The final game of the NBA championship series would be starting in a few minutes and Dick Motta wanted to say something inspirational to his Bullets before they left the dressing room.
"They were so ready, so intense, that they didn't need a pep talk," he said yesterday during the flight on the team plane from Seattle to Washington. "All I told them is, 'Please don't make me take that walk after the game to their locker room."
That walk would have meant Seattle had won the NBA title. But after 10 years of congratulating other teams for winning playoffs, Motta was the one receiving the plaudits Wednesday night after the Bullets had fashioned a dramatic 105-99 triumph.
"I don't need a plane, I could fly home," he said. "This is the greatest feeling I've ever had in basketball. I'm numb. It hasn't sunk in.
"That dressing room beforehand, it was something. They've never been more ready for a game. You could feel it. I knew we had it, just as long as we could play our game."
The Bullets' march to the championship was especially pleasurable for veterans like Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, who had been seeking it for a decade. But probably no one enjoyed the roller-coaster journey more than Motta, the bantam-rooster battler who once thought he was destined not to win the NBA title.
"I could never get to the finals when I was with Chicago," he said. "One time, when we got knocked out in the seventh game of the semifinals by Golden State, I ran onto the floor and all I could think of was, 'There goes my 240Z (Datsun).'"
But when the final buzzer went off to end this playoff "a million things raced through my mind," he said yesterday. "I thought of what this meant to Wes and Elvin and to Abe Pollin. I thought of Jerry Sloan and Tom Boewinkle and how hard they had tried to win at Chicago.
"Hey, I thought of myself, too. I've been at this for 10 years. This was a great personal thing for me. When I left Chicago, I don't think me stock was that high. I remember the first game I coached with the Bullets at Capital Centre. They gave me a standing ovation. All boos."
Motta had replaced the popular K.C. Jones, fired after failing to win this same NBA title. Motta's clubs at Chicago had not been good and he came here with a reputation as a disciplinarian who probably wouldn't produce exciting teams.
But this year's Bullets, at least the club that survived the arduous two-month, 21-game road to the final, was exciting. They ran on offense and played tenacious defense and produced scintillating individual performances that overcame the talents of such favored opponents at San Antonio and Philadelphia.
Motta had predicted, before the season began, that Washington would contend for the NBA championship. And when injuries and a sluggish regular season finish dampened fan enthusiasm, he asked those fans "not to give up on us until this is all over."
Now he admits he was worried before the playoffs began, not because "we didn't have the talent, but because we needed the confidence in ourselves. We had it early in the year but it left with the injuries. But once we got by Atlanta in the playoffs, we knew we were a good team."
He stood by his seat on the plane, wearing a T-shirt enscribed with his now-famous slogan, "The Opera Isn't Over 'til the Fat Lady Sings." He said he had been expecting a two-month high but finally, "All the energy is gone. I don't even know what day it is.
"Everything went so well.once the playoffs began, the team came together, the offense came together, the practices went right, the players participated in team meetings. It was a great feeling.
"I said the best I ever felt was when I won a state high school championship. But this is better."
Motta's signature was etched on every Bullet victory in the playoff grind.
His offense made the best use of the 6-foot-7 Unseld, who finally has proved that, yes, someone other than a giant pivot man can win an NBA title. And all along, Motta preached that his inside attack would beat any perimeter-shooting opponent, something Seattle ultimately found out.
He also gave his players helpful psychological advice. It was Motta who advised Kevin Grevey and Hayes to talk about philadelphia's selfishness during that series. The two players followed his orders so well that the 76ers eventually seemed distracted by the verbal exchanges.
"They showed their youth, I thought," Motta said of the Super-Sonics. "Maybe the young kids didn't realize what his mean not really. You have to be around the league a while to realize it."
Yet for all of Motta's coaching skills, two things he wanted to do but never pulled off helped the Bullets triumph.
Midway through the second half, with Mitch Kupchak still in the throes of a shooting slump and playing badly. Motta sent Greg Ballard to the scorer's table to replace Kupchak.
But as Ballard sat and waited to get into the game, Kupchak grabbed an offensive rebound and put it in. Moments later, he did the same thing and Motta pulled Ballard back to the bench. Then, with 90 seconds left, and off yet another scramble for the ball, Kupchak produced a three-point play that ranked as perhaps the basket of the game.
The second stratagem that never the final seconds. Motta wanted the Bullets to call a timeout so he could remove Unseld, his worst freethrow shooter, from the contest before the Sonics could intentionally foul him. But none of his players heard him screaming from the sideline and Seattle did foul Unseld. And the veteran center made two free throws with 12 seconds remaining to wrap up the victory.
"It's funny how things work out," said Motta. "When I decided to leave Mitch in, I called Greg back as quietly as I could. It was great to see Mitch play well. He's been fighting it for so long.
"When Mitch made that three-point play, I thought it would take a miracle for Seattle to win it. But I couldn't breathe easy until Wes made the first foul shot. Then it was over."
Those weren't the only ironies associated with the victory. One of the standous players was Tom Henderson, whose defense and leadership had been maligned all season. It was Henderson who calmed the Bullets down the stretch and made some important basket at the end.
Unseld's winning the most valuable player award was another. It was his free throws and his rebounding that won the award usually voted to bigger scorers and more flamboyant players.
And finally there was the shooting of Charles Johnson, who had been shut out almost completely by Dennis Johnson during Seattle's upset victory in game four. C. J. got his revenge by putting in long-range, heartbreaking jumpers over D. J. in the final period at game seven.
The flight home was a four-hour victory celebration. A few players tried to sleep but most walked the aisles and never stopped smiling. Kupchak said everyone now realized what it would be like the rest of the summer.
"Everywhere we go, we can say, 'We are the world champions of professional basketball.' We are the 11 best players around. No one else can say that. That's what makes this all worthwhile."