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The victory by the Sonics in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals should be remembered for what it was.

Not as a battle down to the final seconds against the Jazz, though surely it was.Not as a re-emergence of the West's best team because finally, after two straight losses to Karl Malone and John Stockton, every Sonic who needed to contribute did exactly that.

"Everybody had a key moment for themselves. It was just great to have everybody in sync," said Sam Perkins, who understood where the win came from.

In Game 7, when there was no room for error or over-aggressiveness or foul trouble, Shawn Kemp was a money player. He was an All-Star. He was a mature champion. He was automatic from the free-throw line when the game was hanging in the balance.

In Game 7, when he absolutely could not be spared for a day of trippin', Gary Payton took control when control was needed.

In Game 7, when 0-for-8 just would not do, Hersey Hawkins stuffed Jazz sharpshooter Jeff Hornacek and then hit a 3-pointer in the third quarter to boost the Sonics' lead to 11 points.

And in Game 7, with time running out on the shot clock, Perkins saved a ball that was heading out of bounds and winged it deep to Detlef Schrempf, who caught it and launched a 26-footer that swished for an 85-77 lead.

Indeed, the cumulative effect of these heart-stopping moments means a trip to Chicago for the Sonics, where the Bulls wait like the wolf in Grandma's best. The Sonics will play the part of Little Red Riding Hood, although maybe a little less innocent.

But that is not what Game 7 of the conference finals should be remembered for.

If anyone celebrated right on Sunday, it was Perkins. No talk of the past, he said. No Bulls questions either, he added.

"I don't care what you talk about now, but you have to talk about this day, I know that," Perkins said, a grin slapped across his face.

"I don't want to talk about anything unless it pertains to this day. I'm going to enjoy this moment. There's nothing anybody can say right now that's going to change that."

And he was right. No one had the heart to mention specifically the two teams who had derailed the Sonics the two previous post-seasons. And the Jordan talk would wait. It will be swirling all around Seattle and the Sonics starting soon enough.

But Perkins and Payton and Kemp, Nate McMillan, Coach George Karl, the assistant coaches and the rest of the Sonics deserved one day when the past was cut off like a dead branch; one day when the future and expectations could be avoided.

"It's a great day. It's humbling. It's honoring. It's exciting. It's emotional. It's fatiguing. Does it wipe out all the other days? I hope it does," Karl said.

"I'm over that. I can handle my life. But some of the things that these guys have gone through, I think it has been borderline on torture. And I think it has been borderline on psychological torture. And now hopefully that's gone and that will give us two or three weeks of just trying to win a championship."

Karl's assistant, Terry Stotts, did not even try to hold back tears. It has been too long a haul. The Game 7 win served as a floodgate.

"It's a lot of relief and there's just an overwhelming joy. The genuine hugs that I'm getting from everybody. . . . I haven't had this feeling about basketball in 20 years," Stotts said.

Payton's father, Al Payton, was there to let everyone understand that the pain of the Sonics' 1994 and '95 postseasons had crept down to Northern California. But that is over now, said a relieved father.

"This is one of the best days of my life," Al Payton said. "We took so much slack from everybody all the way down there in Oakland. People saying the Sonics were chokers, that they weren't going to win. This was the most important win."

Payton, who started coaching his son back when Gary was in fifth grade, said he reminded his son that defense was the key and to keep the turnovers down.

"To see him go this far, my son's a man now. He forgot about his childish ways."

There was one face among the crowd who was a little older but no less relieved at what the Sonics had accomplished in 48 minutes of basketball on Sunday.

Sonics trainer Frank Furtado was the only one on the bench who was with the team back when they won the franchise's first NBA title. But whatever happened in 1979 could not be compared to this victory, Furtado said.

"Maybe because I was younger and more naive, but I don't remember it being this difficult. This was very difficult. What makes it sweet is what happened the previous two years. We had great ambition with no fruition. This feels so good for the coach and for all the guys who worked so hard," he said.

"I think the fires that don't melt you mold you into something stronger."

On Sunday the Sonics indeed proved themselves older, wiser and stronger.

Their history is history. The future now is a bright, clean slate.