Sonics await their savior

Updated: December 15, 2003, 10:43 AM ET
By Frank Hughes | Special to ESPN.com

How good of a basketball player is Jesus?

No, not Black Jesus, as Michael Jordan often was called. Don't worry, the apparition of Black Jesus has not been sighted to make yet another comeback. No, we are talking Jesus Shuttlesworth, aka Ray Allen, the man whose vanity plate reads: Hay-Suce.

Can he be the Seattle SuperSonics' savior at a time they need guidance, redemption and eternal salvation?

Can he perform miracles, bring people of all races and nationalities together, provide a hopeful beacon of light around which the unfortunate, the lost, the confused and the weary can rally in hopes of finding a route out of damnation?

The Sonics better hope he can because this is one of the most beleaguered teams in the league right now, in a month's time going from the group with the best record in the Western Conference (5-1) to losing four straight, nine of 13 and a 12th-place record (9-10) in the West standings?

It's not just that they've lost, though. Plenty of teams go through stretches like that. It's that of late they have done so in such utter disrepair and a state of confusion, flailing about like a 7-foot tall man who can't swim and doesn't realize he is standing in only 6 feet of water.

At the beginning of this season, Allen and the Sonics both agreed to touch base this season on a contract extension, then begin negotiating one in earnest once this season is over. Now, forget the stat sheets and the abacuses. If ever there was a bargaining tool to bring to the negotiating table, it's the undeniable truth about the effect of one's work, like turning water into wine.

Ray Allen
Ray Allen, who's up for a contract extension, can prove his worth by rescuing the Sonics.
Jesus Shuttlesworth, who's on the road to recovery from ankle surgery that removed a bone chip and sheared off some loose cartilage and was cleared for workouts last week, is in the position to provide and then present that truth, if he can accomplish what right now seems impossible.

How did Jesus' 12 disciples, the other Sonics players, come to be in such a place? After all, it was only four weeks ago that they were, along with the Utah Jazz, the toast of the league. Their up-tempo offense was purring along in high gear, Ronald Murray was one of the great stories as a bona fide talent who had slipped past all the experts and Rashard Lewis appeared as if he would be on the crest of the next wave of young All-Stars. And Allen had not even stepped back on to the practice court.

"How are you going to fit in once you return?" Allen was asked, because things were going so well and because Murray had emerged so forthrightly. Things will work themselves out, Allen replied, not realizing what dreadfully accurate insight he possessed about such matters.

Now the Sonics are begging Jesus to return, biding their time, which is to say they are clinging perilously to the edge of a cliff, and they have only the soft blubbery hands of an accountant with which to hold on.

The Sonics' descent began when teams started to figure out that as long as you bumped them, got physical with them and laid a well-placed elbow into an unsuspecting jawline that they indeed had difficulty scoring. Guess who was the first to do so? Ron Artest. He completely beat up Lewis one night -- he outmuscled him, intimidated him, embarrassed him. And the word got out.

Other teams took the cue. Slow down the Sonics and they struggle in the half-court offense. Suddenly, there were home losses to Atlanta, Memphis, Miami and New Jersey. KeyArena became not a safe haven for the home team, but the place where a road-weary traveler comes to get re-energized.

Once the losses began to pile, coach Nate McMillan got away from the up-tempo scheme that the organization had laid out as its business model for this season. Despite taking all of training camp to work on running, McMillan now was demanding execution, precision. Players were not as familiar with the game plan, and they became confused. On some nights, they got blown out.

After one such game, McMillan lost it. It was in Utah, the sight of so much frustration for so many players over the years, but particularly McMillan, who still seethes over the illegal picks that John Stockton set, the ones with the elbow placed squarely and painfully between two ribs.

The Sonics proclaim to have one of the best young teams in the league, but it was Utah's Jerry Sloan-induced precision that completely interrupted Seattle's game. It was everything that McMillan wanted his team to be and was not -- tough, young players who run a beautiful system of basketball at both ends, reflecting their coach like a well-shined mirror.

In the locker room, McMillan dropped F-bombs terribly close to the names of upper management and said he was going to begin doing things his way. The players thought to themselves, 'Hmm, what's going on here?'
In the locker room, McMillan dropped F-bombs terribly close to the names of upper management and said he was going to begin doing things his way. The players thought to themselves, "Hmm, what's going on here?" Management brought McMillan in for a meeting and reminded him of the season's goal, which was developing players, and reminded him of what they did in training camp, which was running, and reminded him that he needed to be patient.

Since that meeting, everything has changed. McMillan has decided to be patient, which is to say he almost carries an air of acceptance about the team's fate, or at least until Jesus returns. After a loss in New Jersey earlier this week, a game in which the Sonics were down by 32 points, McMillan, a fiery guy, said calmly: "Well, we are searching right now. We are struggling and not playing well. The confidence of our group right now is down. We are a young group that is searching for an identity."

The next night, the Sonics fell behind Boston by 33 points. McMillan, with the passive voice of a knowledgeable clergyman: "We have to be patient. We know that we are missing a key guy right now. We are feeling that effect for the first time this season. We are searching somewhat for that rudder."

Losses are mounting. Thirty-point deficits are becoming commonplace. Playing time is sporadic as McMillan attempts to figure out combinations that work well together, though so far none have. Players are confused. Defense is nonexistent. The offense is in disarray, launching 3-pointers at record paces.

In light of the fact that 14 coaches have lost their jobs in the past nine months, McMillan's security has to be called into question. Management says it is not fair to judge him until Allen returns, which should be soon, perhaps a week from now, maybe two.

Can Jesus perform miracles? The Sonics are in desperate need of one.

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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