The exhibition season is made for nights like these. Nights when execution does not live up to expectation. Nights when youth is served, and experience devours it like a Thanksgiving feast.
Best thing is, none of it counts - except as a lesson in the school of professional basketball.
Seattle SuperSonics Coach K.C. Jones, a veteran of 17 NBA seasons as player and coach, understands this. He is the kind of guy who wants his young players to make mistakes. He got his fill as his club dropped a 102-90 decision to the Chicago Bulls before a Sonic exhibition-season record crowd of 25,780 at the Kingdome last night.
For Jones, it was a glass half full. Veteran starters Dale Ellis and Derrick McKey were sidelined with injuries, yet the Sonics didn't appear to miss them much - at first. They were solid enough and frisky enough to trail the Michael Jordan-led Bulls only 48-44 at halftime.
``Being down by four points in the first half, what's that tell you about our two starters?'' Jones said. ``We moved the ball well, got good shots. If it works that well in the first half without two starters, the third quarter should be the same.''
But it wasn't, and Jones understands why. For much of this season, he will have to endure the rookie cha-cha - one step forward, two steps back. A young player gets good only by first playing badly. That way, he has a point of comparison.
Because they must rely on so much from so many young players at so many key spots, the Sonics seem destined to walk a thin, fragile line between playoff and lottery team.
Rookie Sonics point guard Gary Payton will be a focal point. Just beginning his professional education, he got a pop quiz in NBA pressure defense last night. Shortly after the Chicago trap was sprung, he committed two straight turnovers as the Bulls rattled off 11 unanswered points to break the game open in the third quarter.
The Sonics committed six turnovers during that decisive quarter and, discombobulated, their offense degenerated into a series of one-on-one maneuvers. Seattle's carelessness fueled the Bulls' running game and opened seams in the Sonic defense that Craig Hodges pierced for 10 perimeter points in the third quarter alone.
``Gary got the whole shouting match thrown at him tonight with the traps,'' Jones said. ``That's what he needs. That's the best way to improve.
``You have to have the burning sands. He has to walk the line. Everybody has to take a shot at him.''
Except for his third-period lapse, Payton delivered a solid floor game. He hit 5 of 7 shots for 10 points, to go with nine assists, four rebounds and two steals, and prompted Jordan to observe, ``If he can handle all the expectations, he'll do well on this basketball team.''
Jones was impressed enough to say, ``I still like what I see.''
Payton, for his part, seems to grasp the point of these exhibition-season exercises.
``Eventually, I knew I was going to see (pressure defense), and it happened now,'' Payton said. ``Good thing it happened in preseason. It was a good learning experience. Now that I know what to expect, it's going to be different down the road.''
Payton's main accomplice in the Sonics' third-quarter offensive meltdown was Shawn Kemp, whose recklessness with the ball accounted for five turnovers. Filling McKey's spot in the starting lineup, the second-year forward also got a different look and could be accused of getting a little carried away.
``I just have to live with my mistakes, and go on and play,'' said Kemp, who hit 5 of 9 shots on the way to a 14-point outing. ``I'm going to work on everything I can. I'm just 20 years old and don't feel I've got anything down to perfection yet.''
The night was not all for naught. Xavier McDaniel snapped out of a season-long shooting slump, hitting 9 of 18 shots for a team-high 21 points, and Olden Polynice had another forceful outing at center, counter-balancing 5-for-16 shooting with a game-high 15 rebounds.
``You really can't fault anyone for what happend,'' Polynice said. ``Guys are still working hard. That's all you can ask for. There are still 10 days before the season starts; we've got time. And you've got to remember, it's a long season.''
How long will depend on how much the Sonic youngsters profit from their exhibition errors.
-- Chicago superstar Michael Jordan confirmed that he has made a verbal commitment to participate in the Battle of Seattle, an event modeled after television's ``Superstars'' competition. It is scheduled for July 7-9 next year.
Jordan, who scored 17 points in 17 minutes last night, made a similar commitment to last year's Battle, but said he was forced to drop out because of a death in his family.
``It sounds like fun,'' Jordan said. ``Plus, I don't get much of a chance to come back to Seattle that often. It will give me a chance to get back here, see some friends, play some golf and see the city on a social basis.''
-- Dale Ellis was a surprise entry among the Sonics' wounded. He sat out last night's game with pain and numbness in his right foot. According to Coach K.C. Jones, Ellis had been suffering from the ailment the past couple days and will be re-examined today. Ellis will be questionable for tonight's rematch with the Bulls in Vancouver, B.C., as will Derrick McKey, who was sidelined with a sprained right ankle. McKey said his ankle has improved, but wasn't sure if he could play tonight.
-- Former Sonic Coach Bernie Bickerstaff, general manager of the Denver Nuggets, scouted last night's game for his new team. Among those who noticed him was Seattle center Olden Polynice, who recently has been critical of how Bickerstaff handled him last season.
``I saw him over there,'' said Polynice, who snared 15 rebounds, eight at the offensive end. ``Subconsciously, I think I was trying to show Bernie something. It was like I was saying, `This is what you had on the bench for three years.' ''