K. C. Jones was fired as the Washington Bullets' head coach last year because he didn't win a National Basketball Association championship. When the Chicago Bulls' feisty Dick Motta was hired as a replacement, it was assumed that the star-studded Bullets, hungry for the crown, would have their best season ever.
It hasn't turned out that way. The Bullets started the current season as though they had lead in their feet. Only recently, when they won eight of their las 10 games, have they been able to creep over the 500 mark (21-19).
Still, Washington's recent success has not softened Motta.
Last week, after the Bullets were beaten by Chicago at Capital Centre, Motta was still rattling the swords, telling sportswriters lineup changes and a trade were imminent.
The next night in Chicago, the Bullets turned the tables and beat the Bulls, 94-89.
Motta is from Midvale, Utah, but he faces life like a big-city Dead End Kid with his fists up. Being ticked off is his secret weapon; it is rocket fuel that propels him beyond certain limitations imposed on him by fate. You just try and stand in Motta's way, fella, and you're apt to get your nose busted for your trouble.
Nobody fools around with Dick Motta. Especially guys who have fortunes handed them on silver platters, with no-cut, guaranteed contracts.
People who didn't have to fight for every penny and every inch tick off Motta. Guys who are prima donnas. Guys who don't work, who aren't hungry.
Give Motta a player who cares and he will teach him how to play the game of basketball. Motta is a mass who fought all his life to control his destiny. He won, and he wants to teach others that obstacles can be overcome. You don't have to take what fate dictates, is what Motta believes. Not if you have a brain bigger than your brawn.
"The chemistry is not quite right," Motta said a couple of weeks back when he was still being polite about the Bullets.
"It's not a lack of attitude. It's chemistry and there's nothing you can do about it." he looked sly, because he was already plotting what to do about it.
What ticks off Motta? "You pay players so much money these days and you give them guaranteed, no-cut contracts. What it amounts to is paying them for provided performances.
They can sit down or fake injuries if they want to and they still draw their salaries."
What grabs Dick Motta is a player with a certain look on his face. Motta is searching for the bright, the quick, the eager hard-worker. A blase face ticks him off.
There's tiny Larry Wright, his face a freshly lit, Fourth-of July sparkler.
He's ready. And big Mitch Kupchak, smiling and friendly and frisky as a lumbering English sheepdog. Balding 33-year-old Bobby Weiss, begged out of retiring by Motta. "He's taught this team more in three weeks than I have taught them all season," Motta said.
Those are Motta men. People willing to put out.
It is not that Motta's offense is all that complicated. It is not that the Bullets can't learn it. It is just that Motta is getting ticked off by the struggle. And heads are rolling.
Unseld, the stoical center whom Motta calls "the Bullets' patriarch," says the team is faltering because of a "lack of belief - maybe in ourselves. We have to make the adjustment to his system. And it's a proven system, one works.
"But athletes are creatures of habit. It's the itty-bitty things that make a difference."
Weiss agrees with Unseld's "creatures of habit" theory. "Every time there's a tight spot or a crisis, we go back to what we're used to doing. Chicago (when Motta was coach) used to win games in the last two minutes, but the Bullets haven't been doing that because they get overanxious and want to do it themselves. They abandon the game plan.
"It's a new system. And first you work for the system until it becomes fluid and second nature; then the system works for you.
"We've passed the first crisis, which is learning the system," Weiss claimed. "Well, just barely. Learning Motta's offense - well, it's more structured and based on patterns and timing. But in Dick's offense you can analyze where the mismatches will occur.
"There are prima donnas on the team, but I wouldn't want to name one. It takes a lot of ego to be a proathlete. But one thing that is missing from this team is a Jerry Sloan or a Norm Van Lier with that fierce competitive edge that gets people up night after night."
That, of course, is the chemistry Motta was talking about.
"Basketball is more a sport of people compatibility," he said, proceeding to an example. "Chicago recently traded a guy no one liked and they went out and won nine out of next 11 games."
Weiss said the man in question was his former teammate, Bob Love, recently traded to the New York Nets. "He played great for Chicago for a couple of year," Weiss recalled. "Then he got to a point where he thought he should score all the time. And every year he though he should tear up his contract and renegotiate."
Not a Motta-type man. Obviously.
"It all comes down to passing, dribbling and shooting," said Motta, sounding like a roundball Vince Lombardi. "Sometimes it's just something little that's missing."
One thing Motta did with his life was make up for everything missing. He wanted to be a big, tall, strong athlete. He ended up being cut from the basketball team. Football was his big love in sports, but he was too small to be a star.
Failing because of fate left him irritated, raw, with life. "You can't make things out of what they aren't he said. "When I was a kid I tried to be 6-foot , 8-inches, but when I grew up I was 5-foot-10."
He became a teacher, not a player, of basketball.
"Nonplaying persons are more aware of the technical movements in a sport," said Bob Ferry, who hired Motta. "They seem to study movements more. Sometimes the great players are not as aware of the tecnique it takes to do certain things because it came so naturally to them. The basic thing about Motta is that he is a teacher and he can motivate them. You have to sell them on what you're doing, that it's fundamentally right."
And if Motta fails to sell his system, he too will be gone. Motta knows that. "You can't stay in this business long without getting you tail burned. I liked my job. I've wanted my job since I was 13 years old. They said I wouldn't last in the NBA, but I've stayed eight years."