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Forget the Fat Lady: for the Nba Champ Bullets, the Game Is Over When Coach Dick Motta Smiles

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The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings.

—Dick Motta, 1978

Out of context, the statement is ridiculous. In context, it’s not so eloquent either. But when Motta, coach of the National Basketball Association’s Washington Bullets, uttered that rallying cry (rough translation: “The game isn’t over until the final buzzer”) during last year’s playoffs, it caught the whimsy of the media. Thus, suddenly, after 18 seasons some overdue celebration came to one of basketball’s most competent coaches. (Ironically it was borrowed from another unsung hero, San Antonio newsman Dan Cook.) In any case, Motta’s Bullets won last year’s title and enter the 1979 playoffs this week with the league’s best record.

Motta, at 47, is the third most successful coach in NBA history (having just passed 500 wins, he stands behind Red Auerbach’s 938 and Red Holtzman’s 574). One reason for his low profile is that he stands 5’10” and was cut from his high school varsity basketball team. In fact, Motta had never even attended a pro game when he was hired from Utah’s Weber State College by the Chicago Bulls in 1968.

He did, however, begin amid controversy. At his first press conference, Dick was grilled about his Mormon faith and the church’s then ban on ordaining blacks. “It had never occurred to me that my religion would be an impediment to coaching,” he recalls. “To me ballplayers are ballplayers, black or white.” Yet throughout his tenure with the Chicago expansion team, there were rumors of clashes with black players Bob Love and Norm van Lier. Motta says the real problem was his additional title of general manager (“It’s difficult to coach someone you have been battling with over money”). Even the outspoken van Lier buys that. “Dick is one of the best people I’ve ever met,” he says. “He never gave you any bullshit, and he made the game fun.”

Motta bought out his Chicago contract in 1976, and the Bullets handed him (as coach only) a star-stacked roster that had come close to championships but never won. The team’s top scorer, Elvin Hayes, promptly said he’d rather quit than play for Motta, but was soon brought to heel. The others also came around. The worst anyone will say comes from guard Charles Johnson, who finds Motta “sometimes too candid. While you appreciate his honesty, he sometimes says things that hurt your feelings.” Motta’s explanation for his unusual candor with players and press: “I operate on the theory that if you always tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

What he never forgets is his modest past back in Union, Utah, where his Italian immigrant father owned a 15-acre truck farm. Young Dick went to Utah State in 1948 to study agriculture, made varsity as a 147-lb. wrestler and switched his major to phys ed as a sophomore. After graduation, a junior high teaching stint and the Air Force, he wound up at Grace (Idaho) High School. He married student Janice Fraser in 1954 and five years later coached the basketball team to the state championship, a feat he still finds as satisfying as the NBA title. He also taught biology and is a relative intellectual for a pro coach (though he prefers Western music to grand opera). Motta pioneered the use of films to analyze opponents in the NBA and, particularly in his early years, asserted himself as a ref baiter. “We are old antagonists,” admits Norm Drucker, supervisor of officials. “But I feel Dick has calmed down.” Wife Janice says: “I tell Dick that it’s just old age catching up to him.”

The Mottas now live with their three children in a five-bedroom Tudor house in Gambrils, Md. Four years ago Dick bought a 30-acre lakeside farm back in Fish Haven, Idaho and he retreats there off-season to fish and hunt. When he’ll head west this spring is, of course, in the lap of the Fat Lady.