TAMPA, FLA. -- "Maybe you've heard about me having problems recently with one of my players . . . well, that's bull. A player doesn't have problems with me, he has problems with our rules . . . If you have a problem child, that's just what he is, a problem child. He's not fighting his coach, he's fighting society and its rules and he's just never grown up . . . I've never seen a jackass win a Kentucky Derby."

And you thought Dick Motta would have problems winding down.

Attendance at the August meeting of the local chapter of the Data Processing Management Association here is about 150, up by close to 50 percent over last month's gathering because the after-dinner speaker is Motta, former coach of the Chicago Bulls, Washington Bullets and, most recently, the Dallas Mavericks.

Motta left Dallas abruptly in May, not long after becoming the fourth man in NBA history (Jack Ramsay, Gene Shue and Red Auerbach are the others) to attain 700 coaching victories and shortly after the Mavericks, 55-game winners and Midwest Division champions in the regular season, were beaten by the lightly regarded Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the playoffs.

"I hear he won't talk about that at all, that's why I came, to see if he would," says one data processor. Although that logic sounds flawed, it makes sense with Motta. There's never been any way to predict how he'll react or what he'll say.

"After a while, sooner or later, as sure as the sun comes up, the management will start to think that they know more than the experts they've hired to run the franchise and then you have a problem," Motta said. "I'd had it with four or five individual things and I walked away. A person needs quiet time and you need to spend it with people you trust -- and there aren't many of them . . .

"It's a silly little game. I put that basketball under my arm, pick up my lunch bucket and waddle off to work. When it ceases to be a hobby I get out -- and I've always trusted my instincts."

The problem with trying to figure out what Dick Motta is thinking is that he thinks so many things and the thoughts rarely make what most would call a logical progression.

"He's one of the most complex, interesting individuals I've ever known," said Pat Williams of the expansion Orlando Magic and Motta's former boss in Chicago. "He can be stubborn and obstinate one day and charming and wonderful the next."

At the lectern, Motta comes on like a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and Dudley Moore, a diminutive waif looking for a little respect. When talking to reporters after games, Motta had a habit of shifting his feet nervously, eyeing the floor and speaking with a slight stammer. Reporters felt either that Motta wanted to be somewhere else or that they were wasting his time. Now, the routine makes him look unassuming and vulnerable.

"When we started in Dallas, we knew that there were four kinds of players available: people with bad contracts, people who were just bad players, guys who were bad people and players who had bad injuries," Motta said. "Some of our guys qualified in three out of the four categories."

Motta's gag wasn't very far from the truth, but the team managed to improve upon its initial 15-67 record in 1980-81, winning more games in each of the next six years, all under Motta.

Then came last season. With the team led by all-stars Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman and supported by rising stars like Derek Harper, Sam Perkins and James Donaldson, many expected the playoffs to usher in a dynasty.

It certainly seemed that way in Game 1 against Seattle. Dallas took a 38-point lead and went on to win, 151-129, setting a franchise record for points in a single game.

But Donaldson, a 7-foot-2, 280-pound center, had suffered a stress fracture in his right leg late in the season and the condition worsened, rendering him ineffective for the remainder of the playoffs. Without one of its main sources of strength and playing against a team with nothing to lose, Dallas lost the next three games.

Adding insult was the fact that the star of the series, Seattle guard Dale Ellis, was a Mavericks castoff, practically given away after failing to earn playing time from Motta.Taking the Blame, and Bailing Out

Much of the blame for the loss fell on the coach and, less than a week after the final game, the New York Knicks, in search of a coach and general manager, called to ask permission to speak with Motta. When it was granted and Motta announced that he was willing to speak with the team about leaving Dallas, it exacerbated an already tense situation.

"The thing with the Knicks just snowballed," he said. "Dallas had always had an open door policy and, when the Knicks called, the team said okay and I said I'd talk to them. I don't think the locals {in Texas} believed {in my loyalty}. It's like they were saying, 'He's got the best job in the world. If he wants to leave, then let him.' It's the Texas mentality at work."

Whether because of pride, hurt or anger, what perhaps had begun as a simple flirtation became something untenable for Motta. Two weeks after the Knicks asked for permission, the coach called a news conference. Most observers felt Motta would huff and puff and stick out his chest proudly, but remain with the team. However, after proclaiming that "friendship means never having to say you're sorry," and saying he would act exactly the same way if the situation arose again, he quit.

"I'm 56 years old and I'm retired now," Motta said. "I've got a friend at home that I talk to, and he asked me why I quit coaching. He said that I should have kept going, perhaps gotten a little stroke. Then I could sit on my front porch with an oxygen mask on and enjoy all the beautiful scenery and what you've accomplished."

Dick Motta lives in Fish Haven, Idaho. When the weather starts to turn cold, he says, the population dwindles to about 30. This summer, his family went bicycling through parts of Yellowstone National Park and Motta says he also has done quite a bit of fishing. He has plans for trips to Washington state, a drive down the coast and a return to Florida to spend time in a new home.

"This will be the first time in 33 or 34 years that I won't be coaching at the start of a season," Motta said, "But I think it's gonna be good. I'm not going to just sit and watch the sun go up and down -- I've always been a doer."

But so much of the doing has revolved around coaching and, try as he might, Motta doesn't do a convincing job of closing the door on the possibility of a return. He talks of his flight to Tampa -- his first trip on an airplane since retirement -- as a kind of test, and says he experienced no racing heart or excitement.

But he also speaks wistfully of what undoubtedly will become part of his legacy -- the fact that he's coached all these years without a major scorer in the pivot.

"That will always take the luster off of it for me personally, that I never had the super center," he said. "They were all very good at what they did but they weren't scorers. I figured out that a team gets the ball about 100 times a game and you play about 100 games a year so in 19 years of coaching I got the ball about 1.9 million times and I never got to pass to a center in the low post with the idea that he would be able to score."

Minnesota, site of another expansion franchise in 1989, would appear an ideal place for Motta to make a comeback. He tries to resist the thought.

"I have a good retirement package," he said. "Right now, I don't think I'll ever coach again," he said. "I don't think I have {former Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick} Vermeil's burnout, but I felt awfully good about leaving.

"But I can't say never; I've never been good about the future. I may get the screaming jeebies. There'll probably be four {coaching} openings by February. I don't know if anyone wants an old warhorse or not, but it's nice not to have to worry about it."