Dick Motta wanted to say something nice about Charles Johnson.
"I love the guy," he said.
Well, that is nice. But the Bullets' coach wanted to be even nicer than that.
"If I had to pay his salary out of my pocket, I'd do it."
No greater love is there in the NBA.
"I might want to pay it in installment," Motta said. "But I'd do it."
And it would be worth it, for Johnson, the little guard nobody wanted not even the Bullets at first, may have saved Motta's job by making the Bullets a good basketball team.
In mid-January, the Bullets were in trouble. Phil Chenier had a bad back and wouldn't play again this season. Mitch Kupchak ripped a thumb and seemed lost for the season. Kevin Grevey had a hamstring hurting, and Tom Henderson had a bad ankle. On Jan. 22, only seven Bullets dressed for a game at Phoenix.
Desperate for warm bodies, Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry burned up the telephone wires. He was looking for a guard. he found Gilliam, an old hand. A rookie named Rich Rhodes turned up. He played in the American Basketball Alliance, a bush league, which folded in a midwinter. And Ferry heard that Golden State had cut Johnson.
"I was going to sign Rhodes and I told him to fly to Washington," Ferry said. That was at 6 o'clock on Jan. 23, the night before the Bullets would play at home against Detroit.
Driving home that night, Ferry changed his mind.
"I had a vision," he said. "Why pick up a rookie? I called Motta and told him we ought to reconsider."
So the Bullets asked Johnson to get from San Francisco to Washington in time for the Detroit game. A friend of Ferry's, John Driggs, picked up Johnson at Dulles Airport in a helicopter and delivered him to Capital Center 20 minutes before game time. He signed a 10-day contract in the training room, suited up and scored six points in 13 minutes of a loss.
"After three games, Charlie had contributed so much we signed him to a multiyear contract," Ferry said.
Such is the stuff of genius, for now the Bullets' second choice as a 10-day warm body has turned out to be the man they needed the most. A broad statement, to be sure, but never this season have the Bullets been more a true team, more briliant at both ends of the court, than in those games of late when Johnson is in the lineup, making things happen.
In Friday's rout of San Antonio, Johnson had 22 points. Sunday he had 17, six in the last six minutes when the Bullets rallied to win. After that one, a radio man interviewed Johnson and tried to provoke him into accepting hero's status.
"I consider it a good game for the Bullets, not for me," Johnson said. "I'm just a professional. A professional puts out when it matters. Being a professional means you're best at doing what you're doing when you have to do it."
The radio man didn't give up. "Charlie, Golden State dropped you and the Bullets picked you up," he said. "Do you feel that now you're proving the Warriors were wrong?"
Johnson smiled. "I don't have to prove myself to anyone but my mother," he said.
Johnson's five seasons with Golden State were eventful. Coming off the bench, he was a hero in the 1975 playoffs when the Warriors won the NBA championship. They beat CHicago, coached by Dick Motta, in the division finals, and then beat the Bullets four straight for the championship.
"He had a 20-point average against us," Motta said, the memory painful yet. "And he did the same thing to the Bullets that year." In 17 playoff games in 1975, Johnson averaged 12.5 points. His career scoring average is 7.9 points.
In the Bay Area this year, they said Johnson's shooting suddenly left him. For the season, he shot barely 40 percent. They also said he'd lost a step on defense. So coach Al Attles, in what he said was his hardest decision ever, released Johnson to make room for a younger player.
"I called Al about Charlie," Motta said. "I wanted to know why they cut him. He'd started in the championship season. Something must have been wrong. Personality? Drugs? Attitude? Al said no, he just had to pick up the other kid."
Whatever deficencies Johnson may have had in San Francisco, they are invisible at the moment. He seems the consummate team player, a streak shooter who knows when to quit, a smart defensive player who leads the Bullets in playoffs steals and a powerful influence for happiness in the locker room.
"Charlie Johnson is a special person," Ferry said. "He's a leader in his own way. He has more than fit in here, he has become a part of this family, intellectually and emotionally. He has a special goodness about him.
Oh, did the Bullets know that before they signed him"
"No," said Ferry, a man honest enough to admit genius is often the child of flat-out luck.
"His off-court stuff has been a big surprise," Motta said. "He's very serious about his basketball, our guys have learned a lot just watching him play and he has a great personality, a great laugh. He's happy to be here and he's selling it."
By the way, Motta doesn't miss much. His offer to pay Johnson's salary, while nice, was also done with the knowledge the Bullets are paying Johnson in pennies and nickels.
Because the Warriors released him after a certain date, they must pay Johnson the full value of his contract this season. The Bullets were able to sign him for the NBA's minimum salary of $30,000 - and they have to pay only a third of that because he joined the club so late.
Crazy would be the NBA coach who wouldn't dig deep for $10,000 to guarantee a spot in the conference championship playoffs - and with one more victory over San Antonio, Johnson and Motta and the Bullets will be there.