Whatever Dick Motta is telling the newspapers is not the same thing he is telling the Bullets. We carried the story the other day in which Motta said he would rather not coach the Bullets next year if he didn't get an extension of his contract that is to expire after next season. The Bullets, according to a man who should know, have heard no such bleatings from the coach.
What's going on here? Well, smoke signals are out of style. So Motta is using the newspapers to deliver a message to the wild West. The message is: Dick Motta wants out of Washington if any of you Westerners want him. At the same time, Motta is sending the Bullets a little memo: If I don't get an extension, I'll be an unhappy coach and you don't want that, do you?
With good reason, pro basketball coaches are notoriously insecure. George Gervin has said no thanks to a $9 million contract that would pay $120,000 a year for 40 years after he retires. George is worth that much money because he can put a little ball in a big hole. There never will be a coach with a lifetime contract; while a Gervin is unique, a Motta is one of 100 guys who can sit on a bench and say, "Er, pretty please, George, would you break a sweat tonight.?"
A coach is expendable at the owner's whim. Even in the Bullets' championship season of 1977-78, Motta saw every defeat, every controversy, every official's whistle as another step toward his firing. It was only a year ago, during the playoffs in fact, when Motta sent up the first in what has become a series of smoke signals.Over a smoldering pile of newsprint supplied by the Los Angeles Times, Motta waved his Bullet warmup jersey. He spelled out, for the Times reporter taking notes, this message: Tell the Lakers I'm a Westerner who would love to coach in L.A.
When that story appeared, Motta was questioned about it by The Washington Post. He denied all. He loved the Bullets. He loved the owner, Abe Pollin. As well he should, for Pollin had rewarded Motta for the good work of the championship season by extending his contract for two years. It remains fact, however, that Motta was making eyes at the Lakers even as the ink dried on his two-year extension.
The irony of Motta's discontent is obvious. Were a player trying to finagle his way out of an existing contract, the player would be pilloried daily by the team's management, the press and the fans. Bobby Dandridge knows that. But here we have the coach, who is part of management, running the same game.
It is no surprise. Motta admires Dandridge. He sees Dandridge as the ultimate professional. If there were times when Motta, the coach, grew weary of Dandridge, the reluctant player, Motta yet respected the way Dandridge acted on his convictions.
Bobby D. wouldn't play if his neck hurt a little and the game wasn't all that big. There would be bigger games another day and his neck wouldn't hurt then. In sweet victory, such behavior was forgiven; in lingering defeat such as this season's, Dandridge's constancy was seen as a crime.
Not by Motta, it wasn't. He would love to have 11 Boby Dandridges, 11 chilling mercenaries who knew what they wanted and were good enough to get it. So when the press and the fans subjected Dandridge to the ridicule a malingerer deserves, Motta, the mercenary/capitalist/coach, never said so much as a single word of condemnation.
They are two of a kind, Motta and Dandridge. as Dandridge first chose to complain about his contract in The Washington Post, this after only the first year of a three-year, $750,000 deal -- so has Motta turned to the newspaper to let his bosses know he would like a better deal.
It worked for Dandridge, who received bonuses, which allowed the owner, Pollin, to maintain his policy of never renegotiating contracts. Whether or not it works for Motta is another story.
The coach is very good at what he does. Only two other NBA coaches, Red Auerbach and Red Holzman, lasted long enough to win more games than Motta has in his dozen years. But Motta is still only a coach, a replaceable item, certainly not a unique $9 million item.
Here is a phone number: 625-4296.
If the Bullets dial that number, John Thompson will answer in his Georgetown University office.
As long as it takes to dial seven numbers is as long as the Bullets would be without a good basketball coach to replace an unhappy Motta.
Motta knows that. He is a realist. He knows the world is full of people who think they know how to coach a basketball team. Some of those people, alas, happen to own basketball teams. Motta knows he will be fired if he goes into the last year of his contract and has another bad year. The Bullets were under .500 this season and, while they made the playoffs a record 12th straight year, they failed to win a playoff game for the first time in 10 years.
It is understandable, then, that Mota would be using whatever muscle he has built up in his four seasons here. He has done a good job. He did as weel with this season's team as anyone could have. Injuries and trades that didn't work out hurt the Bullets more than a coach could help them.
And yet Pollin seems restless. Even as Motta sent up his smoke signals the other day, Pollin in the same story dropped a hint that Motta could be fired soon. "I'm not at liberty to discuss this (coaching) situation now," Pollin said. Only a month earlier the owner said he expected Motta to be his coach next season.
What Motta deserves is a real vote of confidence from his boss. He deserves an extension of his contract. By making Motta happy, Pollin would accomplish two things. First he would hire a proven winner. Second, he would demonstrate to his players that the coach is a strong and valuable man here to stay.
And if Motta is in fact strong, he will ship out the malcontents, including the overweight John Williamson and the sulking Kevin Porter. Then Motta will make the Bullets into a nice team again.
But what, you ask, of Motta's chatter that he wants to go west? That is only the rhetoric of a man planning ahead in a mercenary world. He has worked in Chicago and Washington for a dozen years now and will work here another dozen if Pollin wants him. You can, after all, wear cowboy boots east of the Mississippi.