The levee finally broke on Friday morning, November 17, when a river of bad blood sluiced over the muddy banks of propriety and swamped the Sonics franchise knee-deep in a rank pool of animosity and frustration. The flood was swift and unforgiving. Even in the two-dimensional universe of the local sports pages, where clunky metaphors and clipped quotes usually suffice to keep the drama (as well as the dramatists) afloat, one could now witness players and coaches suddenly scurrying to pull on their hip-waders, lest some of that swirling turmoil smudge their long-term reputations. It didn't matter; everyone got soaked. And off in the distance, just within earshot, Sonics President Wally Walker could be heard starting up the P.R. bilge pump with a couple of lonely hand-cranks on the platitude chord. You know the sound of that engine turning over: "I never comment on contracts." Gurgle, gurgle.The decisive breach (in every sense of the word) resulted from Coach Paul Westphal's leak to the media of an incident that took place after the team's aggravating loss to Orlando (110-99) on November 6. The defeat called for drastic measures. So in a move reminiscent of Nixon's dyspeptic "farewell" press conference, Westphal--after eavesdropping on a post-game bitch fest in which he was negatively implicated--entered the players' locker room and made this stunning offer: Hey, if everyone so wished it, they needn't have old Paul to kick around any more. Yes, on the eve of a national election that would go depressingly awry, Westphal slapped his own resignation on an ad hoc ballot and tendered it up to an instantaneous straw vote. Christ, the poor guy must have been sweating bullets. (And Patrick Ewing probably understood, once and for all, that he'd walked through the wrong looking glass, trading East Coast ass-kicking for West Coast boot-licking.) Then, compounding the weirdness, Gary Payton decided to play diplomatic Starbuck to Westphal's crack Ahab, and rally the troops against the whole strange martyr act. But now my own metaphors are getting wonky: I'll save the doomed-vessel shtick for a later date.

The fact that Westphal's intent in revealing this episode was to INSPIRE CONFIDENCE in the press/fan-base by showing that his players, in an altogether churlish showdown of wills, opted to stick with the status quo... well, it tells us just how tangled up in blue we already are. The whole inglorious hell-and-high-water fiasco should be construed as a warning flare to faint-hearted Sonics fans: More is sure to come. Such flash floods might be exciting, in a soap opera sort of way, but they have a nasty habit of leaving a lot of unclaimed detritus in their wake (remember Vinnie Baker "getting over" the aborted off-season trade?)--and when these silty waters eventually recede, there's going to be some tight-lipped bad attitude sloshing around. In defending his decision to not oust Westphal, Payton even cited the dreaded "Kemp/Karl Era," saying he would rather leave town than be responsible for an in-house coup.

Most disturbing, regarding all this talk of tenuous positions and limited contracts, was Westphal's primary claim that he's "not starving," and that he's "not going to starve either way." Who said a damn thing about starving? Methinks thou doth protest too loudly, Coach. This preemptive bark of financial security speaks volumes about Westphal's priorities at this point. He's getting DEFENSIVE.

The only good thing to come out of all this was the definitive proof that Gary Payton is the single most hilarious point guard in the history of the NBA. In obvious exasperation over the whole affair, he said, "I don't care if it's Fred Flintstone coaching the team, I want to win." The image is brilliant.