During his first eight years as a pro basketball coach, Dick Notta had a fear of flying. But his phobia had nothing t do with airplanes and heights.
"I couldn't sleep," he said, "because I never knew what my players were going to do."
Motta reigned over what he calls a "human zoo" while coaching the Chicago Bulls. The players fought each other, they fought rivals and they fought him. In turn, he bellowed at referees, stormed at critics and acted, as Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry puts it: "Like the whole world was against him."
"We were the Monsters of the Midway," says Motta. "We were the league's blue-collar team. We drank hard, we partied hard and we played hard. We had to. We couldn't win on talent alone. Scrapping was our only alternative."
In the process, Motta gained a reputation more as a hothead who produced methodical, uninspiring winners than as a coach with a keen mind for the game's most intricate points.
So what if his teams registered at least 50 victories for four sesons despite lacking a dominating center? So what if he was chosen coach of the year once? When the Bulls lost time after time in the playoffs, his doubters rejoiced. It was, they said, a proper reward for his behavior.
Dick Motta sleeps on airplanes now, win or lose. His run-ins with officials are less frequnet, his temper tantrums rare, his jousting with NBA windmills practically a thing of the past. And Sunday he coaches the East All-Stars against the West in the NBA's midseason classic.
He is a rarity among his profession, a coach who has etched a second life within his trade. Finally, his skills as a technician, not his technical fouls, are the most impressive aspects of his style.
"Within his peer group, within the league, I think people have always felt he was a good coach," said Phil Johnson, who has played for and coached under and against Motta. "Probably a lot of fans felt differently. This is a league of rumors. Once you get labeled, right or wrong, you can't overcome it.
"But Dick is trying. He's mellowed and it shows. After what he has done at Washington, he should be recognized for what he is: one of the best coaches this game has had. Ever. Just look at the record."
Motta's recored includes more than 480 victories (third highest in NBA history), one league championship, one All-Star coaching selection and eight seasons in the playoffs. He has won with talented teams and with scrappy teams and he has won with running teams and walking teams. He has never had the luxury of a 6-foot-11 behemoth in the pivot, yet no current club with a giant center has captured more titles.
He is riding a wave of success at Washington that is unprecedented in his career. After coaching the underdog Bullets to the crown in June, he has guided them to the best record in the league midway through this season and, here on Sunday, he will direct the East team in his initial All-Star Game. He has a new two-year contract extension which will earn him $100,000 by the second season and he admits never feeling as confident and "at peace with myself as I do now."
Some things haven't changed. He still is a bantam rooster who will rage at what he considers injustices of his believes in repetition, concentration and exceution. He still is sure his approach to coaching and to dealings with those around him are correct.
But there is no sideshow with the Bullets to muddle the picture. His athletes aren't raucous, there is limited internal feuding and, while he is not someone they'd invite over for dinner every night, the players respect him.
Unlike at Chicago, where he eventually became involved in contract negotiations, he has stayed clear of that controversial area with Washington. In his new job, he strictly is a coach.
"I lost sight of that once," he said. "I thought you could keep what went on at the bargaining table separate from what went on during games. You can't. I shouldn't have done it. Then I got the rap for not being able to get along with my players. It hurt everyone."
Motta admits he is not out to win a popularity contest among the Bullets. Some of his younger players feel he doesn't explain his decisions thoroughly enough to them, but ex-forward Mike Riordan says in time "they will understand him. This is a business relationship and he doesn't think he has to coddle them."
Says Motta: "There is no way the ninth, 10th or 11th guy can like me. I'm messing with their profession. I determine their minutes and if they have any pride, they think they should play more.
"But I've tried to understand them better. Bob (Ferry) has helped me there. He told me even eye contact with a reserve while they are sitting can be a boost. I used to almost avoid them, but I try to talk to them more.
"I'm sure there is a barrier because I still represent management. They fear me a little. But as long as they execute and play hard that is all that matters."
Three years ago, when Motta was hired by the Bullets, there were predictions that he would introduce "chaos and confusion" along with the dull Chicago style of play. Instead, the Bullets have had a minimum of controversy while producing more fast breaks than any Motta critic thought possible.
No one delights more in what Motta has done than Ferry, who admits other general managers "thought I was crazy to hire him. But he was the first guy in this league to set tempo with the 24-second clock. Teams still don't realize how much we control the pace, but we do.
"I also scouted him for years and I never could figure out that offense of his. I said to myself that if he could put that offense with the right players, no one could beat him. Here, he could coach and not worry about anything else."
Johnson says there is no mystery to Motta's success. "He wins," he explained, "because he is so thorough and sound. His practices are the key. That where the preparation takes place. He makes you practice and practice until you do things precisely correct. You become so well versed in it that once the game begins you execute.
"He's also able to adapt himself to any situation. He has a way of knowing the proper way of coaching under any circumstances. As the years have gone on, he has been willing to listen to suggestions from platers and others and make adjustments when necessary."
Bullet assistant Bernie Bickerstaff marvels at Motta's ability to "keep loose and not panic. He keeps things in prospective during games. Sure, he is intense, maybe more than the players.But there is a fire in him to win. But that mind is alert. Watch him in the final few minutes; that's the key."
Those last few minutes, when so many NBA games are decided, show Motta at his best. His years of experience -- "I've seen every situation and been involved in every possible play" -- merge to produce a nonstop flow of sharp, precise instructions. His tools are timeouts, instinct and a detailed knowledge of his players. With those weapons, he usually finds positive results.
"I really come alive during that time," he said. "My blood just boils, even now when I don't think the fire inside me burns quite as hard as before. Coaching doesn't win games at the end, players and execution do. But yes, I love the competition, the challenge. Hey, it's fun."
There is never a hesitation about how to proceed. Motta is not afraid to make decisions and then live with the results. Long ago, he realized that losing one regular season game is not a reason to brood, but to learn.
"I believe in what I teach and hoe I teach it," he said. "i am a better coach than any of my players and a better teacher.
"I know the things I teach will work if they are executed properly. They are time tested, solid, fundamental. My offense has won at every level. It gets the ball inside first, and what is more basic than that? The key is to get the players to believe in what you want. Once that happens, things mesh."
Motta, the former school teacher, now uses a gym as his classroom. His practices are short, well-organized and purposeful. No whistles are used. His players learn to respond to his voice, just as they must during games.
Once, Motta held longer workouts and non-stop meetings. Once, he would punish players for mistakes -- memtal and physical -- by making them run laps. But in his mellowing process, his approach to practice has changed.
"There are two aspects to coaching," he said. "One is technical, the other deals with players. The technical aspect in the NBA isn't that hard, because of the 24-second clock and man-to-man defense. I haven't changed at all there. But I have in my approach with players.
"I've learned how to pace a season and not wear them down. I've learned not to watch over them like a mother hen. I've learned to respect their marvelous skills and realize that each player is different. If they say they are hurt, I believe them. If they say they are tired, I believe them.
"I'm lazy. Why should I get involved in areas I don't need to. I've got the perfect job. who wouldn't be happy when their hobby is their job?"
But beneath Motta's casual approach is an active mind which has spent 24 years analyzing the game of basketball and its nuances. He absorbs knowledge and memorizes events; he can recite play-by-play of games in his first year at Weber State as if the contest were played yesterday.
He used his brain to search for an edge in those final two minutes. The result is a number of pettheories:
"At the end of games, It's sometimes better to play veterans over rookies because refs have an easier time calling a foul on a youngster. They might ignore something Wes Unseld does but call Mitch Kupchak for it immediately."
"There is no mystery why guys like Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Artis Gilmore haven't won more titles. Centers who look to score first and pass second aren't as valuable as centers who give the ball up. Bill Walton, who always thinks pass, proved that; so did Wes."
"One of the reasons some young players have a hard time adjusting to the pros is their frame of reference. Anytime something goes wrong, they run back to their college coach and he assures them they are being used incorrectly. Once they break that tie, they usually play better."
Motta brushes off any labels involving coaching genius. "This is a simple game," he said, "as long as you get the ball to the right people. I don't think the coach should deserve that much credit. It skyrocketed in Chicago. People praised me and what was I going to do, deny I could coach?"
Those Chicago days still linger brightly in Motta's mind. Despite their turmoil, he enjoyed every second. Each victory was a bit of heaven, each clash with a referee a challenge. And it was a time when he could direct his favorite player, Jerry Sloan, the type of hustling, scrambling player Motta wanted to be during his hardly sensational basketball career.
"The fact that Dick never was a basketball star, or even played in college, created some problems for him," said Johnson. "He thought people didn't think he could coach because he wasn't a good player and he took it as an affront. He's gotten over that now."
Motta once thought he had "burned too many bridges" to ever truly have an enduring career in the NBA. But he has learned to stop fighting the job "and looking around every corner" for hurdles. Suspicion has given way to enjoyment.
"Not many junior high school coaches have come this far," he said matter-of-factly. "But you know, I could walk away from all this today and coach a high school team and be happy.
"I never really unpacked my bags in Chicago. I have here with the Bullets. I'm content. And that's more important to me than anything else."