Dick Motta will smile if you tell him he is cocky. He will laugh if you tell him he is a good coach. He will giggle if you tell him his Washington Bullets are a budding dynasty.
But tell him his beloved team is the NBA's best this season because they are also the most physical and be prepared for an outburst of that famed Motta temper that has terrorized NBA referees for 11 years.
"That's the biggest bunch of bull," he will answer. "Like that one newspaper in Indianapolis this year, saying we really are the Redskins, not the Bullets.
"We aren't gentle. But teams that can't handle us under the boards have to have some excuse. This is no sissyhs game. But we win because we have talent, not because we beat everyone up."
So what if the Bullet flaunt a front line that would do nicely in the middle of the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line? So what if center Wes Unseld feels deprived if he can't rock a few opponents' bodies every game with his massive screen? So what if some teams behave like 98-pound weaklings when confronted with all this muscle?
Like a protective father who is afraid that braces will mar his child's beauty. Motta wants nothing to distract from Washington's accomplishment the past two seasons.
To him, anyone who talks too much about the Bullets' physical strength is doing an injustice to the team's other talents.
Still, the Bullets have created their own identity. No other club in NBA history has climbed to the top-and stayed there-by relying so heavily on two parts muscle and one part finesse.
The champions of the past-the great Celtic squads, the Knicks of Willis Reed, the Lakers, even the Portland Trail Blazers-had their share of musclemen. But for every Jim Luscutoff or Tom Heinsohn or Wilt Chamberlain or Maurice Lucas on those teams, there were the Jerry Wests, Bob Cousys, Bill Russells and Walt Fraziers to outnumber them.
The bullets need their inside strength to win. Motta's offense is designed to work the ball down low for high-percentage shots and to pound away around the basket until opponents collapse under the pressure.
Washington hasn't completely broken with the past. Small forward Bob Dandridge serves as the link to former NBA champs; he is the finesse player whose brains and court skills serve to funnel the club's abundant strength in the proper direction.
At times, Dandridge seems out of place on the roster. His shoulders aren't broad enough.
Place his thin 205-pound frame next to those of Unseld (245 and counting), Elvin Hayes (235), Miltch Kupchak (230), Greg Ballard (220) and Dave Corzine (245) and it's a pencil surrounded by Magic Markers. Even the starting guards, Kevin Grevey and Tom Henderson, are sturdy people.
"It's like they cast each one of them out of a mold," says San Antonio Coach Doug Moe, who complains that his puny Spurs are mugged everytime they play Washington. "(General Manager) Bob Ferry must have a machine that stamps out big guys with anvils for arms and a chest the size of Unseld's."
Moe and others in the league imply, that the Bullets use their bulk in violation of the rules.These charges grate at Motta. "It's too easy for a lot of people to overlook our skills," said the Washington coach, "and credit our winning on pushing them around and on refs looking the other way. It's an unfair rap."
There is mo question that these Bullets do more than punish opponents with their strength. What Motta has done is take the physical attributes inherent within a squad containing such legitimate stars as Unseld, Hayes and Dandridge and blend them into a team concept that grows more polished every week. Emerging from his handiwork is the NBA's most flexible squad.
Want to run? Okay, the Bullets say, try and outrebound us and then see who has the better fast break. Want to slow down and score off set plays? Okay, see if you can solve an offense which even Motta admits takes at least three years for his players to grasp.
The Bullets have to be his adjustable and this concerned about tempo and depth-no team in the NBA has a better bench-because, for all their power, they are not overwhelming. That contradiction stems from the absence of a back-court superstar who can produce 20-point games with enough consistency to ease some pressure in the front court.
"We still can't go five for 23 from the backcourt and win," said Motta. We aren't that invincible. I don't really know how good we are. On the nights we play well, no one in the league can beat us. But we can't always overcome our letdowns."
Quick teams with top-notch guards who shoot well are a thorn in the Bullets' side. If you take good shots against the Bullets, keep your poise, and don't give them a chance to dominate the boards and play the clock, they can be beaten.
But beating Washington isnht as easy as it was last season. This is a team maturing and improving as it copes with injuries, slumps, coaching mistakes, and the varying moods of the players. It is more pliable, its players willing to sacrifice if it helps to win a game.
Two examples illustrate this point. Prior to this season, who would have thought Hayes would even think about experimenting with no-look, over-the-head passes, much less try one? And who would have thought the Bullets could play with an injury-riddled squad since mid-January and hardly stumble in their pursuit of the league's best record?
Hayes, once considered the epitome of the selfish, why-pass player, isn't about to give up a turnaround jumper from his favorite spot to the left of the basket. Yet he has found how much easier his job has become with an occasional assist. The result-a basket by either him or a teammate-is the same but he expends less energy and keeps more people happy.
"I enjoy passing," he says. "Before, I felt I had to score for us to win. Now I don't. There are other people who can score, too, and if people insist on double and triple-teaming me, I'll pass off.
"The more we play with each other, the harder it is for anyone to defense us. Passing has done that for us. If everyone is involved in the offense, everyone is happy."
There weren't many smiling faces on the squad last year when a series of late injuries and a back-court slump threatened to keep Washington out of the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.
When a similar set of ailments popped up this January, to continue unabated for the rest of the season, the team was watched closely. Would there be a defeatist attitude, as there was last year?Or would the approach be more professional?
The answer is best given by Washington's 22-11 record since Grevey's pulled hamstring Jan. 17 triggered the rash of bumps and bruises. Even reduced to an eight-man roster that didn't include three of their top four scorers, the Bullets performed more effectively than at almost any time during the 1977-78 regular season.
"You have to look at the maturity," said Unseld. "Greg Ballard and Larry Wright and Mitch Kupchak have been around just that much longer and Charles Johnson knows our system better. We have a whole team of professionals who all think they should start and when they get a chance to play, they want to prove it."
Motta credits last June's championship for many of the wins these last two months. Confidence gained in that title, he says, "has helped to make up for some of our personnel losses.
"We carry ourselves differently out there. Until June, we didn't know how good we were. There were flashes last season but then the injuries messed it up.
"Now we are taking the best shots of every team every night out. They love to knock off the champs and, as a result, we have been more ready to play every night."
And when all else fails, he still has that remarkable, improving bench. Last year's youngsters are now tested veterans, straining constantly for more game minutes while all the time being told they could start for almost any other club in the league.
These kids - Kupchak, Ballard, Wright-and their unofficial leader, veteran Johnson, give Motta the flexibility to tamper with the game's tempo.
"You just feel like you have gotten their starters under control and he puts in those bench guys and there is no dropoff in talent," complained Phoenix guard Paul Westphal.
The Bullets can change from a methodical, muscular front line to a bunch of colts just by replacing Unseld with Kupchak. If Motta wants more speed, the back court of Wright and Johnson answers his wish. When everyone is healthy, foul problems usually are no headache because there is a competent replacement behind every regular.
This year's team has won despite Kupchak's prolonged absences.Last year, when supersub Kupchak missed a month with an injured thumb, the Bullets almost fell apart. He is no less important to them now, but Motta can better cushion his loss thanks to the development of Ballard.
Nor has Motta been content to leave his creation alone. He has linkered enough to solve a nagging problem: how to get Unseld more involved in the offense. For the first time in six years, the Rock of Gibraltar center is scoring in double figures while doing a job on any club utilizing the standard tactic of covering him with a forward.
Unseld's improved offense has turned the Bullets' front court into the most productive in basketball. No longer can opponents forget him and double-team Dandridge and Hayes. If they do, Unseld will answer with one of those 20-point games he has produced so frequently in recent weeks. And Motta is convinced his real worth won't be shown until the playoffs.
"Bill Fitch (Cleveland coach) told me that no one else in the league plays like we do." said Motta. "He said our game is together and we know where we are going and what we are trying to accomplish. We have been pretty consistent."
But don't mention domination or dynasty to the Bullets. Not unless you want to produce one of those long, penetrating glares from Unseld.
"We have to scratch out our wins too hard to believe we can overwhelm people." he said. "When we do the little things like pass the ball and help out on defense and set the right picks and run our plays correctly, we are tough to beat. But it's difficult for us to win at three-quarter speed. The old Celtics, for example, could get away with that."
Any illusions of grandeur the club held from their championship triump were wiped out in October during a disastrous four-game West Coast road trip. The result: four losses, including embarrassing blowouts at Golden State and Seattle.
"We tried to win just by showing up," said Motta, grimacing at the memory. "We thought we were pretty hot stuff. Instead, we were really bad.
"Looking back, maybe that did it. Maybe then we realized what being champions really meant."
Monday: The people in uniform.