When did Sonics fans get so defensive and sensitive? They've been carpet-bombing this column with e-mails since I picked Seattle to lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Kings.
Actually, the letters only started to come in once the Kings were safely dispatched, but you know how that goes.
The Sonics won a respectable but unspectacular 52 games to take the weak Pacific Division and earn the No. 3 seed in the West with the fourth best record in the conference, sixth best in the league. After a 17-3 start they played .565 ball -- somewhere between Nuggets- and Grizzlies-level -- for the last five months of the season, losing 10 of their last 14 games.
They were also banged up coming into the playoffs and I thought the Kings would beat them. Wrong in spades. The Sonics played well against the Kings and won, though the Kings were so bad the Little Sisters of the Poor junior varsity would have beaten them.
So, Sonics fans began asking, when will our boys get some respect? When they beat a good team, I replied. Handily, they were playing the Spurs next, a good team.
That series is tied 2-2, and Sonics fans apparently think that's good enough.
"So Mr. Kaufman," went one letter typical enough that I feel comfortable using it as a representative for the bunch, "can I count you among the believers at this point?" This was after Seattle's Game 4 win Sunday. "Even if they don't actually win this series they deserve your respect my friend, and the respect of the league."
The Sonics have my respect. I think they're about the fifth or sixth best team in the 30-team league, which is pretty good. They're somewhere between the team that started 17-3 and the one that finished 4-10, and probably closer to the 17-3 bunch.
They're giving the Spurs a hell of a series too, with Game 5 Tuesday night in San Antonio. After two lackluster games in Texas the Sonics played inspired ball to win Thursday and Sunday. They're a deep, well-coached team. I agree with many Sonics fans that Nate McMillan should have been Coach of the Year.
Mike D'Antoni of the Suns won it, but while nobody picked the Suns to have the best record in the conference, many observers, me included, thought they'd have a good shot at making the playoffs. The Sonics were roundly dismissed. I only mentioned them in my season preview to make a joke at their expense.
But they won Game 3 because Tim Duncan missed a three-footer and they won Game 4 because they shot the lights out. They hadn't hit 43 percent of their shots or 27 percent of their 3-pointers in any of the first three games, but on Sunday they hit 50 and 46 percent.
Luke Ridnour went nuts, hitting all seven shots in a 15-point third quarter and finishing with 20 on 9-of-15 shooting. All of that could happen two more times, but it's not a good bet.
This "Hey, at least we're hanging with the Spurs" stuff is weak, Sonics fans. We're not talking about the Warriors or the Hawks here. The Sonics are a proud franchise.
Things have been a little bumpy the last few years, but Seattle's still made the playoffs three of the last six seasons and, taking the longer view, 22 times in 31 years. Even in their down times, the Sonics haven't been that far down. The last time they finished as many as 10 games below .500 was 1985-86.
Maybe the Sonics can win two out of three and steal this series. Champion of the underdog that I am, I'm rooting for 'em. If they can pull it off, I'll give them all the respect their due.
And then I'll pick them to lose in the conference finals.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
The NCAA thinks of the children [PERMALINK]
Somewhere in America right now, as you read this, someone connected to a major college sports program is committing an NCAA rules violation for which he or she will be caught in the future.
And somewhere in America right now, the people who are going to be punished for that violation are dealing with their own stressful situation.
Of all of the grimy policies the NCAA pursues, the repeated punishment of middle schoolers for the crimes of adults and college kids is the most outrageous.
The NCAA formally notified Ohio State Monday of nine alleged rules violations involving cash gifts and improper academic assistance to players and the failure of the university to monitor the basketball program. The alleged violations, which are fairly run-of-the-mill as these things go, date to the late 1990s.
Basketball coach Jim O'Brien was fired in June after he acknowledged giving about $6,000 to a recruit, one of the listed violations. He's suing the school for wrongful termination, and will almost certainly coach somewhere again.
Meanwhile, Ohio State imposed a one-year postseason ban on its basketball program after O'Brien's acknowledgment, and unless it can pull off a legal miracle, it's going to be sanctioned further by the NCAA.
So the people paying for the crimes of O'Brien and others in the late '90s will be players who were in middle or high school at the time. They'll be the ones whose teams are weakened by the confiscation of scholarships and the unwillingness of prize recruits to go to a school that's being sanctioned. They'll be the ones denied the opportunity to play in the postseason if their teams are any good.
The biggest mistake you can make if you're a college athlete isn't to accept that envelope full of cash from the nice man with the big car and the school tie. Remember, Maurice Clarett's problems didn't stem from all the goodies he says he was gifted with, but from his own run-in with the law. If he'd kept his mouth shut when that "loaner" car got broken into -- and not done something else as stupid as lying about the value of the stolen goods -- he probably would have been a three-year starter for the Buckeyes.
The biggest mistake you can make if you're a college athlete is to choose to go to a school within a few years of it getting caught for whatever violations it committed while you were dominating your Little League. Because you're going to be the one who pays the penalty.
If you think that's fair and just, call the NCAA in Indianapolis. There might be work for you.
Previous column: Baseball's drug problem
- - - - - - - - - - - -