The Dallas Mavericks had been banging heads for almost two hours and they were tired as the second team came downcourt. Guard Joe Hassett tried to whip a pass inside to Darrell Allums. Starting center Tommy LaGarde went for the pass. Elbows flew. Both men felt pain. Fists came up. Teammates intervened and LaGarde and Allums were pulled apart.
There was an uneasy silence. Then, the coach walked onto the floor. His players dwarfed him physically, but clearly, he was in control.
"Next elbow I see will cost the guy $250," the coach said, his anger apparent. "I haven't seen an elbow yet during a game." Glaring at LaGarde, who had an ugly black eye: "We're the only ones going to the hospital for stitches, not the other guys. Then you come out here and throw elbows at each other.
"That's just great, just great. Now cut the garbage and run the plays. Run the damn plays."
The players had seen Dick Motta like this before. They know their coach is emotional and they know he seethes inside, wanting to win. "You have to like a guy who loves the game that much," said forward Jim Spanarkel. "He's worked us hard, but I think we're getting better because of it. He clearly likes what he's doing."
Norm Sonju clearly remembers the evening of May 14. He spent several hours talking to Dick Motta to find out if Motta was the man to coach the expansion Dallas Mavericks. When Sonju, the team's general manager, came out of that meeting, Dick Motta didn't have a job.
"Off that meeting I couldn't see myself offering Dick the job," Sonju said. "I just had the feeling that he was tired of coaching, that he wanted to get out of it for a while. Clearly, the knowledge of the game was all there. But I wasn't sure about the desire."
Dick Motta's desire was questioned last winter by the men he was coaching, the Washington Bullets. They said he gave up on them, stopped coaching. The accusations, Motta says, didn't hurt, "because I'm beyond the point where things like that hurt. But they disappointed me."
Motta's disapppointment with the entire Bullets organization had been building almost since that night in Seattle in June 1973 when the Fat Lady sang and the Bullets were world champions.
The euphoria wore off -- slowly.
There were good days during the 1978-79 season as the Bullets finished the regular season with the best record in the league and pulled off a miraculous finish to win the Eastern Conference title from the San Antonio Spurs. But this time the Seattle SuperSonics had the answers in the NBA finals and the Bullets were second best.
From that point on, Motta's days with the Bullets were numbered. The 1979-80 season started badly with injuries and holdouts rendering the team ineffective. Motta found himself growing impatient with his group of older players.
"I finally woke up one morning just before Christmas and said to myself, 'I've had it, I want out.' I wasn't happy with the way my life was going," said Motta, who brings his new team to Capital Centre to play the Bullets Thursday night.
"I didn't like the way I was becoming or the direction I was going in as a person. I needed a change. The thing had run its course."
That day, Motta went to see team owner Abe Pollin. He told him how he felt. "There was no screaming," he said. "No ranting or raving. I just told him that if they wanted me to fulfill the last year of my contract (the 1980-81 season) I would be glad to do it but really I wanted to get out as soon as I could.
"I said that I had felt for a while and knew for certain now that the team we had would have to be scrapped entirely, that we had to begin rebuilding from square one. But I knew they weren't willing to do that.
"My feeling was if I was going to have to start from the beginning, I would rather go somewhere else and do it my way rather than stay in Washington and do it their way. I felt I was in a dead-end situation. I wanted out."
Asked now if he feels vindicated in light of the dreadful Bullet performance so far this year, he said simply, "I really don't want to talk about it. I guess their record is about the same as ours, an expansion team." a
Motta did admit his return to Capital Centre this week will be emotional. "The first time I went back to Chicago, it was emotional for me. So I suspect this will be, too. I just don't want it to be ugly."
Motta says he has no hard feelings toward Pollin, General Manager Bob Ferry or the players. "If there is bitterness, it's theirs, not mine," he said.
Clearly, during the second half of the last season there was bitterness. The players said Motta gave up on them, stopped coaching them.
"I was disappointed when those things were said," Motta said. "We made the playoffs when we weren't supposed to. We lost 32 points to injuries (Bob Dandridge and Mitch Kupchak) replaced those points with Ron Behagen and Lawrence Boston and still made the playoffs. From Christmas on, that was all we were really hoping for."
From Christmas on, there were rumors that Motta wanted the Dallas job. Clearly, he was the early leader. But when Sonju heard the stories coming out of Washington, he grew wary. And, after his May meeting, Motta was out of the picture.
"His chances of getting the job are zero," Sonju said in June.
But the man Sonju wanted, Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton, didn't want the Mavericks. Larry Brown of UCLA also was interviewed but he had only been at the school one year and didn't want to skip out so quickly. Bob Weiss, Gene Shue's assistant in San Diego last year, a man who played for Motta in Chicago, was interviewed and appeared to have the job in early July.
Then Mavericks owner Donald J. Carter intervened.
Don Carter is Texas money. His Home Interiors furniture company made him a millionaire many times over. He has a big Texas accent and wears a 10 gallon hat almost everywhere he goes.
"I don't pretend to know a lot about basketball," he said, "but you don't need to be a basketball genius to figure out Motta's record. I told Norm I wanted to meet the man, but not here. I've always believed that you can't make a judgement on a man until you've gone through his back door and sat down with him at his kitchen table."
And so, Carter and Sonju boarded Carter's private plane and flew to Fish Haven, Ida., where Motta anually spends his summers. Motta greeted them in his pickup truck and the three men spent a couple of hours together.
"It was a different Dick Motta than the one I had talked to in May," Sonju said. "He didn't sound tired or bored. He sounded like a man who wanted to coach in the NBA."
The decision was made in the final moments of the visit as the Motta family drove the two men back to the airport. "Dick and I sat in the back on a couple of bean bags," Carter said. "Right then, I had made a decision based more on a gut feeling than anything. It's like drilling for oil. More times than not you start drilling in a spot based on gut feeling. I decided during the drive to the airport that if Dick looked me in the eye and said, 'I want the job,' it was his."
Motta wanted the job.
"I've wanted to coach an expansion team forever," he said. "I've always wanted to be a part of building something from the very beginning, watching it grow and become something good, something you can be proud of. Everything is here to do it with."
The Mavericks play in Reunion Arena, a new 17,761 seat building that still sparkles, having been the site of exactly six basketball games since opening earlier this year.
Their offices are plush and comfortable and Carter has made it clear that money is no object if it will produce a winner.
They are an odd threesome, Carter, Sonju and Motta, though all three profess to be deeply religious. Before Dallas home games "God Bless America," is played rather than the National Anthem and the PA announcer invites fans to "honor God and America," by singing. . . The Dallas players have strict instructions to stand in a straight line and at attention during the playing of the song.
Carter and Sonju, who are apt to quote from scripture at any moment, have themselves a sociable coach whose vocabulary is subject to parental discretion. tBut, as Carter and Sonju point out, they hired a coach, not a Sunday School teacher.
Motta's players say he seems happy, relieved to be out of Washington where he said his job had become little more than making substitutions. He certainly doesn't like losing (the club is 2-10) but he understands it will take time.
"I'm realistic," he said. "All I really want out of this year is for the guys to scrap every night and to get two or three players from this group that can develop to the point where they can help a contender three years from now. It would be nice to get five like that but I don't expect that."
Life in the NBA has not been heaven so far for the Mavericks. Initially, they were to have the first choice in this year's draft and the 22 teams in the league were to protect seven players each. But the league backed off letting teams protect eight players and gave Dallas the 11th pick in the draft.
That pick was UCLA's Kiki Vandeweghe, who promptly announced he really didn't want to play in Dallas and has not signed a contract. The only draft pick on the team is Allums, also from UCLA, the fifth round pick.
The team's best players are Geoff Huston, the second-year guard from Texas Tech acquired from the New York Knicks; Tommy LaGarde, the oft-injured fourth-year center from North Carolina who came from Seattle, and Spanarkel, the second-year man from Duke, getting a chance here after riding the Philadelphia 76er bench for a year.
"Spanarkel is one guy who I would say right now can help us when we become a contender," Motta said. "He's the kind of player I want, someone who loves the game, who gets excited by winning and hurt by losing.
"I've always believed you can have a college-like atmosphere in the NBA if you work at it and get the right players. That may be a pipe dream. But I think you can do it if you avoid taking talent shortcuts by bringing in guys who are talented but hurt your team because of attitude, because they don't care or don't want to work.
"There are more Jim Spanarkels out there and we're going to get them in here. I think we can pick up two players in next year's draft, two more the next year and by our fourth year really be ready to make a move. We've stockpiled draft picks, we're going for young players, doing the right things." s
And, even though the losses hurt, Dick Motta is happy again. Even though the lines on his face are much deeper than they were when he came to Washington, even though he needs his glasses almost all the time now, he looks younger than 48. The grin is still boyish and charming and so is the sense of humor.
"Nothing against the Bullets, I just like it here better," he said, lounging in a $15 seat after a pregame shoot-around in the arena. "I've never been treated like this anywhere, Chicago, Washington, wherever. I'm doing what I love. I never stopped loving basketball last year even at the worst times. This is still fun for me."
"Dick got frustrated last year," said Weiss, his assistant coach now. "Because of the injuries and the nature of the team he couldn't really teach or coach. It was a tough situation. I think he's just glad to be out of it."
"Dick Motta," said Sonju, "is an artist."
As everyone knows, artists can be tempermental.
The arena was only about a third full as the Mavericks and Utah Jazz went through their warmups. The Mavs are still trying to sell basketball in a football-crazed city and it is an uphill struggle, especially with an expansion team.
This was a game Motta wanted. His team was 2-7 coming off a five-game West Coast trip and a home game with the Jazz was a chance for a victory.
On the bench, Motta is the same man who helped the Fat Lady sing 28 months ago. He is on one knee, then the other. He jumps up to yell a play, runs to center court, then folds his arms and walks back. He trades barbs with the officials almost nonstop.
The first half goes well. The Mavs shoot 61 percent the first quarter and lead by five at the half. But in the third quarter, Adrian Dantley and Darrell Griffith crank up and Dallas doesn't have the firepower to respond. Utah wins, 102-94.
Frustrated, Motta yells at the officials after the game's final meaningless play. "Mind games," an observer points out. "He always plays mind games with those guys, thinking about next time."
Inside the locker room, Motta's answers are short, curt. He is angry. When reporters finally drift away, he relaxes a bit. "That's the worst we've played," he said softly. "The guys were uptight, being home or something, I don't know why. Tonight was the first night we really looked like an expansion team. It won't be the last night though, I know that much. We don't have any illusions. We'll just keep working."