Sometimes a man looks back at his career, as Dick Motta did today, considers the alternatives and realizes there were surprisingly few. Motta's mental jog began when Terry Van Vleet suddenly walked into his life again and reminded him how far he has come in basketball, that the significant distance is time rather than miles.
"He's a pharmacist now," the Bullet coach said, "on one of those package tours. He was on my first junior high team, played for me right on through high school. Now I'm leaving my room a few minutes ago and there he is coming down the hall to see me."
His roots are never far from Motta's thoughts; the reunion with Van Vleet got him to volunteering, proudly:
"I must be the only man who has coached in junior high school, high school, the Air Force, junior college, a three-year college, a four-year college and in the pros. And also girls. Back in high school, there was a day set aside each week for girls basketball."
Man and boy, Motta was cut from nearly every basketball team he tried to make, so how he became coach of the current NBA champions is even more of a wonderment. Something called "spud vacation" in Idaho is a major reason, although Motta's sporting entree was wrestling.
"I'd originally majored in agriculture in college (Utah State)," said Motta, who was reared on a truck farm. "But I'd got hooked on sports, basketball in particular, in the seventh grade, so my sophomore year, unknown to anyone back home, I switched my major to phys ed.
"I got cut from the basketball team every year they had open tryouts, but one of my P.E. instructors said I'd have a better chance at getting a coaching job if I'd won a letter.
"I'd taken 'methods of wrestling,' so I ended up winning the intramural championship. Back then, they had a challenge system with the varsity, where the students could try to outwrestle anyone on the team. So I got on the varsity, won two letters and had a chance to go to the nationals at 147 my senior year.
"That was my ambition at the time, to be a wrestling coach and trainer, or maybe a physical therapist. But four weeks at Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City one summer changed my mind. I couldn't take working with the deformed."
Assuming he would be drafted, Motta looked only toward Korea his senior year at Utah State, "when all of a sudden they canceled the war on me." With no job prospects, Motta volunteered to replace a friend, who was going on a Mormon mission, as coach at Grace (Ida.) Junior High.
That lasted a year. Then he enlisted in the Air Force. Motta recalls now, "If I hadn't had a taste of coaching, I'd probably be a lieutenant colonel somewhere, with thick glasses, looking at a radar screen. I was in photo-radar; it was very competitive, very satisfying."
In Grace again after the service, Motta had the choice of being varsity basketball or varsity football coach. He considered himself a better football coach, but took the basketball job, in part because the football coach had to line the field, and potatoes had priority much of the season.
During the harvest, high school students were given time off, spud vacation it was called, and Motta did not like that distraction. Also, he reasoned, "basketball was warm." Grace soon won the state championship but Motta decided a master's degree was the only way to get a better coaching job at the high school level.He enrolled at Colorado State.
Two years later, Weber State, then a junior college, hired Motta and both he and the school grew rapidly. Weber became a three-year school, then a four-year school. Motta managed to outhustle nearby Brigham Young, Utah and Utah State for players and outthink most coaches on the floor.
"I never had the sense to realize I didn't like recruiting," he said. "And of all the people in basketball, coaches are the most vulnerable. Where else besides sports could a man expect to have to tell his kid sometime that he's not working?
"We accept that, although when I first started in junior high I never figured I'd be in a position where I'd have to win games to keep my job. The pressure was with myself, my drive, my fire to succeed."
Motta succeeded so splendidly at Weber State that the Chicago Bulls came calling. Motta resisted their offers until two setbacks happened the same afternoon. He lost a gifted prospect to Brigham Young and the Weber athletic director told him, in a memo, he could no longer give his players free passes to the local movie theater.
"I threw that memo into the wastebasket," he said, "called the Bulls and said yes."
There would be almost equally large measures of elation and frustration with the Bulls, players exceeding their individual potential as a team. And one unimaginably bitter year, being fired and rebounding as Bullet coach.
And the NBA title last year.
Motta's present status earned a motivational lecture before a group of business executives the other day. And after his speech, he was asked to pass around his NBA championship ring.
"One of the men remarked how heavy it was," he said. "I told him it was a burden I didn't mind carrying."