Sonics: Turmoil At The Top? -- `Ambush,' Says Ackerley -- Whitsitt Move `Shocks' Owner, But Ackerley Sees No Turmoil


What turmoil, Barry Ackerley asks.

"You're using the word `turmoil,' " the SuperSonic owner said. "I'm not using the word. There's no turmoil that I've heard of. Nobody's brought me any turmoil. If there is, there is, but I don't know about it."


Your team suffers what arguably is the biggest upset in NBA playoff history. Along the way, your starting point guard and one of your highest paid veterans have a blowup. Three weeks later, your team president, who has just been named the league's top executive, suddenly wants out - or so it seems - a day after he said he is "happy as hell."


Already this seems destined to be an offseason of semantics.

Was Ricky Pierce selfish in complaining about shot distribution during Game 2 of the Denver series? Or was Gary Payton immature to fire back? Did Bob Whitsitt ask out? Or has Ackerley given him a shove?

"Nobody's been fired," Ackerley said. "Nobody's resigned."

Ackerley says Whitsitt marched into his office Wednesday morning, gave him a form releasing him from the last three years of his contract and asked Ackerley to sign it. Ackerley even has the document to prove it happened that way. And now so do most of the Seattle media.

"Of course I was shocked," Ackerley said.

Whitsitt said in a prepared statement that a mutual release was only one of several matters discussed Wednesday in Ackerley's office. And sources close to Whitsitt affirm that the Sonic president had at least intended to offer Ackerley several alternatives, including changes he felt necessary to make the team better, as well as the option of his release.

It was then that Ackerley took the offensive, the sources maintain, and disseminated the proposed release to the media without Whitsitt's knowledge. That would explain why the media received one fax with Ackerley's announcement as an official news release and another, one hour later, with Whitsitt's statement on plain letterhead.

Whitsitt apparently didn't expect Ackerley to focus on the release option. In the days leading to his showdown with Ackerley, Whitsitt hadn't mentioned any intent to ask for his release, according to several who had detailed conversations with him.

During an interview Tuesday, Whitsitt not only stressed that he had no intention of leaving the Sonics ("unless I'm fired, I run out of paychecks and can't find another job in Seattle"), he said he had not discussed job openings with any other teams.

"If someone wants to talk to me, they have to talk to Barry first," Whitsitt said. "Just like if they want to talk to George (Karl), they have to talk to me first. They should never contact me. That would be stupid. Barry could go after them for tampering."

Ackerley said no team has asked for his permission to talk to Whitsitt. He also said he doesn't suspect Whitsitt of holding discussions with other teams without his consent.

So, in Ackerley's words, he was "ambushed" by Whitsitt. He says he had no inkling of any trouble between him and Whitsitt. Yet, it was well known throughout the league that Whitsitt was increasingly frustrated with Ackerley.

And regardless of whether Ackerley is aware of the breach, it now seems irreparable. He almost guaranteed that by distributing Whitsitt's release proposal.

Who's right? Who's wrong? Does it matter?

On some level, it does. The issue here is accountability. The lack thereof is an organizational flaw that starts at the top and drifts down through the players.

When the going got rough, Sonic players didn't get behind each other, they went at each other. The Payton-Pierce squabble before and during halftime of Game 2 was the result of longstanding locker-room friction. The team's chemistry was so fragile, it could not withstand that incident. The team clearly wasn't the same afterward.

Another undermining incident

In the minds of some Sonics, another incident also undermined the team. After the Sonics lost by 17 in Game 3, and after Payton had spouted off on all his teammates, the players decided they wanted to remain in Denver and work on whipping the Nuggets in Game 4.

Before the series, co-captains Nate McMillan and Sam Perkins had been briefed on studies that showed the closer athletes arrive to the start of an event at high altitude, the more successful they are. Armed with such information, the players decided to return to Seattle for the two days between Games 3 and 4. In the emotional aftermath of the Game 3 loss, they changed their minds.

Whitsitt turned down the players' request - in part, some believe, because Ackerley was flying with the team and was counting on a return trip to Seattle. The last ember of resolve was snuffed at that point, some believe.

The Sonic legacy

This could be the legacy that the 1993-94 Sonics leave behind. Not their league-leading steals or victories. Not their cache of postseason awards, including Whitsitt's Executive of the Year.

No, these Sonics could go down as the team that unraveled under the weight of pressure, emotion and run-away egos. One that lost its architect a month before cashing in just the third lottery pick in their history. One whose head coach could be next out the door, and one that may not return at least two players from its regular rotation.

One that seems to scarcely resemble the team that only a month ago was expected to bring home the second NBA title in its history.