The coup d'etat was over. Quinn Buckner, who had been accused of
running a boot camp during his one-year stint as coach of the
Dallas Mavericks' peach-fuzzed team, was gone. So who would take
over? The candidates were considered. Given his firebrand
reputation, Dick Motta seemed like the last coach the Mavericks
would need--or want.
This is an article from the Oct. 23, 1995 issue
During his 41-year coaching career, Motta has always been fond
of jabbing a finger in someone's chest or gnawing on the earlobe
of some luckless referee or strafing one of his own players'
egos. Every NBA general manager who has worked with Motta tells
of the feeling of dread that would come when his phone rang late
at night and he knew, just knew, what to expect before
answering: Motta stuck in a hotel room after a loss and
threatening to quit, or Motta railing about a perceived
injustice, or Motta demanding the team swing a trade, lop some
deadweight off the roster, get him some help, maybe someone who
can bring the ball upcourt, for god's sake. Or I quit!
"I tend to get riled up sometimes," Motta says, shrugging. At
that, his daughter, Jodi, seated beside him in the living room
of his summer cabin in Idaho, starts laughing hysterically.
"I remember one time," says Orlando Magic general manager Pat
Williams, Motta's G.M. from 1969 to 1973 with the Chicago Bulls,
"he called me from his hotel, and he says, 'Get ... me ...
Sivulich!' I said, 'Dick. Who is Sivulich?' He says, 'He played
for me at Weber State. He's probably 33, 34 by now. But he can
bring the ball upcourt!' Well, it turns out the very next day
we're able to trade for Matty Guokas and another guard [Jimmy
King]--not bad, right? Dick gets back from the road trip, comes
to me, and he says, 'Now, what am I supposed to do with all
"But that's just Dick," Williams continues, laughing. "I call him
Billy Martin in a suit."
If the Mavs fired Buckner for being too tough, did they think
life would be easier under Motta? When the Sacramento Kings
hired him midway through the '88-89 season, Motta was the only
NBA coach in recent memory to hold two-a-days during the regular
season. When Mitch Richmond was traded to the Kings' gulag in
1991, Spud Webb greeted Richmond by saying, "Welcome to hell."
And had everyone in Dallas already forgotten Motta's first
sojourn as coach of the Mavs? Had they forgotten the way he
walked out on the club in 1987, all the stormy nights when the
skirmishing between Motta and star forward Mark Aguirre raged on
like some barroom brawl that rolled out of the swinging locker
room doors, spilled onto the court, then into the next day's
"Our first few years here, a lot of people bought tickets just
because they wanted to see Mark and Dick," Dallas owner Donald
Carter says with a laugh. "It was always, 'Is Dick going to kick
him out tonight? Is Dick going to clobber him? Is Mark going to
act like a child?'"
Still, by the 1986-87 season the Mavs were a 55-win team. They
had just won the Midwest Division title when Motta resigned
without explanation following a first-round playoff loss to
Seattle. To this day, Carter says, "I don't think I've ever
gotten over that."
Yet seven years later, when Buckner was fired in May '94, Carter
hired Motta anyway. Suddenly the youngest team in the league had
the oldest coach in the NBA. When Dallas chose point guard Jason
Kidd a month later in the 1994 college draft, Kidd admits, "I was
He had plenty of company. All the players had heard stories of
Motta's screaming, yelling, chair-kicking scenes. Yet when they
reported for the first minicamp, they found that Motta had set
up a pool table, a Ping-Pong table and a daily spread of food
for them. He said his main ambition was to make the game "fun"
again. (Really?) He told the young Mavs that if they would only
listen to him, he would teach them to play the game the way it's
supposed be played. And if they did that, Motta told them, they
November came, the regular season started--and lo and behold,
forward Jamal Mashburn scored 50 points during a win at Chicago,
and shooting guard Jim Jackson dropped in 50 to beat Denver. The
Mavs tore off to a 7-4 start--just six wins fewer than they had
the entire year before. Motta was voted NBA Coach of the Month.
"He's already the MVP of the league," Mashburn crowed. By then
the players were also jokingly calling Motta "Grandpa." Kidd,
perhaps the most precocious Maverick, says, "He's definitely a
character. He's seen it all. Tells us stories. Sometimes he
drops these one-liners on you and they're just so deep."
Dallas finished with a 36-46 record, a 5-2 mark in overtime and
a 17-24 road record--just one road win fewer than mighty Orlando.
This despite an ankle injury that kept star shooting guard Jim
Jackson out for 31 games.
And Motta did it all without raising his voice for months.
"But the first time it finally happened, oh, man, I can still
see it very clearly to this day," says Kidd. "Some guys were
bouncing balls and Coach was talking and, I mean, he just
screamed. Everyone froze. I was nervous, even a little scared. I
remember leaning over to Jimmy Jackson and whispering real
quietly, 'Is this the way he used to be?' I mean, we'd gotten so
used to him being so relaxed and so, you know ... mellow."
Dick Motta? Mellow?
Who would have predicted it? Who would have dared?
There was the time Motta accused Houston coach Bill Fitch of
tossing games to get a higher draft choice--and was fined; the
time he griped that the league assigned fifth-rate officials to
fifth-place games--and got fined; the night in Las Vegas when
Motta called a Mav timeout, the team huddled for instructions
and, says retired guard Brad Davis, "Everyone's going, 'Where's
Dick? Where's Dick?' And we look, and he's out on the floor with
the San Diego Chicken, kicking a dummy that's dressed like a
Motta had never even seen an NBA game before he was hired by the
Chicago Bulls at age 37. It took him all of 12 days to throw his
first tantrum. "Either Flynn Robinson goes or I go!" he shouted
at flabbergasted minority owner Dick Klein.
And now the reports out of Dallas say that Dick Motta is a
"Ironic, huh?" Motta says, laughing.
Friends who have known Motta, 64, for years swear his pugnacity
ebbs in direct relation to the amount of time he spends at his
off-season getaway in Idaho. There, at the lakefront cabin
where Motta and his wife, Janice, have summered for the last 30
years, he can fish, relax, pick up his mail at the general store
and putter down the road in the old pickup named Big Red.
But put him back in a sport coat, slap him down again on the
sidelines, and Motta has always transformed back into that
foot-stomping, win-stalking banshee. Until now, that has been
the pattern everywhere he has coached: his NBA stops with
Chicago, the Washington Bullets, the Mavericks and the
Sacramento Kings; his college career at Weber State in Ogden,
Utah; and his high school coaching days in Grace, Idaho (pop.
760), where he endured the town's wrath for suspending all five
starters for a drinking binge, went on to win the 1959 state
title anyway--then quit two weeks later, without a new job. He
still calls winning that title the greatest thrill of his career.
Depending upon how you treat him, Motta can be caustic or kind,
engaging or curt. He tosses out hard opinions and absorbs any
backlash without regret. His tenures have always been
antic-filled and, often, unintentionally funny. With the Mavs
last season, Motta had the rather quaint habit of giving his
young millionaires "homework assignments"--usually orders to
diagram plays they had learned that day in practice and to hand
in the papers the next morning. (It's a miracle there aren't
Cliffs Notes available on the subject by now; after all, Motta
has run the same low-post attack since the Eisenhower
Administration. "Why should I change?" he says. "It works.")
And he wins. Except for the talented Bullet team that he
whip-cracked and cajoled to the 1978 NBA title and a runner-up
finish in 1979, Motta has always preferred rebuilding projects
to taking over established teams.
Except for his 48-113 nightmare in Sacramento, he has won
everywhere he has been. Then, everywhere, sooner or later, he
says he's bored or mad and makes another of his scorched-earth
departures. And the folks left behind find themselves echoing
Williams's refrain, "That's just Dick."
Had Motta not been out of the NBA for a total of four seasons in
the late 1980s and early '90s, he would have been a cinch to
surpass Red Auerbach's record of 936 career wins before
Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens did it last season. As it is, Motta's
892 wins rank third on the alltime list. His 909 losses are also
close to a record.
"When the history of the NBA is written, Dick will be remembered
as one of the best coaches of all time," says Orlando's Williams.
Of course, Williams can't resist adding, "Dick is also one of
the most complex, contradictory, outlandish personalities I've
ever seen." Jerry Reynolds, Motta's former boss in Sacramento,
says, "I really respect Dick. He just tends to be a little
cynical, a little paranoid, a little exaggerated."
When the fledgling Dallas franchise hired Motta away from
Washington in '80, Bullet G.M. Bob Ferry told a Maverick
official, "Dick always has to be fighting something. But don't
take it personally." Because? "That's just Dick."
Ineptitude drives him crazy. Ingrates make him wild. While at
Weber State, he got wind that two of his players were unhappy;
so he promptly loaded them into his car, drove them to the Salt
Lake City airport and pointed them to the right plane home.
With those who stayed at Weber, Motta built the junior college
program into a Division I power that advanced to the NCAA
tournament's Sweet 16 the season after he left. When the Chicago
Bulls came calling with their job offer in '68, Phil Johnson,
now a Utah Jazz assistant, then Motta's righthand man at Weber
State, remembers begging Motta not to go--only to have Motta tell
him, "What if I go and I do everything exactly the same and it
works there? What if?"
Motta went. It worked. Long before his spats with Aguirre, he
was constantly telling Bull guard Jerry Sloan, "I'm going to
have to get rid of you," for fighting too much. One night in
1970, after Bull pivotman Tom Boerwinkle hung up 21 points
and 33 rebounds against the Bucks' Lew Alcindor, Motta told his
center, "Great game!" Then: "But why not every night, huh? What
am I going going to get from you tomorrow?"
Motta doesn't deny he's hard to please. "Even wins have to be
certain kinds of wins to really make me happy," he admits. One
of his chronic gripes has been that he has never had an elite
center as the hub of his offense.
But what about Wes Unseld, his Hall of Fame center with the
"Awwww," Motta says, "Wes didn't score."
Unseld, now a Bullet executive, laughs and shoots back. When
asked if he has any special memories of Washington's 1978 title
run with Motta, Unseld says, "I have one. After the last shot of
the last game, I grabbed the rebound and shoveled a pass to
Bobby Dandridge. As I saw him going downcourt to dunk, I
thought, Game over. Then I turned to look for Paul Silas to say
something--and instead I run smack into Dick. The game wasn't
even officially done, and he's already on the court. And he
says, 'Pick me up.' I said, 'Pick you up? Go away.'"
But if his Chicago tenure established Motta in the NBA and the
Washington years validated his coaching skills, it was Dallas's
swift rise from expansion team to contender that held the most
personal meaning. Fellow coaches describe Motta as one of the
best teachers and bench coaches they've ever seen. During the
Mavericks' early years, he was constantly scavenging for an
edge, often with comical results.
One night Motta ordered Mav center Wayne Cooper to goaltend an
opponent's free throw because Motta had a brainstorm that there
was nothing in the rule book forbidding it. When the refs
stopped play and essentially said he couldn't do that, Motta
shrieked, "Where does it say that? Show me, show me!" He was
shown; the basket counted.
Another night, during a road game against Golden State, Motta
was unhappy with Dallas's uninspired effort in the first half;
he persuaded that night's halftime act--a lion-and-tiger tamer--to
let him borrow the tiger just long enough to scare the apathy
out of his team. When Motta strode into the dressing room with
the big cat on a leash, some players were not amused. Guard Jim
Spanarkel nervously tried tiptoeing backward toward the shower
stalls, only to freeze when Motta commanded, "Don't! He'll just
corner you in there."
The antics, together with his courtside savvy, served Motta and
the Mavs well, taking them to the playoffs in their fourth
season. But then, just as lean years were giving way to the
gravy-train years, Motta quit.
Dallas still rolled to the Western Conference finals opposite
the Lakers the following season under new coach John MacLeod.
But both Davis and Aguirre say, "Once Dick left we were never
"Nothing against John MacLeod," says Carter. "McLeod is a very
nice guy. But we were down 10 to the Lakers going into the
fourth period in Game 7, and Aguirre jammed a finger on his
[nonshooting] hand, and John accepted it when Mark said he
couldn't go right back in.
"Now, I guarantee you, if we still had Dick Motta in that huddle
that day, Dick Motta would've pulled a penknife out of his
pocket, opened it up and scratched a line right there on the
Lakers' wood floor. And then he'd have said, 'Give me that hand,
Mark. Lay that finger down right here. We're gonna cut that
dad-gum finger right off.'
"With Dick Motta around, believe me ... we would've beaten the
Lakers. And then we would've beaten Detroit, too [in the 1988
Dallas hasn't come close to a title run since.
Says Carter again, "I've never gotten over it."
And to think Motta didn't really have to leave Dallas at all.
Motta insists he never took Carter's fond regard for granted.
But even as his last playoff series with Dallas was playing
itself out, Motta was privately expressing interest in vacant
coaching positions with the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers
and New York Knicks.
When the Mavs were eliminated by Seattle in April '87, Motta
flew to New York to interview. When a newspaperman there asked
him the obvious question--Why leave a potential contender like
the Mavericks now?--Motta replied that he didn't think his Dallas
club could ever win a championship.
The quote drifted back to Dallas, and all hell broke loose. Fans
considered Motta's remark nothing short of treasonous. The
talk-show hosts and newspaper columnists teed off on him. Carter
finally summoned Motta from his Idaho retreat and to his
business office, and urged him to publicly set everything
straight. Instead, after meeting with Carter, Motta walked
across the street to the Mavs' practice facility and announced
to reporters that he was retiring--immediately. "Friendship means
never having to say you're sorry," Motta said. Then he wheeled
and walked out of the gym without taking any questions.
And there were plenty to be answered. Was Motta irked by
Carter's public insistence that he apologize? Was he simply
discouraged about trying to unseat the Laker dynasty as long as
Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played there? Even today,
Motta says the same things he has always said: He had
"philosophical problems" with the club. Without being specific,
he says, "There were demons that I was fighting. But I'm not
Carter, a onetime hellion turned devout Christian, is only half-
joking when he says, "It's been a long time since I took a poke
at anybody, but I still think if I'd just knocked Dick
unconscious that day, stopped him somehow from going over to
that press conference, cooled him off for 72 hours or so, all of
it never would have happened."
As stung as Carter was by the defection, he and Motta were
talking again in a matter of months. They kept in touch and had
breakfast whenever they found themselves in the same town. Motta
had already been hired and fired by Sacramento by the time of
Dallas's 11-win '92-93 season and subsequent 2-39 start in '93-94.
Motta watched Dallas lose in Phoenix during Buckner's god-awful
tenure. The next day he called Carter's office and asked his
secretary, "How's the old man doing?" Told not so good, Motta
said, "Tell him to give me a call if he wants to hear a friendly
Carter called back. And called back again two days later. Then
called back the day after that and the day after that, finally
asking Motta to meet with him and Buckner in Washington, D.C.
Once they were there, the idea of bringing Motta aboard as a
consultant was hatched. When Carter left Motta and Buckner alone
to talk it over, Motta looked at Buckner and said, "I didn't
want Carter to hire you in the first place, you know. What the
hell are you doing, anyway?"
Motta took the consulting job, but he insists that the urge to
coach the team didn't overtake him until Buckner was fired. By
then he had observed the team for five months and had become
convinced that "these kids were serious about improving. They
wanted to work." The more he watched the young Mavs play, the
more the familiar "What ifs ..." started rolling through Motta's
mind--things like, what if he used Jackson and Mashburn the same
way he once used Rolando Blackman and Aguirre?
When Buckner was let go, Carter asked Motta to draw up a
shortlist of four candidates. When Motta told Carter he had put
himself at the top, Carter says he laughed out loud--until he
realized Motta was serious. When Carter ran the idea past his
son and wife, they laughed too--until Carter assured them he was
inclined to rehire the man.
At the press conference to announce his return, Motta spoke of
promising the Mavs' owner "no more quitting, no more
heartbreak." He said Carter deserved to have the same feeling
the world-champion Houston Rockets were enjoying. Then he said,
"How many times in your life do you get a second chance to do
something you should've done the first time around?"
But asked now if that comment was meant to imply he was sorry he
had ever left Dallas, Motta quickly says, "No. Uh-uh."
Before another question can come, he relents and says, "Look....
When I left that team in 1987, it was hard for me. I mean, that
was still my team--a 55-win team. I'd built it. From scratch.
And, I mean, I like Carter. I liked those kids I had--Derek
Harper and Blackman and Brad Davis and Sam Perkins and all the
rest of them. If I knew the depths it was going to go to, why,
I'd have probably never gone. And if--aw, hell ... what is
"I've just always liked to believe I lived in a perfect world.
And when it didn't seem like a perfect world anymore, I wasn't
satisfied. Every time I'd see another job open up, I'd look at
it and say, 'I wonder if ... I wonder how it would be to do
that?' I look at someone like Dean Smith and how he stayed in
one place all those years, and I think, We could've had a North
Carolina at Weber State. I really believe that. Sometimes I
envied that. But it just wasn't a part of me. If there's
something over the next hill, I feel I've got to see it."
So he did. But when he went off and got himself fired in
Sacramento, it underscored the fact that it wasn't just
curiosity or wanderlust that had always driven him off toward
the horizon. "In all those years around other coaches who got
fired, guys I really respected, like Jack Ramsay," says Motta,
"I could never ask the real question: How do these guys go home
after someone tells them they don't need them anymore? And does
that make you bitter--or stronger? Do you lose your confidence?
Does it bring shame on your family? Does it mean you're a bad
coach? My whole career, I basically always tried to stay one
step ahead of the posse. Or at least the imagined posse in my
If his Dallas resignation was a preemptive move--I'll quit before
they fire me--he doesn't say so directly. But it's clear that he
didn't have to quit, and that he may have missed out on a golden
opportunity with that Maverick team. At least one of his former
players thinks so.
Aguirre, now a staunch Motta fan, says, "Coach Motta always
reminded me of that guy that first had Mike Tyson--that Cus
D'Amato. He never talked about all the incredible things, all
that. He talked about doing the things that make the incredible
things. And that's how you tell a true purist--that's Coach
Motta. He's still always talking about that little Idaho team of
his that won the title and those college teams he had. And we
would've done what he built us to do in Dallas, too--we'd have
won a title too, if he'd stayed. There's no doubt in my mind."
Now that Motta's back in Dallas, the Mavericks are daring to talk
about the playoffs again. And there's no doubt the coach has
made a difference.
"He always jokes about the age difference: How can he be
coaching us? Will he have the patience, or will we drive him to
his grave?" Kidd says, laughing. "But I don't think Coach will
get too mad at us this year. Everyone's working extremely hard
and is anxious to get this season started. He has so much
wisdom, so much knowledge about the game, he can tell you what's
going to happen before it happens. We're still young, but I
think winning and losing are going to take care of themselves."
No matter what the Mavericks' record turns out to be this
season, Motta insists he will handle the team with the same calm
hand. He's not fighting demons anymore. He has been fired and
lived through it. He's back in the company of old friends, back
with the team he helped build. And when he looks over last
season, well, he says he just can't help harking back to that
team he had years ago in Grace. And he says, "I think last year
was one of the most fun years I've ever had. It's like I told
our kids in our goodbye talk at the end of last season: 'I got
to coach you one whole year now, and I wasn't a jerk. I wasn't a
They knew, they knew.
THE OLD PROS: ALLTIME LEADERS IN NBA GAMES COACHED
Cavs, Celtics, Rockets, Nets, Clippers
Bulls, Bullets, Mavs, Kings
1968-87, '89-91, '94-present
Sonics, Blazers, Cavs, Hawks
76ers, Braves, Blazers, Pacers
Bullets, 76ers, Clippers
Suns, Hawks, Braves, Kings, Spurs
Bucks, Warriors, Knicks
Capitols,** Blackhawks, Celtics
Suns, Mavs, Knicks
*Active in NBA
**Basketball Association of America (BAA)