Surely the strange little man named Dick Motta—who never stops chasing those demons that the rest of us learn to accept—is a singular identity. It is not just that old business about throwing away the mold after making him. To perceive the strains of blood and nationality, early environment and the bizarre happenings that have shaped Motta is to understand that he has not been molded in the usual way, but rendered by the times as a new hybrid.
Yet there are basketball general managers walking about today, like schoolgirls mooning over some crush, saying how much they need A Motta, Another Motta, A New Motta, as if these commodities could be ordered from somewhere in various shapes and sizes, with two pair of pants or whitewalls. This is not only a tribute to Motta's success—which culminated this past season in his overwhelming selection as NBA Coach of the Year—but it also indicates a fascination with the man and the events that lifted him in the sort of upward mobility previously experienced only by those frogs lucky enough to get kissed by princesses. The NBA Coach of the Year never even made his high school varsity basketball team. Nor was it very long ago that he was turned down for the coaching post at Twin Falls (Idaho) High School when he tried to move up to a big job.
Now, after just three years as coach of the Chicago Bulls, Motta is not only Wonder Coach, but also the most intriguing personality in that line since Red Auerbach retired. His controversial antics and candor drive Commissioner Walter Kennedy to distraction, most often expressed in the form of stupendous fines. Motta's Mormon religion encourages, in the black basketball universe, racist allegations. But, ironically, Motta has an even more substantial tag now. One of the league's genuine superstars, a black, never fails to encounter Motta without saying, "Come and get me, little man." He means it literally: the Bulls had the third-best record in the league last year, although four of the eight regulars were expansion chattels, another was an outright waiver reject, and one of the starting guards had to double as the only reliable forward reserve.
The sum of these parts is that Motta is now the most secure coach in the business, perhaps even more secure than Kennedy or Chief Referee Mendy Rudolph, his other abiding nemesis. After the Texas Chaparrals of the ABA tried to spirit Motta away last spring with a spangled, long-term offer featuring a base salary more than double his old $25,000 Chicago figure, the Bulls countered with the kind of escalating package that might make Motta the best-paid coach in America. Only men like Don Shula or Ted Williams, who own pieces of their teams, are supposed to have better all-round deals.
October 24, 1971
Even the Establishment must rejoice in this happy tale, if only to celebrate the fact that a Motta can still happen. To believe in this is to see Dick Whittington turn back at the sound of the Bow Bells of London or to be there to watch Lana Turner adjust her sweater and take a prominent stool in Schwab's Pharmacy. Dr. Bob Biel, the Bulls' trainer, was at the preseason rookie camp that day in September 1968 when the unknown new coach arrived from Weber State to confront the pros. Right after practice Biel hustled to the telephone and called up Jerry Sloan, one of the few certified NBA players then on the Bulls' roster. "Jerry," Biel said, "you had better get here in shape. This guy is something else." Ultimately, the most accurate appraisal of Motta was that first warning: he is simply that, something else.
Motta was born near the Great Salt Lake on Sept. 3, 1931, on a farm near a town named Union, and he passed through high school without ever considering horizons much beyond his home. He went off to Utah State Agricultural College, up in Logan, only because a friend won a $100 Union Pacific scholarship and wanted company. The friend soon dropped out. Motta stayed on to graduate in 1953.
"I never knew how other people lived until I went to college," he says. "I never thought about college. I was just going to be a farmer. All Italians are farmers, that's all there is to it. Nothing else occurred to me."
At Utah State, Motta soon fell into an argument with an agriculture professor over the subject of hotbeds for growing pepper and tomato plants. The professor said hotbeds must be prepared such and such a way. Motta said they had hotbeds on his farm, and it wouldn't work that way. The incident is not insignificant. For one thing, Motta figured if that was the level of the agriculture department's instruction, he was wasting his time; he quit and became a physical education major. For another, his reaction to the confrontation, his first with the undisputed dogma and tradition of the outside world, is representative of his stand in the many subsequent conflicts of his life. If Motta believes he is right, cajolery or punishment only encourages him to hold firmer. For a time in the Air Force, for instance, he was accused of being one of three officers in that entire service not to pay $7 a month to join an officers club. Harassed unmercifully, he held his ground until the inspector general dropped the issue. So now all the fines and Dutch-uncle letters from Commissioner Kennedy are not going to stop Dick Motta from saying the officiating is lousy when he is convinced it is, any more than low grades and lectures were going to persuade him otherwise about hotbeds.
It does not seem that raw ambition has driven him so much as an intellectual curiosity to try his methods under all possible field conditions. Phil Johnson, his assistant at Utah's Weber State who is now rejoining him with the Bulls, remembers when Motta decided to leave college for the pros. "I didn't think he would go to Chicago. I asked him not to as a personal favor. We had it all there at Weber at last. And then he just up and quit. I suppose he had to do it. He told me—near the end when he had almost made up his mind—he told me this, and I knew he was leaving when he said it: 'Just what if, Phil? What if I do it the same way up there, the same way, and it works. What if?' "
Motta had seen only one or two pro games when he took the job.
At practice Motta assumes a number of peculiar stances, most of them lacking in structural integrity, none of them very attractive. For instance, he will stand at the end of the court, feet spread far apart, almost toppling forward. Or he will suddenly crouch, clutching his biceps with each opposite hand, as if he were cold. He is one of those rare little men who has no insecurities about scrunching himself up even smaller. But then, he is concentrating so hard that he obviously has no conception of how silly he might look in any posture. Sometimes he walks along, blowing air in and out in huge, affected gulps, or, for no better reason, baring his teeth like Bogart.
When Pat Williams took over as the Chicago general manager two years ago he called Motta once during a practice. Dr. Biel relayed the message that Williams was on the phone. Motta turned on Biel and snarled at his friend: "Listen, you tell him that there are only three times I will ever leave the practice floor: 1) if either of my parents die, 2) if my wife is sick, or 3) if my children are sick. Now you tell Williams that."
Although it seems out of place with the basic man, Motta will exhibit a sort of wild, dated melodrama at times around the court. Many people, including Pat Williams, admit that when they first saw Motta after a defeat they supposed that he was putting on. His eyes are glazed in these instances, his words bitten off (except where long strings of elementary profanity are indicated), and he appears frankly homicidal. In a way, Motta is a natural heir to Vince Lombardi, the extension, or modification, of that personality for the '70s. Motta, for instance, is a brutal taskmaster in the Lombardi tradition, but he also has a deft public-relations touch, loves crowds and understands sport as a business. He has a dry sense of humor and makes accommodations for the modern athlete. There are no training rules on the Chicago Bulls.
Motta utterly demands that his players reserve two hours of every day for the team. He conducts these sessions like a tyrant. His presence is sufficient for order; he needs no whistle for his giants any more than a chair or a whip. Dr. Biel refers to him as The Godfather on these occasions. Some of the players prefer (under their breaths) Tojo. "As much as anything," says Jerry Sloan, "his system works because we do what he tells us to do, and if we don't do what he tells us to do he raises hell."
Says Jimmy King, another guard: "Execution is the word. Maybe high schools are running the same plays, but nobody is executing them like the Chicago Bulls. We run plays every practice. We run every play to the end of the play. We run out the skeleton drills. That is what he strives for. We have so much confidence in our offense that we don't even try to fast-break. We never get a cheap basket. We wait for the defense to catch up and then pound it out. We know we will score. We have that much confidence."
Requiring arduous, precise practice sessions of professional basketball players is nearly heretical, of course. As the common expression goes, many teams still "just shoot around awhile and then go in." For what it is worth, the Bulls' practices are most closely approximated by the champion Milwaukee Bucks, whose coach, Larry Costello, is the only other in the league besides Motta who coached in high school.
"They always ask me, was it tough coming in cold to coach the pros," Motta says. "Sure, I worried all summer about that first meeting. I was nervous as hell. But, look, when I faced my first seventh-grade class in Grace, Idaho I was nervous, too. I knew they were going to test me and they did. I replied with discipline. Yes, I probably hurt a kid's feelings once in a while, but I came through. And it was the same thing in high school and junior college. They're gonna test you. Hell, when I first went to Weber, I recruited Army and Navy veterans and old flunkouts, kids with a D average out of high school. When I was 29 I had kids playing for me almost as old as I was. I had to run a lot of them down the road, too, but in all my years in college and high school I only had one kid I didn't end up on good terms with.
"People still don't believe me when I say I coach these players. But you see, there's not that much difference between them and a junior high team. A bunch of 13-year-olds can get away from you as easily as a team of pros, and it works both ways. Many of the players in this league are grown-ups, rich men, but they're still spoiled, still 13 years old emotionally. They need guidance.
"So if I don't coach them, then what am I? And coaching is a fascinating thing. I couldn't do anything else. Oh, what it does to my emotions. And it's me; it's all me. I've never really watched anyone else coach. And unlike everybody I coach against, nobody ever coached me. Remember, I couldn't make the team. There are probably 5,000 high school coaches who know the Xs and Os better than me, the fundamentals, but I've never had a team that didn't put out, I've never had a team that didn't hustle. I don't know the reason for these things."
Motta left Utah State in 1954 to be a teacher. He took the best opportunity he could find, a junior high post in Grace. It is a farming community set in the middle of a valley somewhere near Pocatello. Motta was the seventh-grade homeroom teacher. He also taught all four boys' sports plus girls' basketball, and drove a school bus. He was paid $3,200 a year.
He lived in a boardinghouse, hung around the Spudnut Shop, and courted a high school senior named Janice Fraser, who was mostly impressed by the fact that he attended church regularly. He married Janice after school that summer of '54 and took her with him when he went into the Air Force. Since both of the Mottas are candid—in addition to being intensely devoted—it is reasonable to accept their assessments, made independently, that each married the other mostly because there was not a whole lot else to do around Grace. She had no idea what she was in for. 'Things are never quite good enough for Dick," Janice says. "They always must be better. There always must be something else. You know, I think trouble likes to follow him—the feisty little devil."
They came back to Grace in the fall of 1956, after he was released from the Air Force, because there was no place else. "I was moved up to the high school," Motta says, "and they gave me the choice—coach football or basketball. There was a brand-new gym there, so I said, 'O.K., I'll take the basketball.' There was no other reason than that for me getting into the game."
That New Year's Day young Coach Motta called practice for eight in the morning. As 1957 dawned on the world of basketball, Bill Russell had just returned from the '56 Olympics in Australia to join Cousy and Sharman and Heinsohn on the Boston Celtics. Red Holzman, coach of the St. Louis Hawks, was about to be fired. Frank McGuire's North Carolina team had just won the Dixie Classic. The high school team in Grace, Idaho came to practice with snow on the ground and Love Me Tender at the top of the charts. The new coach smelled liquor on the breath of one of his starters and called him over. "You're off the team," he said.
The kid said, "When do I get back?"
The coach said, "Well, the way I work it, you don't get back."
"O.K.," the kid said, "then what about..." and he named all the other starters who had also broken training. One of them was the son of a local Mormon leader.
"Then they're off the team, too," the coach said. He was left with one senior, one junior and the rest sophomores.
If this seems inconsequential one must remember that there are vast segments of America where high school basketball is no trifling matter but a passion that heats the homes until the snows are gone. Grace (pop. 760) was one such place, and the town united in the conclusion that the convictions of a rinky-dink rookie coach who had never been good enough to play high school ball himself were hardly sufficient to wipe out the athletic flower of its youth. Entreaties, roundabout and otherwise, were directed at Motta and, that failing, booze bottles and beer cans were dumped on his lawn and live squawking chickens were hung by their necks at his door. He was not permitted to set foot in the only barbershop in town. Most of the high school rooted against its own team for the balance of the season, even though Motta somewhat muzzled the fervor of this campaign by leading his little band of reserves to second place in the league.
"He got the loyalty he needed to live on from those kids," says Phil Johnson, who was in that class—and a bench warmer on the team. "There are two kinds of kids who play for him. Those who love him, who really love him, and those who respect—I mean, well, even fear—him. The Grace thing wasn't unique. When he got to Weber there was a faction there in Ogden that was always mad at him. I guess that's the way it will always be with men like Dick."
Motta stayed at Grace two more years. He went 24-2 the second season, and then, when Johnson and the other seventh-graders grew up, he won the state title. Grace wouldn't give him a $1,000 raise, however, and he was turned down for the other jobs he applied for, so he had no alternative but to go to graduate school at Colorado State for a year. The next year he won the post at Weber State—then a junior college—and took three league titles in eight seasons, pushing Weber to prominence in the Big Sky Conference when it became a four-year college.
Motta had a 156-43 record at Weber but he received almost no recognition outside the state and precious little within Utah, which prizes its three old-line basketball powers, Utah, Utah State and Brigham Young. It was only about the time that Weber was at last invited to play in the NCAA championship that a man named Dick Klein, the Chicago Bulls' general manager—and 21% owner—showed up at Weber and met Motta on a player scouting patrol.
It was always difficult to divine what Klein was up to. In this case, he was apparently stunned to stumble on this fascinating little man, but equally convinced that Motta was not so commanding that he couldn't control him if Motta would become the Bulls' coach. To win him over, Klein promised Motta complete control of personnel and a vice-presidency if he succeeded. Essentially, Motta believed Klein, and Klein believed Klein, a horrendous miscalculation on both their parts. "I had to be crazy to take that job," Motta says from hindsight, "but it was even more ridiculous of Klein to offer it to me. There was no way he could hire me and put me in charge of a $4 or $5 million organization. Not if you think about it."
While Motta was never Saturday's hero, he was a capable little athlete. "Look," he says, directly, "I can do things. Everything is natural to mc." At Utah State, Motta made his greatest mark in wrestling, after discovering the sport in a gym class; he became intramural champion, challenged the varsity man at his weight and beat him. At Grace, he introduced wrestling to the southern Idaho schools and it is now a recognized sport in the state. Motta seems more pleased with that accomplishment now than winning the state basketball title.
Motta's heritage from wrestling is a huge chest. He looks like he could probably lick the stuffing out of most of the men on his team a foot taller, although, as it is, he limits himself to whipping them in a beer chug-a-lug competition he promotes at the end of the preseason camp each fall.
Motta goes fishing back in Utah and Idaho in the off season, but even then basketball is the topic he prefers. "I don't read much or keep in touch," he says unabashedly. He cannot sleep, as a rule, for more than two or three hours at a stretch or, for that matter, two or three hours total for a whole night. As a consequence, wherever he is, Motta likes to have people around to talk to nights. "Almost every night on the road, I'm the one who is up with him till two in the morning," Dr. Biel says.
This devotion to profession does have something of a bizarre touch to it because of Pat Williams, who as general manager is just as hard-working and devoted as his coach. A teetotaling disciple of Bill Veeck, Williams is only 31, equal parts shrewdness and naiveté, and all telephone. He and Motta draw a certain elixir of strength from their daily phone conversations.
"I've never seen anybody with a roller-coaster personality like Motta," Williams says. "He's always telling me: 'I've got to be surrounded by level-headed people.' That was his trouble for a while; he didn't have anybody to buffer him from himself. Now we've got myself, and we've got Bob Biel and Jack Fleming [the Bulls' radio announcer] traveling with him, and Phil Johnson, too. This will make it easier for me, since they can talk him out of quitting. I have had to devote a lot of my time to that. He can't sleep—and you should hear him snore, too—so he starts thinking some more and pretty soon he decides to quit." Janice Motta says that the time her husband appeared most serious about quitting was the night after Chicago beat Milwaukee for the only time last season, a game in which Motta's center, Tom Boerwinkle, got 33 rebounds and outplayed Lew Alcindor all over the court. This would seem to be a cause for rejoicing, but the longer Motta stayed up thinking about it, the more he wondered why Boerwinkle should not get 33 rebounds every night. So, naturally, he decided to quit.
"It takes a special kind of win to make him happy," Williams says. "Sometimes I don't know what to do with him. The second game last season, we throw the ball all around and lose to Philadelphia. Well, sure enough, about an hour after the game the phone rings. Now I know it's Dick. You know, it's 11 or 12 o'clock, and I just don't want to talk to him. So I let it ring and go to sleep. An hour later, it's him again, but I still won't pick it up.
"Next morning I go to the office, he's the first call. He says, 'Hello, get me a guard. I got to have somebody to bring the ball upcourt.' I said I would try. So then he said, 'All right, listen. There's a guy who used to play for me at Weber who could get the ball upcourt.' I asked who that was and Dick said his name was Sivulich. I said, 'Well, where is Sivulich?' And Dick says the last he heard, Sivulich was working in Detroit. I said, 'By the way, how old is Sivulich?' Dick said he must be about 33 by now, but he could still get the ball upcourt. I said, 'O.K., if I can find this 33-year-old named Sivulich working somewhere in Detroit, and if he can get the ball upcourt, then what do you do with him—you know, on offense and defense?' He said: 'You let me worry about that.' He was dead serious.
"Then, just that day, right then, Matty Guokas became available at Philadelphia and Jimmy King at Cincinnati. We got them both, and Dick came to see me when he got back to Chicago, and he walked in and the first thing he said was: 'What am I going to do with all these guards?' "
While Motta and Williams share a gigantic respect and affection for each other, Klein and Motta were anathema almost from the first. As early as training camp Motta learned that he had no say in player transactions. Klein was perhaps even more shocked to find that the quiet little mountain yes-man he had discovered had the scratch and scramble of a city alley fighter. Motta carried his fight to the press, embarrassing Klein. Once after Klein sold one of his regulars, Motta threatened to throw a dollar bill on the floor and announce that the money would start at forward. Another time, he sent an ultimatum to Klein: trade Flynn Robinson by game time that night or get a new coach. Klein knew by then that Motta never fired anyone just for dramatic effect; within hours he had traded the uncooperative Robinson, the team's most popular player.
The internal feud with Klein never subsided. Finally the club's other owners forced Klein out of control the next summer, but much of Motta's energy in his first professional season had been wasted on the vendetta.
Considering the many facets of Motta, nothing is quite so novel about him as his candor. He has a habit of saying what he believes. "I operate on the theory that if you always tell the truth you don't have to remember anything," he says.
This sort of behavior has knocked everybody for a loop: the league seems to waver between amazement and outrage. The fans, on the other hand, are enthralled. Motta's off-season speaking schedule, with question-and-answer sessions that have been described as "awesome," has increased so that he has had to engage an agent. Reporters who encounter Motta for the first time often stare open-faced when he begins to spill out simple hard opinions as if he were giving the weather report. What do you think of Mendy Rudolph? "He's a dirty——and you can quote me." Suppose an underground paper that prints that sort of language picks up the quote? "Fine, all right. There's not a bad word in my vocabulary that I haven't learned in the NBA, from the referees and other officials." And he goes on: this player was bad, that one undependable, this one let up, that one plays such rotten defense that the Bulls run all their plays at him. It is all there; just take out the pencils and jot it down. Many cannot bring themselves to. "A lot of reporters have been conned so long," Motta says, "they don't know the truth anymore. If I came out and said I had a game plan and three or four secret plays every game, hey—they'd print that stuff."
What most astonishes the press and the fans—and what often irritates the Bulls—is Motta's frankness in openly criticizing his players. He figures pro athletes are well-paid public figures who should learn to live with passing criticism or acclaim. In fact, of course, many are narcissists who cannot. Anyway, Motta explains his attitude:
"Players are like my family. People don't understand that. At halftime of one game in the playoffs I came in and called them cowards. I called them chicken. I called them yellow. And you want to know something? I was wrong. I saw the movies afterwards, and I was wrong. But I've spanked my son very hard sometimes, too, and I guess sometimes I was wrong in doing that. And if I was wrong, like this time, I said so. The point is, I spank my son but I still love him. I spank my son, I swear at the players—same thing. That wipes the slate clean. I guess that may be my greatest ability. I won't carry a grudge."
Where Motta runs into his more substantial conflicts is in an extension of this philosophy. As he loves his son and his team he loves the sport and the league, and he is as wounded by the NBA's shortcomings as he is when the Bulls or Kip Motta let him down. "I'm not half as hard on the officials as I am on my players," he says, a rationale that simply does not cut any ice in the league office, especially when a report comes in that he has spit on a ball before tossing it back to an official, or loudly used profane language that got the same point across.
Still, there is a consistency to even his most gross eruptions. Simple incompetence on the part of an official only stirs rueful I-told-you-so head holdings from Motta. It is when he perceives injustice, prejudice, sloppiness or hypocrisy that he goes into his act. Obviously, much of this is self-serving (if he had a superstar, would he still bother to protest that they get special handling?), but his attitudes confound the NBA authorities.
Motta is convinced that the reason Mendy Rudolph is so often enraged at Motta is not that Motta calls him the most incredible names in the heat of an argument, but that Motta quietly calls out to Rudolph to hustle during the action. "I just tell him to do what he says officials are supposed to do in his book," Motta says. And why? It can only infuriate Rudolph. Similarly, what possessed Motta to declare a couple of years ago, "Fifth-place teams get fifth-rate officials"? That way he got both referees and the league on him. That was one of his first big fines, a $250 number.
In all the years that Red Auerbach was waving his prop cigar and accusing officials of blindness and one-sidedness, he never received fines approaching the $1,500 and $1,000 that Kennedy hit Motta with last season. Apparently, no matter what Auerbach said, Kennedy understood it was all a game, that old Red was just looking for a little edge so maybe next time the official's call would go his way. But what is Motta up to? "I'll put my life up against anybody," he says. "The way I live, the way I treat people. I don't think Walter can understand that. What does he want of me?" Perhaps Motta should only be flattered that the league has put a higher price on his honest rage than on the old-style histrionic storms.
There was a time last season, late at night, when he could not sleep and was wondering about such things as how to make basketball, or at least his team, perfect. "You know, what I'd really like to have is a talent," he mused. "What I'd like to be is someone like Glen Campbell. Or did you see Andy Williams at the game tonight? I thought about it. Wouldn't you like to be someone like him? You just stand up and sing, and do it so easily and naturally, just like we're sitting here talking. That would be some talent to have. And that's what I'd like to have, a talent."
In the case of Mr. Motta, that's being too modest.