The night arrives, a number on a pocket calendar. FRIDAY, JAN.
24, 1997. DENVER NUGGETS AT LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS. 7:30 p.m. L.A.
MEMORIAL SPORTS ARENA. A quiet note for the far corner of the
sports page. No one else really notices, not with the Super Bowl
and other important business coming up on the weekend, but Bill
Fitch and Dick Motta look up and see each other yet again.
"Hey, how're you feeling?" the 65-year-old Motta asks Fitch just
before the start of the game. "You look good."
"I'm O.K.," the 62-year-old Fitch replies. "How about you? Is
this working out? Are you doing what you want to do?"
Here they are, the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon of pro
basketball, grumpy old veterans of the same wars. They have sat
in the same airports through too many delays on too many stormy
nights. They have stayed in the same hotel rooms, double-bolted
in for the night with their joy or their disappointment or their
loneliness. They have howled at the same full basketball moons.
Another night. Another meeting. How many games have these guys
seen? How many times have they sat in that special coach's seat,
their stomachs boiling and the veins standing out on their necks
as they watched tall young men do strange things with that
bouncing leather-covered ball? More times than anyone else in
the history of the NBA. Twenty-four years for Fitch, five teams,
1,925 regular-season games, 906 wins and 1,019 losses.
Twenty-five years for Motta, also five teams, 1,911
regular-season games, 926 wins and 985 losses. Including the
postseason, more than 4,000 games, 4,000 nights. They have
coached against each other 85 times, with Motta leading the
series 44-41. In one of those games, they were both ejected.
They wound up watching the game on television in Fitch's office.
"I was coaching the University of Minnesota the first time I saw
Dick Motta," Fitch says. "We came to Chicago Stadium to play in
a doubleheader. This sad little guy in a trench coat came up to
me. He looked like Columbo. He introduced himself and asked if
he could talk to one of my players. He was coaching the Bulls,
an expansion team, just awful, and I remember feeling sorry for
him. Two years later I was coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers,
another expansion team, worse, and I looked just as bad."
"Someone stole that trench coat," Motta remembers. "I've never
had one since."
Fitch is in his third year as coach of the struggling Clippers,
who were 16-24 at week's end. He had a heart attack on Aug. 7,
followed by a triple-bypass operation, but he was back on the
job six weeks later at training camp. What else was he going to
do? Retire? Quit? Be serious.
Motta was supposed to be cruising a little bit this season. He
had been bounced in a purge by a new owner of the Dallas
Mavericks and had taken a job as an assistant coach, first time
in his life, to Denver coach and president Bernie Bickerstaff.
Thirteen games into the season Bickerstaff had seen enough of
his struggling Nuggets (at week's end Denver was 13-30). He
asked Motta to move down a seat on the bench and become the head
man. What was Motta to do? Be serious.
So here they are, the old men of this tempestuous public sea.
They are still tied to that big fish, following it wherever it
goes. "Had one you'd like the other night," Fitch says. "Against
"I saw that," Motta says. "Double overtime."
"We were winning by two with 11 seconds left in overtime," Fitch
says. "We had the ball. You and me and three kids from the
concession stand could have won the game. All we had to do was
throw the ball inbounds and we win. And we didn't do it! We
threw the ball away and they hit a jump shot and we go into
double overtime. I tell you, this is why they don't let coaches
have guns. I was ready to shoot somebody."
Motta nods. "I know what you mean," he says. "There's been a few
players through the years--I'd be out deer hunting, and I'd say,
'What if so-and-so came over the ridge? What would I do?' I'd
have been tempted to squeeze one off. I'd bet I'd get away with
it. Maybe say that I thought I saw some antlers. How did I know?
Maybe get O.J.'s lawyers. They'd get me off, don't you think?
Justifiable homicide, at least."
Fitch versus Motta. The Clippers versus the Nuggets. Sentiment
grips the moment.
"I'd never seen an NBA game in person before I became an NBA
coach," Motta says. "I didn't know anything about it. The
24-second clock? Nothing. The only thing I knew was Wilt
Chamberlain against Bill Russell. They seemed to be on
television every week. Leaning on each other."
Most people don't seem to pick a lifetime occupation--they sort
of just end up in it. One day you're 23 years old, taking a job
with a plumber to make a few bucks before moving along to
something else. The next day, the four kids are grown, the
mortgage is paid off, and you're still rushing out to fix Mrs.
Muldowney's sink. Everything simply evolves. Life happens.
"I was at Weber State in Ogden, Utah," Motta says. "I loved it.
I wasn't thinking about the NBA at all. Dick Klein, the Bulls'
owner at the time, contacted me. He told me to come to Chicago
to talk. I'd never been to Chicago. I went there with my wife,
and we landed at O'Hare. In Utah, at the time, there weren't
more than a million people, and I knew half of them. There were
more people at O'Hare than in all of Utah. I had never seen an
interchange on the highway before. We came out of the airport
with all of those cloverleafs, and I remember thinking: You
could drive for 20 minutes and still not be very far from the
scene of the accident.
"I told Klein I wasn't interested, but I went back to Weber and
some things happened," Motta continues. "I missed out on this
seven-foot recruit, who went to Brigham Young. Then the athletic
director sent me a memo. He had never sent me a memo before. He
was my friend. He had the office next to mine. And he sent me a
memo. Something about some NCAA inquiry. I was mad. Why didn't
he just talk to me? I crumpled the memo into a ball. I had one
of those little backboards and hoops over my wastebasket, you
know? I said, 'The hell with it, if this goes in, I'm taking
that Chicago job.' The shot went off the blackboard, off a wall,
swish. Right into the basket."
Fitch didn't want the NBA either. He was doing fine at
Minnesota, had the best freshman team he had ever had. Nick
Mileti, then the owner of the Cavs, was insistent. Fitch
resisted and resisted, but when he arrived at a hotel in
Hutchinson, Kans., for the national junior college
championships, his message light was flashing. Phone Nick Mileti
immediately. Fitch called, and they talked for 31/2 hours until
Mileti finally convinced him. Fitch agreed to try the NBA, to
use it as a wedge toward a better college job in the future.
"I was feeling pretty good about myself, about my deal," Fitch
says. "Then I realized that I had called him. That 3 1/2-hour
phone call was on my bill."
One day leads into another, and someone's faucet is still
dripping. Or somebody else needs basketball help; someone
somewhere always does. Motta's Washington Bullets won a world
championship in 1978 and lost in the Finals in five games to the
Seattle SuperSonics in '79. Fitch's Boston Celtics won a world
championship in '81, and his Houston Rockets lost in six games
in the Finals to the Celtics in '86. The rest, for both men, has
been years of fixing and mending, building and rebuilding,
filling holes. Basketball at least 82 nights a year.
There have been good teams and bad teams and some just awful
teams. There always has been a lot to do.
"What people don't realize is how fragile everything is in this
league," Fitch says. "Everything has to work out just right. One
injury to one key guy--if Michael Jordan goes down, Phil
Jackson's right back here with us. It's that fragile."
"I came into the league and I think there were 14 teams, and I
said there were only five great centers and five great point
guards," Motta says. "Those are the important positions. There's
enough of everything else. Well, now there are 29 teams in the
league, and there still are only five great centers and five
great point guards. So how hard is it to win now?"
The game has changed, evolving into this little two-on-two dance
on one side of the floor while six other players often stand
idle. The players have changed, becoming younger and
inordinately richer. The challenge of building a team has become
harder and harder with free agency and the salary cap.
The old guys have adapted as well as they can. They tell the old
stories ("Guys can't believe it when I tell them that the
players had to wash their uniforms," Motta says. "A lot of them
would shower with the uniform on"), but they work inside the new
showtime structure, teaching fundamental skills, looking for the
smallest edges to deal with the present, hoping that one
big-time player will arrive to change their fortunes in a hurry.
This is their fun. Fun? This is their lives.
"I like what I do," says Fitch. "The losing can be tough--some
guy will say, 'Good morning,' and you'll want to slap him--but
my worst fear is getting up someday and hating my job. That has
"I heard people wonder why Bill would come back after a triple
bypass," says Motta. "Myself, I said, 'Why would he give this
"In my first year in Chicago, I was thrown out of a game," Motta
says. "I was in the locker room, and Pat Williams, the general
manager, came in with Bennie the Bull, the mascot. He suggested
I put on the Bennie the Bull suit and go back on the floor,
stand next to the bench and coach the rest of the game. I
thought about it, but I didn't do it. I wish to this day I had
gone back and coached the rest of that game in the suit."
This game is the expected quiet, bottom-of-the-standings affair.
Only 6,074 people appear at the aging Sports Arena. The
rock-and-roll music bounces off the walls during the timeouts.
Fitch works one end of the floor, by the Clippers' bench. Motta
works the other end. They both work as if the fate of the free
world is at stake.
The Nuggets, with 13 turnovers, fall behind 53-44 at the half.
They try to climb back, closing to within 105-103 with 2:51
left, but they are behind 114-108 with only 6.1 seconds
remaining. Motta is animated, talking to his team in the huddle.
The huddle breaks. Guard Mark Jackson hits a three-pointer to
make the score 114-111 with 2.3 seconds left. Timeout. Once more
the Clippers only have to throw the ball inbounds....
Los Angeles forward Rodney Rogers makes a bad pass. Denver's
LaPhonso Ellis intercepts, maybe 40 feet from the basket. He has
time for one hurried three-point attempt that goes up, up, off
the backboard and off the rim and falls to the floor. Clippers
"You get behind like we did at the half, and everything has to
be perfect for a team like ours to come back," Motta says,
staring at the stat sheet. "And it wasn't."
He obviously is bothered. Why all those turnovers? Why does the
team play so mechanically sometimes? Why? He lets the sheet fall
to the floor as if the information were something foul to the
"It's a nice win," Fitch says in the other locker room, "but let
me say this: We're going to be the first team in the history of
the NBA to use its first draft choice to get a guy who can throw
the ball inbounds. That's all we want. Someone who can throw the
He shakes his head in disgust. "If I had that gun...." he says.
"There'd be a couple of guys ducking right now. And they know
who they are."
Another night. Another meeting. Win number 907 for Walter
Matthau. Loss number 986 for Jack Lemmon. Still counting.