From the first time he walked into the locker room before a game and saw one of his veteran stars reading a paperback book, Dick Motta knew he was in for a unique experience as coach of the Washington Bullets.
"I was nervous and uptight and nobody seemed bothered by what was going on at all," he said. "I said to myself, 'Chicago, it ain't.'"
Three years later, the quick-tempered Motta still hasn't grasped fully the personality of his defending NBA champions. Every time he thinks he has things worked out, the Bullets turn around and shock him with a new twist.
Their latest tendency has him as uptight as he has been since coming to Washington. The Bullets seem determined to do everything possible to blow what he constantly refers to as a "nice opportunity" not many players have: a chance to win two straight National Basketball Association titles.
They've squandered the home-court advantage in both of their playoff series this season and nothing-not their poor play or their Capital Centre defeats or their inability to develop a killer instinct-appears to regenerate any enthusiasm or determination.
"Maybe we just have convinced ourselves we play better when the odds are against us," said forward Bobby Dandridge, a twinkle in his eye. "Adversity is just part of our character."
But while the players calmly go about their business, Motta simmers. A highly competitive man by nature, he takes every loss as a personal insult. Were he a player, he would answer defeat with increased hustle, more intensity and, if the opportunity was proper, perhaps a swift chop to the ribs.
He cannot comprehend how his team could have a 3-3 record at home in the playoffs, yet be 2-1 on the road. And he cannot understand why no one on the squad isn't angry about what has happened so far in postseason play.
The matter finally came to a head Sunday afternoon when, after a third straight lackluster half against the San Antonio Spurs, Motta unleashed a locker room show of anger that one player said was "unequaled since he has been here."
He smashed a piece of chalk against the blackboard, he slammed his office door, he threw objects against the office wall and, once he calmed to a mere frenzy, he chastised his charges for their inept performance.
Whether his outburst had any effect on the players is debatable. The veterans say no. "Nothing new at the half," Dandridge said about Motta's show. But at least the club played better in the second half, running away from the Spurs to even the Eastern Conference champonship series at 1-1.
And Motta had worked off some of his tension.
"That's just the way Dick keeps his sanity after 11 years in the league," another NBA coach said yesterday. "It's got to be frustrating for him.All the club has to do is play to its capabilities and it can beat San Antonio, yet now they have themselves in a hole after two games.
"Its tough sitting on the bench, not being able to do anything about it when they stand around and don't play the way they should. That can happen with a veteran team; they sometimes outthink themselves.
"Tell you this, they are winners. I'd still like to be in his position the rest of this series. Guys like Hayes and Dandridge and Unseld are capable of beating San Antonio down there. And the Spurs know it, too."
Right from the start, these playoffs, have been different for everyone associated with the team. Unlike last year, when the Bullets were underdogs not expected to win anything, this time they have found themselves trying to cope with the pressures of a defending champion, when every breakdown is scrutinized and criticized.
Ironically, the players seem to be coping with their roller-coaster ways better than club officials, who are uptight even after victories.
When Motta was coach at Chicago, he was able to mold a team that reflected his personality. The Bulls played hard and clawed every night, just as the Atlanta Hawks did against the Bullets in the playoffs this season.
If he screamed at the Bulls during intermission, they responded. If he told them to dive after loose balls, they did. If he told them their careers depended on their hustle, they hustled more.
His Bullets, however, are dominated by a group of introspective veterans who believe emotions is for college athletes, who rely on their experience and, sometimes erroneously, their own judgment.
Most of his players for example, watched the telecast last week of San Antonio beating Philadelphia in a helter-skeleter, no-defense seventh game. It was difficult for them to believe that the Spurs would be hard to defeat, especially after what the Bullets had just been through against Atlanta.
So they came out flat against San Antonio in the series opener Friday night. Once they fell well behind in the second half, they played out the game with a lack of enthusiasm that had the home town fans booing.
"They should have been embarrassed," said Motta, who wasn't sure they were. "We know we can play so much better than we did."
Yet the Bullets played just as horribly in the first half Sunday. If they were shamed by the opening night loss, it didn't show. And that led to Motta's halftime tirade.
In the postgame press conference, he was as testy as a coach who had been blown out by 40 points, snapping at questions, giving curt replies and generally not enjoying the proceedings.
"He knew he was lucky to win the game," said one team source. "He could have been behind by 20 points in the first half if Wes hadn't played so well.
"Dick has been around long enough to know when a victory isn't as good as it seems. The Bullets have to play even better than they did in the second half to pull out the series. Remember, San Antonio already got its split up here; that's what they were after. So what if they lost Sunday? And yet they made us play as hard as we could to win."
Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach who has been trying to figure out the team for the last six years, is just as mystified by the inconsistencies.
"You tell me why they play like they do," said Bickerstaff, shaking his head. "I can't figure them out. Every time they have a chance to be on top of the world, they fall off. And then they scramble back on top the next week."
Motta has adapted gradually to this team. He accepts more readily its approach to games, relying on the history of his top players, who always seem to produce under pressure.
"But like one of them said last week," said Motta, "one of these days, we are going to push our luck too far. If we get an injury at the wrong time or someone comes out and plays a bad game, we may not have enough to recover." CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Larry Wright, leading cheers, may play Friday. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post