In the tumult at Capital Centre after underdog Washington had knocked Philadelphia out of the NBA playoffs, you could see a man letting himself go at mid-court, spinning around, beaming, thrusting his fists in the air, oblivious of the swarm of people around him. This dervish in mufti was Dick Motta, coach of the Bullets. His players had bolted for the serenity of the locker room, but not Motta. He was savoring the moment, celebrating it as enthusiastically as any Washington fan.
And why not? In 10 years Motta has won more games than any coach in NBA history except the renowned Reds, Auerbach and Holzman, but he had never made it to the playoff finals. Now, at age 46, he finally had a shot at coaching an NBA championship team. Surely, as he exulted at midcourt in Landover, Md., he was enjoying the greatest moment of his career.
But last week, before flying to Seattle where his Bullets would blow a big lead and lose the first game against the Sonics 106-102, Motta said that winning the NBA East would not go right to the top of memory lane. "My last year coaching at Grace Senior High in Grace, Idaho," he said, "we won the southern championship and had a week off before playing Potlatch for the state championship. That whole week was the greatest time of my life. Pep rallies every day, team lunches—it was great. Then we went up to Pocatello and won the thing."
Motta is an anomaly among coaches. He says he is not even sure that beating Seattle for the NBA championship would displace the Idaho memory. He means it. For all the blood he has spilled in the NBA, Motta is still a seventh-grade teacher and high school coach at heart.
May 28, 1978
When Chicago Bull General Manager Dick Klein plucked him off the campus of Weber State in 1968, Motta had experienced little of the world. He had grown up in Utah, the son of a poor immigrant Italian truck farmer and a Mormon mother, and had never attended a pro game. He hardly knew what to expect at his first Chicago press conference, least of all the line the questioning took:
"Where'd you coach before?"
"You a Mormon?"
"How many blacks you coached?"
It was the first time Motta had ever considered that there might be a conflict between the doctrine of his church and his chosen profession.
Motta quickly whipped the Bulls into one of the NBA's best teams, one known for its pugnacious defense and snail-like offense, and for that reason, how well he could relate to black players did not become a major issue at the time. Motta also made a name for himself as one of the league's most pyrotechnic referee baiters, a favorite target being the theatrical Mendy Rudolph. The Bulls won 50 or more games in each of four straight seasons, 1971-74, but never won their division, because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks were usually winning more than 60 games. Nor did the Bulls ever go far in the playoffs, because they always seemed to meet Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers in an early round.
In 1975 the Bulls did win their division and got to the Western Conference finals, where they lost to Golden State. But the very next season the Bulls came down around Motta even more quickly than he had built them up. In his capacity as Director of Player Personnel, Motta found himself in a money squeeze between his players and tightfisted owner Arthur Wirtz. As a result, suddenly Motta was bitterly denouncing players he had been close to. He called the Bulls "a circus of sickness," and, in 1976, after a dismal 24-58 season, he broke his contract, forfeiting a lucrative lifetime insurance policy.
At the same time, in Washington, K. C. Jones was taking the fall for the playoff failures of the Bullets, which, with Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Dave Bing and Phil Chenier, were one of the first All-Rich superstar teams. "What we needed was an iron hand," said Unseld last week. They got just that in Motta.
Hayes immediately said he would rather quit than play for Motta. On the first day of training camp before the '76-'77 season, Motta flung down the gauntlet. "Do it my way," he said, "or get out."
"Everyone was wondering if 'E' was going to move from that little 'x' he had painted on the floor—you know, left of the key, where he always stands and waits for the ball," says one Bullet. "E wanted to do it his way." The situation became something of an impasse, with Hayes rarely budging from his "x" and Motta alternately cajoling and threatening him.
On the floor that season, Motta was his stern self. Away from it he tried to cope with his insecurities. "I had stepped into their living room," he says. "All year I never knew if they were responding to me or not." The Bullets finished 48-34, but lost to Houston in the second round of the playoffs. Motta was booed. "I had replaced a black coach in a black town," he says. And he had made some unpopular moves, trading away Truck Robinson and Nick Weatherspoon and relegating Bing to the fourth guard spot. Bing shouted "racist" loud and clear.
That was last year. Somehow this season the Bullets sorted themselves out. Bing retired—at least long enough to get away from Washington. Motta and Hayes compromised enough so that the Big E played better than ever. The Bullets made the playoffs and eliminated first Atlanta and then favored San Antonio before they sent Motta into his dance by snuffing Philadelphia. Bob Dandridge came from the Bucks (as a free agent) to solve the Bullets' small-forward problem. Kevin Grevey was converted from a useless small forward into a first-rate big guard who is doing more for the team than the injured Chenier did, and in January free agent Charles Johnson joined the team to provide leadership and an occasional hot hand. Motta is calm, as referees have noted.
Motta knows that his critics will surely surface again, and that his livelihood depends as much on luck and the whims of a fickle owner as it does on ability. "I lost 27% of my peers this season," he says, meaning the six NBA coaches that were fired. And six of the last 10 Coaches of the Year—he was accorded the honor in 1971—have either been kicked upstairs or out the door.
Dick Motta is an intensely proud little man, and will remain so, no matter what the outcome against Seattle. He likes to tell of his first year of coaching at Grace Senior High, when he cut five players for drinking. The act infuriated the townspeople. The only barbershop discouraged his continued custom and he had to drive 10 miles to Soda Springs for his haircuts. "Two years later we win the state," he says, "and the first guy in the locker room is that barber, offering me his hand."
Did Motta accept it?
"I told him to get the hell out," says Motta.