Remember, this was only a year and a half after I was opening the Kingdome and named the SeaFair Grand Marshall and such. Lenny had to figure out a way to ship me out of town without taking a public relations hit. As I said, he was smooth.
First, Lenny let it be known that I wanted to be traded. He didn’t mention anything about our little lunch, about him saying he wanted to make a change. He put it on me – a real smoothie. Lenny told the fans that I wanted out. I didn’t want out – I just felt like I didn’t want to be dropped without a decline in my abilities. Then he benched me, and he told the media that he wanted to keep me healthy in case we made a deal.
They sat me down for about a month and a half, getting little or no time. That made it worse. They wouldn’t play me. In two games, I didn’t even dress. I went from leading the league in steals and assists and making All-Defensive Team to not dressing. I was pulling a Vin Baker, and I wasn’t even sick.
It was tough sitting there on the end of the bench, because the one thing I do have pride about – the one thing I have a big ego about – is playing. I don’t want to just sit there. If I am on a team, I want to play and contribute. I wasn’t contributing when the Little Fella took over. I learned that in business: you go with whom you love, and that is just a fact.
You go with whom you love.
One or two sportswriters were Lenny fans, so they said it was a good move. Some were on my side. It became a soap opera. I got sick of it. Everyday it was in the papers. Everyday it was on the radio. Cameras were at my house talking about it. It just became negative, and I knew I couldn’t win.
On January 4, they told me that I had been traded to the Jazz. Two years after Bob Walsh told Sports Illustrated that they would have to trade the entire organization if they traded me, I was gone. Lenny pretended he was doing me a favor, playing the public relations game, saying that they were trading me so I could be closer to home.
It was very emotional for me. I had just built a house in Bellevue. We were getting ready to settle down... I thought forever. That song about me was about to come out. Two months prior, I was on TV every day – and then I was gone.
I was so upset that I left the game against Kansas City that night at halftime. I caught a flight the next day. It was really painful flying over the city, looking down. Tears came over my eyes, and I said, “I’m gone.”
Afterwards, Lenny tried to make it sound as if we both wanted it. “This was a mutual understanding,” Lenny told Greg Heberlein. “Slick and I had been talking all along. Everything was above board. Why should there be [negative] fan reaction? We made a deal. It’s over. Why not let it die? Slick wanted the deal as much as anyone. Slick and I have the highest regard for each other. It wasn’t a personality conflict.”
Just as I said, Lenny is a real smoothie.
I once said that God made me a little slice of heaven, and he called it Seattle. My son, Donald, who was born here, stayed here. I never did claim New Orleans or Houston – where I later played – as home. To me, Seattle is still that little slice of heaven.
Later on, when Lenny wrote a book, there is a part about me, and he roasts me, boy – he talks about me like a dog. I guess I struck a nerve with him.
He said I couldn’t shoot. He said I couldn’t shoot free throws. He never said what I could do, though, like lead the league in steals and assists. He just brought up my free throw shooting, and he said nobody wanted me. He talked about the meeting, about how the people loved me, and how he wanted to make sure people weren’t upset that he traded me.
John Johnson once said to me: “You must have got on Little Fella’s mind.”
No, Little Fella and I played against each other, and I did hack him a lot. I was a hacker. I was a little guy. I had to fight to survive. So, I used to fight and scratch him on the hand. He didn’t ever like that. He would talk about me bad when I played against him. Then when he became the coach, I knew I was out.
Now when I see him, we hug each other. “Hey man, Slick, how you doing?” he says.
I show him the proper respect, just as I do with Big Bill. “Hey Coach, how you doing, Coach?”
He is Coach to me. Both of them are. They were my coaches, so I give them respect – that comes from being an old country boy.
The first time I played Seattle after I was traded, man – I was juiced. New Orleans was Pistol’s team, but this was my game. I was crazy in that game, I was everywhere.
It was exactly two months to the day after I had been traded, so it was still fresh on my mind. I wanted to make a statement to Lenny, but I also wanted to play well for all my fans back in Seattle.
I didn’t start, but I played 32 minutes and had 24 points, eight rebounds, four assists. I even made nine of 11 free throws. We won, 113-104.
Lenny still wouldn’t give me much credit. “Slick wasn’t guarding anyone, as usual,” Lenny told the Seattle Times. “He was just following the ball around, and we didn’t make him pay.”
Then I came back to Seattle two weeks later, and I was drained. It was all so emotional for me. Coming back, seeing my family, seeing my friends, being where I used to play. I don’t think anybody could have kept up the intensity that I had showed in New Orleans. It was just too much for any human.
I played okay. I had 16 points, four rebounds, and four assists, but I shot poorly, and we lost, 123-98.
After I was traded, the Sonics completed one of the best turnarounds in sports history. They went from 5-17 to playing against the Washington Bullets for the NBA championship.
I think that so much stress from the previous seasons had been relieved, and the guys all came together and played.
For a while, our team was a soap opera. Russ was leaving. Hopkins was leaving. Lenny was coming in, hovering, and he had Hopkins backed into a corner because everybody knew Lenny was waiting to take over.
Once they fired Hopkins, all the stress went away. Everybody just relaxed and came to play. Then they traded me to New Orleans, and that was more stress gone because Hopkins had been my coach, and everybody knew we were tied together – and they also knew Lenny and I were on different pages.
It was like a bad marriage that finally comes together, and they began to find themselves and gel. These guys came together. No one should have gotten credit for it – everyone just relaxed. You become so stressed out at certain points in your life that there is no place to go but up – and they got that feeling.
At the end of that year, the team voted that I should get a playoff share. They could have voted me out, but they didn’t. I got a little check from the team. Zollie sent it to me.
The next year, after getting a little taste of the Finals, the Sonics won the championship while I was playing in Houston in the last season of my NBA career.
I thought all these guys had been much like the Detroit Pistons team that won the title in 2004. All the players had been cast away by other teams.
Wally Walker had been with Portland; Dick Snyder was with Cleveland; Joe Hasset didn’t play much; Marvin Webster had been given away a thousand times; Jack, nobody in the city wanted him when they drafted him; Fred, every year they were talking about trading him; Lonnie Shelton, they said his party life was better than Rodman’s back in those days.
Really, if you gave somebody the opportunity, no one would admit putting this team together. Look at the names. Come on – this was a bunch of overachievers, and their time had come.
Just like my time came. I became “Slick Watts.” I don’t know why. If I was playing today, I might be just another player, but back then—it was my time. And it was those guys’ time when they won that title.
People ask me, “Slick, how do you feel that you weren’t on the ’79 championship team?”
That wasn’t my time. It was my time to be who I became a few years earlier. I don’t know why it happened. Life is about timing, and it was their time. Nobody put those guys together thinking they would win a championship. Look at it. Think about it. It just happened – and I was happy for them. I still am.
Slick Watts played six seasons in the NBA, five of them with the Seattle SuperSonics. In 1975-76, he led the league in both assists and steals. He was the first NBA player to lead the league in those categories during the same season. Frank Hughes has covered the Sonics for the Tacoma News-Tribune since the 1997-98 season. He has covered the NBA since 1994, spending three seasons with the Washington Bullets. In 1997, Hughes won an APSE award for reporting
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