SuperSonics Face Toughest Challenge Yet

Breathless in Seattle. Rested in Chicago. This contrast does not bode well for the Seattle SuperSonics, who are decided underdogs as the National Basketball Association's championship series begins Wednesday night in the city of broad shoulders.

The Sonics need every advantage possible going against the Chicago Bulls, who set an NBA record during the regular season with 72 victories in 82 games. Yet for the past week, the Bulls sat back and studied Seattle while it struggled through an emotionally and physically taxing seven-game Western Conference championship series against Utah.

Maybe Seattle's best hope is that Chicago has gone a little stale or soft from inactivity. Realistically, however, that probably won't be the case, since the Bulls seem on a mission to stamp themselves as one of history's greatest teams.

They have come through the Eastern Conference playoffs with an 11-1 record, sandwiching sweeps of Miami and Orlando around a 4-1 spanking of the New York Knicks.

This sort of dominance is only a continuation of the regular season, when club personnel cleaned up in the recognition department: Michael Jordan was the league's Most Valuable Player, Phil Jackson its Coach of the Year, Toni Kukoc its Sixth Man (top sub) Award winner, and Jerry Krause the NBA Executive of the Year.

Jordan and Jackson have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated recently. Seattle, on the other hand, has made the cover of Newsweek - as a city, not for its basketball team, which like most Western Conference teams, plays in the NBA shadows.

In the two previous seasons, the Sonics didn't exactly help their image with first-round playoff exits. Those early departures hung them with the "underachievers" label and made some wonder if coach George Karl would be able to harness his two young stars, Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton.

This season, however, Karl made sure that everyone knew beforehand that Kemp and Payton, this season's Defensive Player of the Year, were his guys. "Maybe that was a fault of mine in the past, not standing behind Gary and Shawn," Karl has said of his go-to pair, who have matured and "improved in every facet" of the game, according to their coach.

Karl guided Seattle to a 64-win season, the best in franchise history. The team also eliminated the two-time defending champion Houston Rockets in four straight. Even so, the most Rainier-like obstacle in their path now looms on the horizon. If the SuperSonics can scale the Bulls, they will earn all past due respect and more.

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