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Beware, Little Big Man is here
Frank Deford
October 25, 1971
Surely the strange little man named Dick Motta—who never stops chasing those demons that the rest of us learn to accept—is a singular identity. It is not just that old business about throwing away the mold after making him. To perceive the strains of blood and nationality, early environment and the bizarre happenings that have shaped Motta is to understand that he has not been molded in the usual way, but rendered by the times as a new hybrid.
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October 25, 1971

Beware, Little Big Man Is Here

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Surely the strange little man named Dick Motta—who never stops chasing those demons that the rest of us learn to accept—is a singular identity. It is not just that old business about throwing away the mold after making him. To perceive the strains of blood and nationality, early environment and the bizarre happenings that have shaped Motta is to understand that he has not been molded in the usual way, but rendered by the times as a new hybrid.

Yet there are basketball general managers walking about today, like schoolgirls mooning over some crush, saying how much they need A Motta, Another Motta, A New Motta, as if these commodities could be ordered from somewhere in various shapes and sizes, with two pair of pants or whitewalls. This is not only a tribute to Motta's success—which culminated this past season in his overwhelming selection as NBA Coach of the Year—but it also indicates a fascination with the man and the events that lifted him in the sort of upward mobility previously experienced only by those frogs lucky enough to get kissed by princesses. The NBA Coach of the Year never even made his high school varsity basketball team. Nor was it very long ago that he was turned down for the coaching post at Twin Falls ( Idaho) High School when he tried to move up to a big job.

Now, after just three years as coach of the Chicago Bulls, Motta is not only Wonder Coach, but also the most intriguing personality in that line since Red Auerbach retired. His controversial antics and candor drive Commissioner Walter Kennedy to distraction, most often expressed in the form of stupendous fines. Motta's Mormon religion encourages, in the black basketball universe, racist allegations. But, ironically, Motta has an even more substantial tag now. One of the league's genuine superstars, a black, never fails to encounter Motta without saying, "Come and get me, little man." He means it literally: the Bulls had the third-best record in the league last year, although four of the eight regulars were expansion chattels, another was an outright waiver reject, and one of the starting guards had to double as the only reliable forward reserve.

The sum of these parts is that Motta is now the most secure coach in the business, perhaps even more secure than Kennedy or Chief Referee Mendy Rudolph, his other abiding nemesis. After the Texas Chaparrals of the ABA tried to spirit Motta away last spring with a spangled, long-term offer featuring a base salary more than double his old $25,000 Chicago figure, the Bulls countered with the kind of escalating package that might make Motta the best-paid coach in America. Only men like Don Shula or Ted Williams, who own pieces of their teams, are supposed to have better all-round deals.

Even the Establishment must rejoice in this happy tale, if only to celebrate the fact that a Motta can still happen. To believe in this is to see Dick Whittington turn back at the sound of the Bow Bells of London or to be there to watch Lana Turner adjust her sweater and take a prominent stool in Schwab's Pharmacy. Dr. Bob Biel, the Bulls' trainer, was at the preseason rookie camp that day in September 1968 when the unknown new coach arrived from Weber State to confront the pros. Right after practice Biel hustled to the telephone and called up Jerry Sloan, one of the few certified NBA players then on the Bulls' roster. "Jerry," Biel said, "you had better get here in shape. This guy is something else." Ultimately, the most accurate appraisal of Motta was that first warning: he is simply that, something else.

Motta was born near the Great Salt Lake on Sept. 3, 1931, on a farm near a town named Union, and he passed through high school without ever considering horizons much beyond his home. He went off to Utah State Agricultural College, up in Logan, only because a friend won a $100 Union Pacific scholarship and wanted company. The friend soon dropped out. Motta stayed on to graduate in 1953.

"I never knew how other people lived until I went to college," he says. "I never thought about college. I was just going to be a farmer. All Italians are farmers, that's all there is to it. Nothing else occurred to me."

At Utah State, Motta soon fell into an argument with an agriculture professor over the subject of hotbeds for growing pepper and tomato plants. The professor said hotbeds must be prepared such and such a way. Motta said they had hotbeds on his farm, and it wouldn't work that way. The incident is not insignificant. For one thing, Motta figured if that was the level of the agriculture department's instruction, he was wasting his time; he quit and became a physical education major. For another, his reaction to the confrontation, his first with the undisputed dogma and tradition of the outside world, is representative of his stand in the many subsequent conflicts of his life. If Motta believes he is right, cajolery or punishment only encourages him to hold firmer. For a time in the Air Force, for instance, he was accused of being one of three officers in that entire service not to pay $7 a month to join an officers club. Harassed unmercifully, he held his ground until the inspector general dropped the issue. So now all the fines and Dutch-uncle letters from Commissioner Kennedy are not going to stop Dick Motta from saying the officiating is lousy when he is convinced it is, any more than low grades and lectures were going to persuade him otherwise about hotbeds.

It does not seem that raw ambition has driven him so much as an intellectual curiosity to try his methods under all possible field conditions. Phil Johnson, his assistant at Utah's Weber State who is now rejoining him with the Bulls, remembers when Motta decided to leave college for the pros. "I didn't think he would go to Chicago. I asked him not to as a personal favor. We had it all there at Weber at last. And then he just up and quit. I suppose he had to do it. He told me—near the end when he had almost made up his mind—he told me this, and I knew he was leaving when he said it: 'Just what if, Phil? What if I do it the same way up there, the same way, and it works. What if?' "

Motta had seen only one or two pro games when he took the job.

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