War and sport offer packaged inspiration. Tug McGraw and the Mets gave us "You Gotta Believe"; the Minnesota-Vikings promised "40 for 60." The Phillies and Dave Cash said: "Yes, We Can." And we all know "Don't Shoot 'Til You See the Whites of Their Eyes" was first uttered by a basketball coach - to Freedy Brown.

Now comes another breakthrough. For the first time in the war of sport, a significant segment of fandom is being stirred by - Knute, you won't believe this - opera and a fat lady. Yes, the playoffs in each sport mark the beginning of the second season - and also the silly season.

A year ago, almost to the day, in fact, anyone beyond the boundaries of Portland, Ore., thought it odd that the natives could get so excited about something called "Rip City," a symptom of the disease called Blazermania.

Possibly, Bob Hope asked Mr. Carter the other night about the line Dick Motta borrowed from a man in San Antonio, who stole it from someone else, that has so much of Washington in a dither: "The opera ain't over 'till the fat lady sings."

"Of all the things I've said in my life, to be remembered for this," the Bullet coach was saying after practice. He was smiling, in part because of the irony involved and also because, well, there had been just a smidgeon of doubt that the latest Bullet opera would begin.

After all, the fat lady doesn't even hum 'till the Bullets win once.

Like most memorable lines, the one credited to Motta and badly botched on all those t-shirts now selling at Capital Center - was not an instant hit. A broadcaster in San Antonio had used it after game one of the Spur-Bullet playoff, to illustrate that even though the Spurs had won, the series hardly was over.

"An I said the same thing after we got up three games to one," Motta said. "And I gave the guy credit. Only nobody paid much attention. Then I said it again after we go up 3-1 again over Philly - and all of a sudden the thing catches on."


"Well, two women called to audition," Motta said.

It is highly irritating to cliche connoisseurs and Motta ranks among the best - that whoever designed those shirts should clean up the line change "ain't" to "isn't." Sports means not having to worry about grammar.

(Have you honestly ever heard an otherwise literate golfer say anything but "played good" after a positive round?)

Even opera lovers are not offended, although the money hustlers during that radiothon at WGMs Friday could have earned $25 instead of $10 had they been able to pinpoint the origin of the line.

"For $100 we'll really give it a try," one man said.

Although the Bullets have the unique gimmick this NBA championship series, the Sonics quite possibily have something even more useful than the home-court advantage.

Said Motta: "I read where Lenny Wilkens' wife said that it seemed like God was giving them a helping hand." He could not resist adding: "That and Marvin Webster."

Regardless of who controls Divine spirits, one certainty already has emerged; whichever coach, Motta or Wilkens, wins the championship will most deserving. Wilkens would have been a genius at Portland, instead of fired, had Bill Walton not suffered so many injuries so early in his pro career.

Motta is living out the fantasy of every young junior-high coach who dreams that hard work and several coordinated giants will carry him to a pro career - and possibly a championship.

Athletic life rarely follows Motta's path, from junior-high coach to high-school coach to college coach to NBA coach to, after 10 years, the NBA finals. He is a proud man and not afraid to tell the world about it.

"Ten years ago, I was the only college coach in the NBA," he said, "and I coached the Chicago Bulls like a college coach. We used screens utilized the weak side, disguised the offense.

"We were unique, and after they learned what we were doing after two years, winning was easy, it was easy. We were hitting layups and 10-foot jumpers and people were copying us, hiring assistants, going over films.

"Nobody had a projector before us. I remember after answering that I was from Utah, that I was a Mormon and could get along with blacks, everyone said: "Good luck, but you're never going to make it."

"I do know that if I'd gone to be a successful team and tried to coach I'd have been run out of town. But we (the Bulls) were bad. It was the same as Nubie (Brown) in Atlanta this year. He could get rid of the bad guys, get everyone else to listen.

The great lesson this year is that all the store-bought teams are home."

He forgot that Bobbt Dandridge did not drift in from Woolworth's. And that the total Bullet payroll might just be close to the Philadelphia 76ers'. And that if Walton were healthy now the Sonics probably would have bombed rather than boomed. And that the Bullets might be doomed rather than 1-1 after two games.

Is it also possible that an overstuffed soprano somewhere is thinking to herself before a difficult passage, "Got to take this one note at a time."