Dick Motta: Coaching Legend

The 1977-78 season was one that Washington basketball fans will never forget, as the team shocked the world to take home the franchise’s only NBA Championship. Leading the way was legendary coach Dick Motta, who coached in the NBA for 25 years and currently sits in the top 10 in victories all time. Coach Motta took some time to talk about the championship team and other topics in this week’s alumni spotlight.

Q: What are you doing now that you are retired from coaching basketball?
Dick Motta: Well we spend our time in Fish Haven, Idaho – it’s a lake on the border of Utah and Idaho. It’s a 30 mile lake and half of the lake is in Utah and half is in Idaho. It’s a little cold and snowing here today and when it gets to be a foot deep here we go to Las Vegas. We have a place there; when it turns 100 degrees we come back. When I moved to Chicago [to coach the Bulls] from Weber College in 1969, we came home to Utah that summer and decided that if we were going to stay in the NBA and work that way we better find a home spot in zion. So we looked in three different places on the lake. My wife and I have a really neat place here with the Bed & Breakfast. Our son and daughter-in-law run it but we own it and we have about 10 rooms in it. I’m 80 years old. I’ve got more energy than I should.

Q: Do you keep in touch with many of your former players?
Dick Motta: Once in a while. I coached so many different players, from junior high to high school to Weber College and then all the players in the pros and I keep in touch with some of them. My high school Idaho state championship team from 1959 had a big reunion about 8 years ago. Now I host a reunion at our place every-other year on the weekend after Labor Day with 14 of the 15 boys, one got killed in Vietnam, and their wives. I guess you’d say I do keep in touch with a number of my ex-players.

Q: Take us back to that magical run in 1977-78 leading the team to the NBA Championship. What do you remember the most about that team?
Dick Motta: Well we thought we were pretty good. They had quite a great deal of success right before I came on board. Casey Jones took them to the NBA Championship I think twice. This was the first team that I had gone to that was pretty well established. All the other teams that I coached previously that were building teams – team that weren’t very good. You know that Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld the basic core of that team were really good.
The thing that happened with us that year is that we had a lot of injuries and one time we took a trip on the west coast and I had to use [assistant coach] Bernie Bickerstaff in practice. We couldn’t dress 7 players and you had to dress 8, so [GM] Bob Ferry got busy. That year we had drafted Mitch Kupchack and Greg Ballard, and Larry Wright was a rookie also and with all of the injuries those kids had to play a lot. We didn’t have a great record but we knew that we had a good team. We didn’t have success on the won-loss record during the season, and we had to open all of the series except the first one on the road. I don’t think we were overconfident, but we knew that we had a good team that would take a really good team to knock us out of the championship.
We had in those days what we called the “Suicide Series” – it was a three game one. We won the second game down in Atlanta and we had to pack and go to San Antonio. We opened there and that went 6 games. We won that one and we we were definitely the underdog against Philadelphia but we knew that we could compete with them. After we won that and then we had to go against Seattle and again we opened on the road. That sucker went to 7 games, took 19 days to play that. It was the first championship team in the Washington area for like 40 years. We were probably one of the few teams to get invited to the White House because of the proximity.

Q: Was there a moment during the season when you knew the 1977-78 NBA Champion team was special?
Dick Motta: Anytime that you had Elvin and Wes on the team there’s probably a story for that day. I remember we weren’t supposed to beat San Antonio because they were favored, we opened on the road and they had George Gervin and Coby Dietrick. When we won the game 6 we only had one day off, then we had to take the bus to Philadelphia to open with the 76ers. We had film of that game, and we usually have a film session for that afternoon. Then we were going to have a walk-through and a scouting report on Philadelphia. Then we were going to have the meal then get on the bus and go up to Philadelphia, bed down, and play them on Sunday afternoon game on national television. When we sat down for film I was so excited, the last thing on my mind truthfully was Philadelphia. I was still getting over the excitement of winning the San Antonio series. We got about two minutes into the film and I told Bernie “Shut the son-of-a-*#*!% off and let’s go eat! We can beat this team anyway, let’s go over and eat.” So we ate and we got a couple cases of beer and we went up there and celebrated on the way up. We were two points ahead with one second to go and they called a jump ball at their end of the court and I remember the referee tossed the ball up to [76ers guard] Doug Collins and he flipped it up and it went in. It shouldn’t have counted but we were on the road so of course they counted it, and so we had to go into overtime. Thankfully we won the game in overtime. That thing of me saying, “We can beat this team, let’s go. We don’t need the practice, we don’t need the film.” The players all said that was a big confidence booster, just the fact that I had guts enough to say “Let’s go we can beat this team. Heck with practice.” That always stood out and the confidence that they had of winning. There are millions of stories but that thing stood out in my mind.

Q: You’re sometimes credited with helping popularize the phrase “The opera isn’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” How did that happen?
Dick Motta: I’d heard that phrase one time a year or so before. I thought it was stupid. I’d heard it originated that “the rodeo ain’t over ‘til they ride the brahmas (bulls).” We had just gone ahead of Philadelphia in that match-up for the Conference Championship – we went ahead 3 to 1 at home and they had a really good team with Dr. J and World B. Free. They had the home court advantage, so if it played on out they were going to get the seventh game on their court. We weren’t the least bit over-confident. The dressing room was full of reporters and this one young guy kept saying “How does it feel to play to be in the championship series?” And he must’ve repeated it 7 or 8 times and I was kinda exacerbated with him, so just to shake him off I said “You know it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” And I didn’t think any more of it. I came home that night and my wife said “You know of all of the dumb things you ever said in your life, that’s the most stupid one.” And for some reason it caught on and it got to be a battle cry and it’s on the championship ring. I still get a lot of references about the fat lady and my wife said “You know you’re gonna have every fat person in the world mad at ya.” It didn’t turn out that way, it turned into a fun thing to watch – they had contests throughout the championship series of people dressing up as fat ladies. When we went to the White House to meet President Carter and his wife, he walked across the East Ballroom and when he stepped up to the microphone and the first thing he said was, “Where’s the fat lady?”

Q: What are some of the fondest memories you have of your time as a coach?
Dick Motta: When we won the World Championship, they threw the microphone in my face and they said “This has to be the greatest athletic experience of your life.” And I said, “Well yes great but right there the high school championship.” Not playing ball, not having to prove myself – even my dad would say “Why would they hire you? How come you get a job? How did you get that job?” Although it was only my 5th year as coach I reached the epitome of my profession at my level. It was not as much the thrill, but more of a satisfaction, a peace settled over me after that in my coaching. Finally I broke the barrier – it’s like a pilot breaking the sound barrier. It may sound corny, but in that moment I knew that I could coach, I knew that I was meant to do this. When you win a world championship you realize there are a lot of people who don’t have a ring. It’s a goal. The epitome of a pro-athlete right now is to get a ring, and to wear a ring and the same thing goes for the coaches. For a while there Riley and Jackson gobbled all of them up. There aren’t a great number of coaches out there even that can boastfully wear an NBA championship ring.

Q: How do you feel the game has changed over the years since you were coaching?
Dick Motta: When I went into the NBA I made $22,000. My highest paid player, Bob Boozer – who was the captain, the player rep, and went on the Olympic team – was making $29,000. So they really loved playing, and because they didn’t make a lot of money, they satisfied their creative outlet. When the season was over most of the players went home to work. [Boozer] worked for Bell Telephone. Bob Cousy was an insurance salesman. Every guy went home to his regular job in the winter and they would come back to their hobby which was basketball. There was a true love for the game – there is today too but it’s a little different. Nowadays it seems like sometimes guys take it. They just played. If you didn’t come and answer the bell, there was someone else to take your place. Now they have guaranteed contracts. Let me put it this way, sometimes it’s harder to get out of bed when you’re wearing silk pajamas. That’s not a negative to the game, our society is different. That’s absolutely against the core value of the true athlete, of athletics and the meaning of to play to win, to compete, to excel in something is diluted a bit in this society.

Q: You have the distinction of being one of the few coaches in professional sports history to have never played high school, college, or professional ball. How do you explain your success as a coach?
Dick Motta: I didn’t have time to play; I was too busy learning the game. I just studied it, I watched it, and I liked to play, but I got cut my senior year. I was just so dang short – I grew four inches out of high school and I’m still just barely five-nine and a half. I went out in college, and when he cut me I built up the nerve to go into his office and ask him why. I said, “I’ve got point guard skills, I make good passes, I do things.” He said that I was too short, I said “Isn’t there someplace in basketball for a short guy?” And he said “Yeah why don’t you coach?” So I started and I watched him and I learned a lot about coaching and things that I wouldn’t do ever by watching him. I went to clinics – I made it a personal goal to attend three clinics every year from 1952 on. I’ve seen them all. I’ve sat in the audience and listened to Adolph Rupp. On every major court, I would go up to Denver, I would go to Sun Valley, I traveled all over the west United States if there was a coach clinic. I listened to Jack Ramsey, Ken Loeffler was one of my favorite ones, and then I would drive them nuts after the clinic I would go and talk to them. One time I drove over to the Air Force Academy and spent a week with Bob Spear who was the coach there. I considered myself a student of the game because I really respected the game and I still do in a lot of ways. Some of the game has changed but there are some of the things in the game that I don’t particularly care to watch anymore.
I studied the game and took chances with my career. When I started, a guy gave me a chance to teach 7th grade and coach junior high. Also I was the high school assistant football coach, in the winter I was the [high school] assistant basketball coach, and in the spring I was the assistant baseball coach. Then I went into the Air Force for two years, came back and the job opened at the high school. The superintendant gave me my choice at either football or basketball, they had an opening in both. I liked football a lot because it fit my personality more – hurry up play, come back, organize, get ready, go again, and play another play. But it was Idaho in winter and it was a lot of work to get the fields ready and it was always cold. The gym was warm so I picked basketball.

Q: Do you think that’s still possible to become a professional coach the same way you did?
Dick Motta: I doubt it. It looks like they’re headed in the direction of ex-players, people that “relate” to the players. I didn’t spend a lot of my time honing my relation to player skills. I was a pro coach. I drove the bus, I picked up the jocks, I had meeting with the parents, I had alumni meetings. I honed all of my skills from junior high all the way up, every ladder of expertise until I got to the NBA. Now there are a lot of kids. It’s nothing against modern day coaches, they have all of the film, they have all of the help, they have 15 assistant coaches. Except for two years of the 13 previous years I coached before I reached the NBA, I didn’t have an assistant. My first four years in Chicago, I did not have an assistant. The trainer, was part time, he worked in the summer with the Cleveland Indians and then he would come over to us in the winter and be my confidante, my traveling buddy, but I didn’t have an assistant. So now they have four assistants, five assistants, they all go out on the center court at the foul line and they have clipboards and they talk about what they are going to do during time outs.

Q: Who would you say is the best player that you ever coached?
Dick Motta: I can’t single out one of them. I’ve coached junior high, high school, junior college, college, the air force, and five different teams in the pros. I had a great player on every one of those teams and to single one out – it’s not apples and oranges but personalities and skills are totally different. Every team had its own standout and I was just fortunate enough that I got to coach a lot of great players. There are players that I’ve coached that are in the Hall of Fame. I’m not a politician either but I wouldn’t do that.