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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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At practice Motta assumes a number of peculiar stances, most of them lacking in structural integrity, none of them very attractive. For instance, he will stand at the end of the court, feet spread far apart, almost toppling forward. Or he will suddenly crouch, clutching his biceps with each opposite hand, as if he were cold. He is one of those rare little men who has no insecurities about scrunching himself up even smaller. But then, he is concentrating so hard that he obviously has no conception of how silly he might look in any posture. Sometimes he walks along, blowing air in and out in huge, affected gulps, or, for no better reason, baring his teeth like Bogart.

When Pat Williams took over as the Chicago general manager two years ago he called Motta once during a practice. Dr. Biel relayed the message that Williams was on the phone. Motta turned on Biel and snarled at his friend: "Listen, you tell him that there are only three times I will ever leave the practice floor: 1) if either of my parents die, 2) if my wife is sick, or 3) if my children are sick. Now you tell Williams that."

Although it seems out of place with the basic man, Motta will exhibit a sort of wild, dated melodrama at times around the court. Many people, including Pat Williams, admit that when they first saw Motta after a defeat they supposed that he was putting on. His eyes are glazed in these instances, his words bitten off (except where long strings of elementary profanity are indicated), and he appears frankly homicidal. In a way, Motta is a natural heir to Vince Lombardi, the extension, or modification, of that personality for the '70s. Motta, for instance, is a brutal taskmaster in the Lombardi tradition, but he also has a deft public-relations touch, loves crowds and understands sport as a business. He has a dry sense of humor and makes accommodations for the modern athlete. There are no training rules on the Chicago Bulls.

Motta utterly demands that his players reserve two hours of every day for the team. He conducts these sessions like a tyrant. His presence is sufficient for order; he needs no whistle for his giants any more than a chair or a whip. Dr. Biel refers to him as The Godfather on these occasions. Some of the players prefer (under their breaths) Tojo. "As much as anything," says Jerry Sloan, "his system works because we do what he tells us to do, and if we don't do what he tells us to do he raises hell."

Says Jimmy King, another guard: "Execution is the word. Maybe high schools are running the same plays, but nobody is executing them like the Chicago Bulls. We run plays every practice. We run every play to the end of the play. We run out the skeleton drills. That is what he strives for. We have so much confidence in our offense that we don't even try to fast-break. We never get a cheap basket. We wait for the defense to catch up and then pound it out. We know we will score. We have that much confidence."

Requiring arduous, precise practice sessions of professional basketball players is nearly heretical, of course. As the common expression goes, many teams still "just shoot around awhile and then go in." For what it is worth, the Bulls' practices are most closely approximated by the champion Milwaukee Bucks, whose coach, Larry Costello, is the only other in the league besides Motta who coached in high school.

"They always ask me, was it tough coming in cold to coach the pros," Motta says. "Sure, I worried all summer about that first meeting. I was nervous as hell. But, look, when I faced my first seventh-grade class in Grace, Idaho I was nervous, too. I knew they were going to test me and they did. I replied with discipline. Yes, I probably hurt a kid's feelings once in a while, but I came through. And it was the same thing in high school and junior college. They're gonna test you. Hell, when I first went to Weber, I recruited Army and Navy veterans and old flunkouts, kids with a D average out of high school. When I was 29 I had kids playing for me almost as old as I was. I had to run a lot of them down the road, too, but in all my years in college and high school I only had one kid I didn't end up on good terms with.

"People still don't believe me when I say I coach these players. But you see, there's not that much difference between them and a junior high team. A bunch of 13-year-olds can get away from you as easily as a team of pros, and it works both ways. Many of the players in this league are grown-ups, rich men, but they're still spoiled, still 13 years old emotionally. They need guidance.

"So if I don't coach them, then what am I? And coaching is a fascinating thing. I couldn't do anything else. Oh, what it does to my emotions. And it's me; it's all me. I've never really watched anyone else coach. And unlike everybody I coach against, nobody ever coached me. Remember, I couldn't make the team. There are probably 5,000 high school coaches who know the Xs and Os better than me, the fundamentals, but I've never had a team that didn't put out, I've never had a team that didn't hustle. I don't know the reason for these things."

Motta left Utah State in 1954 to be a teacher. He took the best opportunity he could find, a junior high post in Grace. It is a farming community set in the middle of a valley somewhere near Pocatello. Motta was the seventh-grade homeroom teacher. He also taught all four boys' sports plus girls' basketball, and drove a school bus. He was paid $3,200 a year.

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