As an expansion team, Chicago had surprising success in the 1966-67 season when buddies Johnny Kerr and Al Bianchi coached the Bulls with a sort of Bobbsey Twins brilliance to a playoff berth. But neither coach got along with Dick Klein, a 6'8" former center at Northwestern who is the general manager and part owner of the club. In his first two years at Chicago, Klein has acquired a notorious reputation as a meddler. He second-guessed his hirelings in the public prints often and was his own adviser when it came to trades, drafts and other policy matters. Almost always he sacrificed potential talent and player needs to the stress of dollars.
Following the first season Bianchi departed to coach Seattle while Kerr stayed on the next year and watched the Bulls lose 15 of their first 16 games. Relations between coach and owner became so cool that at one point Klein was sending notes to Kerr on the bench during a game and Kerr was tearing them up with a flourish. Kerr began dreaming of a better life in Phoenix, home of an expansion team.
Meanwhile, Motta, who had compiled an outstanding record at places like Grace ( Idaho) High School and the Barksdale (La.) Air Force Base before winning 169 games in eight years at Weber State, was realizing the full limitations a small pond necessarily imposes upon a big frog. The school's athletic administration was changing, more recruits were being lost to big schools and his salary was not getting any higher. Moreover, Motta was beginning to wake up to the possibility that he was as good as people were saying. The job of coach of the Chicago Bulls was offered to him three times and it was turned down three times. Then, convinced, he signed a two-year contract at a considerable increase in pay.
Persons on the fringe of basketball had never heard of Motta, but Klein, for all his shortcomings, knew what Motta could do. "A team reflects its coach," he said. "Dick's teams were well-drilled, they knew what they were doing, they worked hard and they played rough. We were delighted to get him."
Despite such praise, Klein was still not giving Motta, the first man since New York's Eddie Donovan in 1961 (and one of only a few in history) to come into the NBA without any prior pro experience, much maneuvering room. Even before the first game of the season, Klein gave up a good playmaking guard, Keith Erickson, to the Lakers for Erwin Mueller, a forward Klein had traded off once before. Klein did not consult Motta on the deal, and the fact that he could have obtained Baltimore's Gus Johnson for Erickson even up forced the relationship onto rocky ground.
"The deal came up quickly," says Klein. "Dick hadn't seen either our man or their man, so how could he know?"
"We made an agreement when I was hired," said Motta, "that the three of us—Klein, the scout Jerry Krause and myself—would discuss all trades and draft choices, and that sounded good to me. Then I hear about the first trade from one of my players. Hell, it wasn't the individuals so much, it was the way Klein handled it.
"I know everyone thinks I was just brought in as a pawn to be led to the slaughter by Klein," Motta added. "Well, he's not running this team. He hasn't tried to tell me how to coach, and as long as he doesn't interfere, we'll be O.K. He knows that the first time he knocks me in the papers, he's going to get it right back. I think he's trying hard to let me do my job."
A conversation that took place before Chicago's opening game probably helped in establishing boundaries.
Klein: "If we win tonight, I'd like to give the team a steak dinner after the game. It might keep them together."