The end of the most glorious era in the history of the Washington Bullets came quickly. Two years since they won pro basketball's championship, and one season after they followed up with the NBA's best record, their coach is looking for another job, their star player wants to be traded and their future is haunted by dire predictions of failure.
The happiness that permeated the dressing room that early June night in Seattle when the Bullets finally won the coveted league crown has degenerated into a deep split between Dick Motta and a majority of the players, questioning his coaching ability and claiming that he gave up on them last season, that he merely went through the motions on the sideline.
Was the Bullets' quick fall from the top caused mainly by injuries to Mitch Kupchak and Bob Dandridge this past season, as the club's front office believes? Or was the fall inevitable, as most players believe, because of Motta's approach to coaching and his lack of rapport with his athletes?
Motta says he worked as hard a he could coaching the team this season and that he is sorry if his players don't realize that.
"My basic philosophy has been that when it's a bad year, it's the responisbility of the coach," Motta said. "And I'm taking responsibility for what happened this season."
Extensive interviews with Bullet players and officials depict the four-year Motta era an an increasingly smoltering powder keg that was kept from exploding as long as the Bullets kept winning. But both the players and management could see the fall coming long before it took place.
During the 1979 Eastern Conference championship series against San Antonio, the Bullet front office and Motta already had decided to sign free agent Kevin Porter and not re-sign free agent Tom Henderson if the club was eliminated from the playoffs.
During the 1978 championship series in Seattle, the Bullets were trailing by 15 points in the third period of a game they eventually won when Motta hung his head on the bench and didn't speak during a timeout. "He just gave up," forward Greg Ballard said. "We pulled ourselves together and got back in the game on our own. Then he started coaching again. tIt was hard for me to believe in him as a coach or as a person from then on."
During the summer of 1979, after the Bullets had won the title, owner Abe Pollin said Motta would coach the team as long as he wanted. But he later offered Motta only a two-year contract extension although Motta wanted three years.
During the 1979-80 preseason, guard Charles Johnson, the most popular Bullet among his teammates, was given little exhibition-game playing time. 'He got the cold shoulder," said forward Elvin Hayes. "We all know he was cut before he came to camp. He meant more to us than they seemed to understand. When they treated him like that, it got everything off to a lousy start."
During the 1979 championship series against Seattle, when the Bullets still had a chance at winning another title, Motta gave a long interview with the Los Angeles Times that revealed for the first time his interest in the Lakers' coaching job. pollin later denied the Lakers permission to talk to Motta.
During the 1979-80 season, the Bullets seldom practiced and rarely worked on fundamentals. Motta, who had practiced the team extensively the previous three years, said he didn't hold workouts because of injuries. But many of the players said it was because Motta simply didn't want to be around them any more than necessary.
"These things have been there all the time," forward Dandridge said, "and management knew it. Whatever Dick's faults were, management knew them when they hired him. All these things were done prior to now, but we were winning then, so no one noticed.
The consensus around the National Basketball Association is that Motta did all he could with last season's Bullets. They were considered, as a group, one of the least intelligent teams in the league.
Dandridge was the only innovator on the team, the only one who could adjust to a defense on his own.
Because of the Bullets' assorted limitatons, coaching them this season probably would have been difficult for anyone.
"We were the worst shot-selection team and probably the worst passing team in the league," said the team captain, Wes Unseld, "and everyone knew we weren't one of the smartest teams around either."
Even when the team won the title two years ago, no one associated with the Bullets predicted that a dynasty had emerged. The advanced age of the club's stars, coupled with the equalization of talent throughout the league, made the fall from the top inevitable.
'But I don't think anyone thought it would happen like this," said Hayes, who wants to be traded to an NBA team in Texas. "It's like the rug got pulled out from under us and no one can explain why."
Dick Motta came to the Bullets in 1976 to rescue a franchise frustrated by playoff failures. Just two years before, the club had advanced to the championship round only to be embarrassed in four straight games by Golden State. A year later, the coach, K.C. Jones, was fired and Motta hired.
Pollin wanted a disciplinarian, a no-nonsense coach who would not let stars like Hayes dominate. Motta, in turn, wanted out of Chicago where he had built the Bulls into a winner out of limited talent by preaching hustle, tough defense and teamwork, and then had watched helplessly as his success story crumbled.
To Motta, basketball had become a business, It was no longer the same as when he was coaching in college, where he spent hours teaching fundamentals and counseling players on off-court problems. Instead, he expected his Bullets to act on a professional level and not look for coddling or overly sympathetic treatment from their coach.
"If I wanted to baby-sit," he said on occasion, "I would go back to freshman players in college. When these guys get this far, they should know how to play the game."
Motta was a fiery bantam rooster who usually had won his fights. He was a success at the junior-high level in Grace, Idaho. He used the same offense even in the pros and he never budged from the same tough-minded approach.
"I once tried to be the players' friend," he said, "but found out that didn't work. I don't care if they like me or not, as long as they play for me when basketball is in season."
By the time he reached Washington, he no longer was quite the referee baiter of his Chicago fame.But he was still highly emotional, riding a roller coaster of peaks and valleys during the season. In his lowest moments, hardly any player on the team received his complete admiration.
His style was suited well to a veteran club like the Bullets. The older players didn't need constant prodding, nor lengthy lectures. Motta furnished his highly successful offense, his limited rules, his deep knowledge of the game and his dominating, out going personality. And he gave his stars the leeway to shine.
After a year of observation in 1976-77, when the team compiled a 48-34 record and made the playoffs, Motta asserted a firmer hand in 1977-78. He was aided by the signing of free agent Dandridge, who turned out to be the missing piece from the long unsolved Bullet championship puzzle.
The Bullets finsihed a stumbling fourth in the Eastern Conference regular-season race. But once the playoffs began,the miracle began to jell. Atlanta fell, then San Antonio was upset and finally, hated an highly favored Philadelphia was knocked off.
That set up a championship-round showdown with another surprise, Seattle.
Despite the Sonics' home-court advantage, Washington forced a seventh games in Seattle. Behind the superb play of Dandridge and Unseld, the Bullets set off a wild celebration in the nation's capitol by stunning the Super-Sonics and ending Pollin's losg quest for the NBA crow.
The city welcomed home its heroes with a wild parade. Motta's playoff Motto, "The Opera Ain't Over 'Til the Fat Lady Sings," which he had borrowed from a San Antonio TV annnouncer, became the most popular slogan in this area.
But even in victory, things were not that calm within the organization. Dandridge wanted more money, Motta wasn't sure if he wanted to retain playmaker Henderson, and former star Phil Chenier, who had missed most of the year with a back injury, wasn't certain how he would fit in with the title club.
Dandridge wound up boycotting the '78-79 training camp. Henderson was kept only because Pollin didn't want to break up the roster and Chenier, returning after an operation, never found a role. But Washington still compiled the best record in the regular season and went into the playoffs favored to win another title.
The Bullets failed. Kupchak was hurt and the guards couldn't hold up against the talented backcourt of Seatle.
Washington walked a tightrope to the finals, almost blowing a series to Atlanta and rallying from a 3-1 deficit against San Antonio. Then the Bullets made one last bid against the Super-Sonics, taking the fourth game into overtime in the Seattle Coliseum. With "CJ" Johnson, the sentimental hero of the previous year's playoffs, having his best performance, they reached into their bag of magic tricks a final time but couldn't find the right trick. They lost and Seattle wrapped up the title three nights later.
That was the beginning of the end for Motta and the team. The No. 3. coach in NBA history, in games won, he had proven he could direct a successful team and make it better. But he was faced this past season with salvaging something from a losing situation. He came up short.
To the players, all those habits op his they once overlooked now became major issues.
There was a Motta way of doing things and every other way. Motta's way wasn't always right, but that was the way the Bullets always did it. Motta was not flexible and some players resented it.
"He told us once this year that the offense he wanted us to run was the same one he used in high school in Idaho. He said it worked then and it would work now," said Porter. "But it didn't."
"His overall personnel didn't fit into his game plan," said Dandridge, "and we didn't have enough top-notch players to adjust to it. We have freelance, running-type players, but he wouldn't change."
The biggest indictment the present Bullets have against Motta is that he lacked the motivation or ability to coach them. Some say he lost it, others say he never had it.
"Dick hasn't worked with me at all," said Ballard, perhaps the Bullets' brightest hope for the future.
"He hasn't helped me become a better player. Playing one on one or two on two after practice or on my own is how I improved. It wasn't because of good coaching."
"He just isn't a teaching coach," said Dandridge, "not in terms of teaching you fundamentals. He's concerned about teaching you his patterns and that's all. That's why he wants a veteran team because that means he doesn't have to teach."
Motta strongly disagrees.
"In my mind I worked as hard as I could and I do consider myself a teaching coach," he said. "To the depth of my heart I know (assistant coach) Bernie Bickerstaff and I spend more hours working on this team than ever before. If some players feel we came up short, I feel badly about that. eBut I've got more in my memory bank coming off this year than any since I've been a coach and it's going to make me a better individual.
"There were times this year when I was depressed, when I looked over and saw 36 points missing in Mitch and Bobby. They also represented our floor leadership and our hustle."
As the season progressed and it became evident the team was in trouble, instead of pulling together, the players drifted farther apart. The frustrations on the court started overflowing off it.
Against good teams, the Bullets looked disorganized and unprepared. That doubtless stemmed from their lack of practice and it bothered some players.
"I often wondered why we didn't practice very much, remarked Ballard. "I got a feeling that it was because he (Motta) just didn't want to be bothered with us. I wished it wasn't true but it became clearer and clearer that it was.
"We had a lot of things we could have worked on, like the press, going for the last shot, milking the clock, all kinds of stuff; but we just never worked on any of that."
Said Motta: "I don't think there is a coach in the world who can get an effective practice out of only nine players, and most of the time that's all we had. There were times when we just couldn't practice because of the injuries and I feared injury to some of the other players. We practiced whenever we could."
"Dick just approached everything as professionally as he could," said Kupchak. "He told his team something once or twice and then maybe he'd go over it once and he'd expect you to know it. But in basketball, the way to do things is by reaction and the only way to do that is through repetition. That only comes with practice.
"But we're all professionals and after a year here I realized that it isn't the coach's job to teach. His job is to mold the skills of the individuals into a team," Kupchak concluded.
"The sad thing is that we never tried anything new," added Ballard. "We just kept going like we were and things got worse. We just never tried anything to change it around."
Kupchak is one of the few players who would say he wanted Motta to stay. Most were noncommittal.
"I didn't understand Dick," Kupchak said, "and I wanted to. I think he was pretty good to me and I really liked him. Sometimes he really drove me crazy, but I always liked him."
It bothered many Bullets that Motta seldom praised them.
"He takes all of the credit himself," said Ballard. "He never gave a player a pat on the back or anything when it was due.He just never gave anyone any credit."
Now Motta's expected departure has left a sour taste with many of the Bullets.
"Everyone in the organization talks about family and you see who the first one to bail out is," Unseld said.
Perhaps a healthy Kupchak and a healthy Dandridge would have meant a more respectable 1979-80 record for the Bullets, who barely struggled into the playoffs for the 12th straight time.
But the club's fate this year probably was sealed much earlier, with the decision to sign Porter.
In Motta's opinion, Porter was the solution to the Bullets' major guard weakness. Although he wouldn't improve the club defensively, he would resurrect its fast break, which had all but disappeared near the end of the 1978-79 season and had never been a factor in the playoffs.
"I can't wait," Motta said, "to get a guard (Porter) who won't back the ball up the floor like Henderson. Look how many Unseld outlet passes we've wasted. We can't constantly set up game after game and expect to win. We need more easy baskets and Porter can give them to us."
While the Bullets were struggling against San Antonio in the playoffs, Pollin and General Manager Bob Ferry agreed to try to sign Porter, coming off a record-setting assist year with Detroit. Porter always had been a favorite of the Bullet owner, since starring on the 1974-75 team. And Ferry felt his role was to satisfy the wishes of his coach.
The most reluctant Bullet official was Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff, unconvinced Porter had matured enough since leaving the Bullets. But Bickerstaff finally came around and Porter, who wanted desperately to return here, was signed soon after Henderson hooked up with the Houston Rockets.
Motta also wanted to trade away guards Kevin Grevey and Larry Wright and rebuild the rest of the back line. But Grevey, a free agent at the time, finally re-signed with the team as insurance in case Chenier and inexperienced Roger Phegley couldn't handle the shooting guard spot. And the club discovered Wright had little market value.
If Porter panned out, Motta and Pollin were convinced the Bullets were capable of at least one more sensational season before age started to deteriorate their talents. Porter was to rekindle that wonderful spirit of 1974-75, when the Washington fast break was the talk of the NBA.
But the fast break never came. The Bullet management had misjudged the team.
In 1975, the Bullets had Mike Riordan speeding downcourt and a younger Hayes on the other wing, usually with Chenier as a trailer. That club had played together and the players had a feel for each other.
By 1979-80 the Bullets were at least a step slower while the oppostion was a step faster. Now was the cohesiveness of the fast break still there.
The Bullets were a physical, Motta-created pattern team trying to become a transition game tean and it didn't work.
Porter was used to taking the ball all the way under the basket on the break and passing it back out. The other Bullets were used to receiving a pass out near the free throw line and taking it the rest of the way themselves.
When no one adjusted and the break faltered, the Bullets had to depend on their old half-court game. Porter, who are serious limitations in a set offense, was made the scapegoat.
When Porter approached Motta and told him to let Wright play until he, Porter, had grasped the offense better, the coach interpreted it as Porter having lost his confidence and an irreparable rift between the two developed.
Porter said he needed guidance and coaching but, he said, Motta never gave it.
"Nothing was ever explained to me," Porter said. "He (Motta) never explained my role and I never had any idea what was going on.
"He just seemed to have a no-care attitude. There was no intensity in training camp and no teaching of fundamentals or what he wanted us to do defensively," Porter said.
"I know it would have helped me if he just would have sat down and told me what he wanted and helped me understand it."
When Porter failed to grasp the offense, Motta shrugged it off as simply lack of ability. And when he was convinced Porter couldn't perform adequately as a playmaker, he acquired Jim Cleamons.
But Motta also recognized that the season's expectations had changed drastically. When Kupchak never fully recovered from back surgery and when Dandridge, the club's key layer, was sidelined constantly with an assortment of injuries, Motta became depressed. He already was upset over not having an opportunity to talk with the Lakers the previous summer and now he was saddled with a no-win situation.
Pollin, however, made it clear that he wanted his team in the playoffs again, so Ferry traded a hope for the future -- Phegley -- for a notorious freelance shooter, John Williamson. Fringe players Lawrence Boston and Ron Behagen were added to the depleted roster and the Bullets put on a stretch drive and pulled out a playoff bid the last day of the season and meet Pollin's goal.
Philadelphia eliminated them in two games.
Motta, who had one year left on his contract, wanted an extension but only if the front office committed itself to a rebuilding program. When that commitment was not forthcoming, Motta was granted permission to find another NBA job, preferably in the West where he long had wanted to coach.
Despite the inadequacy of his players, Motta refused to criticize them when given the chance.
So now the Bullets lack a coach; although they have the 14th pick in this year's first round, the Bullets do not have a first-round selection in 1981 and the cohesion that once characterized the franchise.
Still, Motta leaves an impressive mark on the Bullets. They never won a world title before he came, and it appears it will be a long time after he leaves before they win another.
"I think Dick's reign in Washington was positive," Kupchak said. "The Bullets are a part of Washington now just like the Redskins and I think he had a lot to do with that."
Now the question is: how long will it take the Bullets to make the Fat Lady sing again?