When Dick Motta left a secure job as basketball coach at Weber State 11 years ago to take charge of the Chicago Bulls, he had never seen an NBA game, nor had he learned enough about the pros to be confident his style would be successful.
"I just knew one thing," he said. "I wasn't scared. I had a philosophy and I decided to stick to it. 'I am myself. I'll be that way tomorrow and the next day.' I just wanted to survive, even though they told me college coaches couldn't make it in the pros."
That philosophy has served him better than even he propably could have expected. If his current team, the Washington Bullets, can beat Portland tonight in an 8:05 meeting at Capital Centre, he will become only the third coach in NBA history to win at least 500 games.
To make that prize even sweeter, no other coach has gained it as fast. It took Red Auerbach, whose 938 triumphs make him the lopsided leader, almost 12 years to reach the 500 milestone. Red Holzman, in the No. 2 spot with 575 victories, coached during parts of 13 seasons before hitting that figure.
Earlier this season, Motta, who has had five seasons of at least 50 victories, moved ahead of Alex Hannum into the third position on the all-time coaching list, but he said the 500th victory is more important.
"That is the one I'd like," he said. "That would be cause for a celebration. It's a nice achievement because so few others have reached it."
Unlike Holzman, who loves to slow it down, and Auerbach, who loved to run, Motta has accumulated his victories employing varying styles. In Chicago, he utilized a deliberate pace, while in Washington his teams fast break more although they have retained many of the physical traits that characterized his rough-and-tumble Bulls.
"Dick may be the best coach ever at handling tempo," claimed Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry. "He's shown he can win by running or slowing it down, but either way, the clock is always helping him. What's more, his opponents really don't know what he is doing with them."
Motta's 500th win could come against the man many consider the league's premier coach, Jack Ramsay, who has taken a injury-plagued Portland club this season and somehow coaxed it into playoff contention. Either he or San Diego's Gene Shue should be the next one to cross the 500 threshold.
Motta enjoys matching wits with Ramsay. They have similar keen minds and excel at game coaching, perhaps the most difficult aspect of their trade. And both have learned the last two seasons not to use the ailments of their players as excuses for losing.
Since moving rookie Mychal Thompson into a starting-forward spot opposite Maurice Lucas, the Trail Blazers suddenly have taken on many of the physical characteristics of the Bullets. The consistant play of center Tom Owens makes this a tall and strong front line even withough Bill Walton.
Minus Walton, Portland was supposed to go nowhere this season. But the Trail Blazers have remained the league's most dangerous home team and have played just as well enough on the road to engage San Diego, Kansas City and Denver in a struggle for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
The Trial Blazers keep denying rumors of Walton's imminent return to the roster after a year's absence. Walton now wears three-piece suits and has trimmed his hair and beard but he has yet to declare himself out of the playoffs. His presence, even on a limited out-of-shape basis, could make the team a factor in postseason play.
Like the Bullets, Portland is not healthy. Starting guard Lional Hollins has a bad knee and is not expected to play tonight, leaving the guard spots to veteran Dave Twardzik and rookie Ron Brewer. They will be matched against Washington's tiny tot back court of Larry Wright and Charles Johnson.
With seven games remaining, the Bullets' magic number to wrap up the league's top record is five. They realize all they probably have to do to collect that honor - and another $50,000 - is to win their remaining four home games.
"We don't want that honor to escape us," said Motta, "but I am also concerned about wearing out everyone because of the injuries. We need to be gearing toward the playoffs while also protecting ourselves the last week of the season.
He had different concerns 11 years ago. He was so nervous before his first NBA game, against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, that he was