SONIC SYNERGY and an ability to close a deal mark the Bob Whitsitt era in Seattle. He leaves a legacy of risk-taking that drove the club toward the top.
Not as long ago as it seems, there were grander, less confusing times for the Seattle SuperSonics. On many evenings, Bob Whitsitt and George Karl would order a couple of buckets of popcorn and retire to an office back in the catacombs of the Coliseum.
There, they'd fire up the satellite dish and, while watching a game in some distant time zone, chew the corn and the fat. In front of a wall on which the rosters of every NBA team were written, they'd plan and they'd argue, they'd discuss and they'd dream.
Down a corridor and around a bend, assistants Tim Grgurich and Terry Stotts, both in workout clothes, would do the bump-and-grind with Sonic players. Viewing those proceedings from courtside, assistant Bob Kloppenburg would refine some defensive tactic.
A synergy existed in the Coliseum those nights that hadn't graced the organization since its championship in 1979.
"I don't think I've had a better working relationship in all my time in basketball," Karl would say.
But that's over. Whitsitt and the Sonics agreed yesterday to release each other from the final three years of Whitsitt's contract as team president, effective July 1.
The Sonics also agreed to amend Karl's contract yesterday by giving him a pay raise - his deal still runs through the 1996-97 season - and seeming to ensure that the head coach and his staff won't follow Whitsitt out the door. Yet questions remain as to how Whitsitt's departure will effect the team chemistry.
Whitsitt methodically spun a web of loyalties while his team floundered in mediocrity midway through the 1991-92 season.
Back then, Whitsitt had a coach, K.C. Jones, who wasn't exactly a philosophical soulmate. Further, Jones clinged to a pair of assistants - Kip Motta, the son of Dallas Coach Dick, and Gary Wortman, longtime Sonic scout - who were neither forceful nor experienced enough to counterbalance growing player insurrection.
Whitsitt gave Jones a choice - replace the two assistants or join them in unemployment. Jones chose the latter.
The move probably was the first fissure in the relationship between Whitsitt and owner Barry Ackerley, who was enamored of Jones. Yet it also served as the impetus for Whitsitt to set a more stable course.
The first thing Whitsitt did was reconnect the loyal Kloppenburg. Then he rescued Karl from basketball ignobility, creating a sense of indebtedness. From there, Whitsitt plucked Grgurich, who had ties to Karl and Kloppenburg, and Stotts, who assisted Karl in the CBA.
For the first time since he joined the club in 1986, Whitsitt had lined the basketball end of things with his own people.
All along, Whitsitt's strength was his ability to assimilate basketball wisdom. That trait helped him work his way up through the Pacer and King organizations. By the time Whitsitt joined the Sonics, Ackerley had declared the club's intention of mastering the then-novel concept of the salary cap, and Whitsitt quickly became an expert on the subject.
That expertise served Whitsitt well. With one of the more well-ordered payrolls in the NBA, the Sonics almost always retained the flexibility to make trades when opportunity arose.
At 30, Whitsitt became the youngest team president in the NBA. With Lenny Wilkens, then Bickerstaff, providing counsel, Whitsitt made six major trades before the first month of his first regular season had passed.
Trader Bob was born.
Mostly, as a necessity. When Whitsitt arrived, the Sonics had just finished 31-51, and missed the playoffs for the second straight year. They were one of two NBA teams over the salary cap, didn't have a first-round pick and were last in the league in attendance.
Whitsitt was undaunted. He was only 24, after all, when he negotiated for Indiana the contract of then-first-round pick Clark Kellogg. In 1986, he was the heir apparent to GM Joe Axelson in Sacramento, but married Jan Sundberg, then Sonic vice president for marketing and broadcasting, and moved to Seattle.
"I was a lot cockier than I am today," Whitsitt said. "I thought I could come up here and make things happen. In my mind, I was ready."
While completely overhauling the Sonic roster at least twice during his eight-year tenure, Whitsitt was marked by two obvious characteristics. One, that he wasn't reluctant to close a deal once he had one negotiated. And, two, that he was a master at rebounding from moves that immediately or eventually proved disastrous.
The first tendency placed Whitsitt in an elite circle. Few others were as willing to pull the trigger on trades, and that often limited Whitsitt's options on trading partners. He and Chicago's Jerry Krause, for example, pulled off four deals during one three-year flurry.
"There has to be chemistry in working a deal," Krause said. "Bob Whitsitt learned his craft well. His business isn't in the media, his business is with you. And he keeps his word. Bob Whitsitt is the most honest guy I've met in the NBA."
Getting things done
The prospect of making a bad move never stopped him. Whitsitt understood that the occasional gamble would produce a big payoff. It did with Karl and, earlier, with Shawn Kemp.
"I always thought I'd figure a way to get out of (a mistake)," Whitsitt said. "If you're building a team, you have to be prepared to do things."
In time, the Whitsitt signature became the extra tweak, making it appear the Sonics were getting a little something more for nothing. An option to swap draft positions. A draft pick for not choosing a player they didn't want, anyway.
Whitsitt also took that approach in negotiating with players.
"A lot of guys get it down to being $100,000 apart and just give up," he said. "I don't. I treated that money like it was my own money. I know how long it takes to sell a $100,000 sponsorship."
His background in business and marketing with the Pacers, Kings and Sonics gave Whitsitt a different slant. When he was named team president, the intention had been to hire a general manager. But Whitsitt went with it, and kept on going.
Eventually, Whitsitt admits, he "was spread a little too thin."
In 1992, Ackerley removed business and marketing duties from Whitsitt's list of responsibilities and transferred them to family, friends and other Ackerley Communications transplants. While the move probably signalled the beginning of the end for Whitsitt, he welcomed the change. It allowed him to concentrate on basketball.'
Whitsitt lived up to the challenge. The Sonics this season won a league-high 63 games. They also sold out every home game, acquired a lottery pick and maintained great flexibility with the salary cap.
"When I got here, the Sonics were a joke," said Whitsitt, who was selected by his peers as the NBA's executive of the year. "They were bad in every category. Today, they are perceived as one of the best franchises in the NBA. To be a part of that change is something to be proud of."