He rocks the boat with the old college try

Nov. 11, 1968
Nov. 11, 1968

Table of Contents
Nov. 11, 1968

The Undefeated
Creepy Crew
Pro Basketball
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

He rocks the boat with the old college try

Dick Motta, new coach of the struggling Chicago Bulls, may be fresh cut of Utah's Weber State College, but he is no innocent. He has so much gall, in fact, that he has already put down some of the best big-time put-down artists

The New York night was smoky as always, fed with a chill and a smell around 34th Street that the New Boy in Town was not used to. He came out into it alone, across the street and down the block to Madison Square Garden, where a man in uniform held out his arm, barring entrance.

This is an article from the Nov. 11, 1968 issue Original Layout

"You got a pass?" the man said.

"No, I'm the coach," the New Boy said.

"Yeah, and I'm the President of the United States," the guard said. "Get outta here."

"No, no. I'm really the coach," Dick Motta said.

With that, with three other guards coming over now to look him up and down, with minutes passing and everybody wondering, Dick Motta, the coach of the Chicago Bulls, was let in.

"I asked him after a few minutes, 'Hey, you really the coach?' " the guard said later. "He said he was. I figger anybody that has enough gall to say he is, must be. I let him go. He was O.K."

On that opening day of the season in New York, when a coffee-shop waiter told him to get his feet off the booth, when after the game another waiter told him to keep his sport coat on and still once more when a cab driver slipped him a counterfeit ten for change, the coach felt abused. He had come from a world of vast mountains and open valleys, where a man, even if he is a basketball coach, drives a pickup truck to work and hikes with the kids on weekends. Now he was in the land of concrete, amid bright lights and dark soot, and he was being pushed around by the little masters of the urban sneer.

Afterwards he talked about that first day. It was clear then that, in the bad moments as with the more important times inside on the courts, Dick Motta, the New Boy in the NBA, has enough gall. He will be O.K.

A short, freshly scrubbed and soft-spoken man of 36, Motta appears so young he could be the school crossing guard down the street. To the anticipation of absolutely nobody, he was plucked off the campus of little Weber State College in Ogden, Utah last summer to coach the Bulls after a series of circumstances at both ends—the Windy City and the Big Sky Country—had combined to make him eligible.

As an expansion team, Chicago had surprising success in the 1966-67 season when buddies Johnny Kerr and Al Bianchi coached the Bulls with a sort of Bobbsey Twins brilliance to a playoff berth. But neither coach got along with Dick Klein, a 6'8" former center at Northwestern who is the general manager and part owner of the club. In his first two years at Chicago, Klein has acquired a notorious reputation as a meddler. He second-guessed his hirelings in the public prints often and was his own adviser when it came to trades, drafts and other policy matters. Almost always he sacrificed potential talent and player needs to the stress of dollars.

Following the first season Bianchi departed to coach Seattle while Kerr stayed on the next year and watched the Bulls lose 15 of their first 16 games. Relations between coach and owner became so cool that at one point Klein was sending notes to Kerr on the bench during a game and Kerr was tearing them up with a flourish. Kerr began dreaming of a better life in Phoenix, home of an expansion team.

Meanwhile, Motta, who had compiled an outstanding record at places like Grace (Idaho) High School and the Barksdale (La.) Air Force Base before winning 169 games in eight years at Weber State, was realizing the full limitations a small pond necessarily imposes upon a big frog. The school's athletic administration was changing, more recruits were being lost to big schools and his salary was not getting any higher. Moreover, Motta was beginning to wake up to the possibility that he was as good as people were saying. The job of coach of the Chicago Bulls was offered to him three times and it was turned down three times. Then, convinced, he signed a two-year contract at a considerable increase in pay.

Persons on the fringe of basketball had never heard of Motta, but Klein, for all his shortcomings, knew what Motta could do. "A team reflects its coach," he said. "Dick's teams were well-drilled, they knew what they were doing, they worked hard and they played rough. We were delighted to get him."

Despite such praise, Klein was still not giving Motta, the first man since New York's Eddie Donovan in 1961 (and one of only a few in history) to come into the NBA without any prior pro experience, much maneuvering room. Even before the first game of the season, Klein gave up a good playmaking guard, Keith Erickson, to the Lakers for Erwin Mueller, a forward Klein had traded off once before. Klein did not consult Motta on the deal, and the fact that he could have obtained Baltimore's Gus Johnson for Erickson even up forced the relationship onto rocky ground.

"The deal came up quickly," says Klein. "Dick hadn't seen either our man or their man, so how could he know?"

"We made an agreement when I was hired," said Motta, "that the three of us—Klein, the scout Jerry Krause and myself—would discuss all trades and draft choices, and that sounded good to me. Then I hear about the first trade from one of my players. Hell, it wasn't the individuals so much, it was the way Klein handled it.

"I know everyone thinks I was just brought in as a pawn to be led to the slaughter by Klein," Motta added. "Well, he's not running this team. He hasn't tried to tell me how to coach, and as long as he doesn't interfere, we'll be O.K. He knows that the first time he knocks me in the papers, he's going to get it right back. I think he's trying hard to let me do my job."

A conversation that took place before Chicago's opening game probably helped in establishing boundaries.

Klein: "If we win tonight, I'd like to give the team a steak dinner after the game. It might keep them together."

Motta: "That might be nice, if the players haven't other plans. Are you coming in before the game? Do you talk to them at the first game?"

Klein: "I usually do, but I've found it probably doesn't help, and it may hurt. The way I feel this year I could really get excited in there. You know, a Notre Dame pep talk."

Motta: "Yes, well, we don't give pep talks, don't do that. I think a steak dinner after they win sounds better."

Klein: "I think so too. I'll stay out."

Motta made a thorough study of the team and pro ball before he took the job and moved his wife and three small children to Northbrook in the Chicago suburbs. He was prepared. So were the players, who appreciated his emphasis on individual instruction and seemed impressed with his knowledge of the pro game. They respected Motta.

"He has an indirect way of telling you something and still getting it across," says Jim Washington. "It's impossible to make 12 guys on a club happy. There isn't that much playing time. But with this man, everybody knows where he stands and why he is or isn't playing. Dick lets us know."

The 7' rookie centers, Tom Boerwinkle and Dave Newmark, served together as Motta's pet project in the preseason rookie camp. Both were put through extensive weight training and muscle-building drills that trimmed 30 pounds of fat off Boerwinkle and added strength and stamina to Newmark. Observers who had seen the two in college last year were shocked by the transformations. Boerwinkle is much quicker than he was a year ago; if Newmark stops counting his money and improves his attitude, the two can become the Fee Fi and Fo Fum of the Chicago attack.

With the exception of the potential of the young giants and the consistent All-Star performances of Jerry Sloan, the Bulls have nothing much to look forward to. In the Western Division they may be hard pressed to beat out Seattle for a playoff spot. Nevertheless, Motta already has impressed veteran NBA people by his performance on the bench, his savvy and skill in handling substitutions, time-outs, matchups and the other, more esoteric elements of game strategy. He insists he has been surprised by nothing so far and that the atmosphere isn't any different from college.

"It's the same game, that's all," he says. "Just one thing bothers me—the attitude in the league toward new people. The feeling is always there. 'You're a rookie. Stay in your place. Don't rock the boat.' It seems they don't want new blood. I get it from coaches, players, referees, everybody. They're always testing me. It isn't that awfully hard in this league. It isn't that different. We don't have the best club, but I'll be O.K. if I can keep some fragments of sanity. Klein's trying to stay away. I know he is. If he lets me alone we'll be fine."

Motta's first trips around the league, accompanied by the red-haired young trainer, Jerry McCann—an amusing man and fine companion—have been entertaining and interesting. Still, there is the feeling that probably Motta misses the college life. The route to a major school's coaching job would be considerably shorter from Chicago than from Ogden; that may have been a factor in his accepting the job, and a big university may be his eventual destination.

For now it is the one-night stand, the hotel lobby, and the late hamburger. "You know?" he said not long ago, "we play away on Christmas Day." Dick Motta suddenly looked as though he had just become aware of what the words meant. "Cincinnati on Christmas Day," he said. Don't bet the Bulls will lose it. This new pro has a way of giving the game the old college try.