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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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While Motta and Williams share a gigantic respect and affection for each other, Klein and Motta were anathema almost from the first. As early as training camp Motta learned that he had no say in player transactions. Klein was perhaps even more shocked to find that the quiet little mountain yes-man he had discovered had the scratch and scramble of a city alley fighter. Motta carried his fight to the press, embarrassing Klein. Once after Klein sold one of his regulars, Motta threatened to throw a dollar bill on the floor and announce that the money would start at forward. Another time, he sent an ultimatum to Klein: trade Flynn Robinson by game time that night or get a new coach. Klein knew by then that Motta never fired anyone just for dramatic effect; within hours he had traded the uncooperative Robinson, the team's most popular player.

The internal feud with Klein never subsided. Finally the club's other owners forced Klein out of control the next summer, but much of Motta's energy in his first professional season had been wasted on the vendetta.

Considering the many facets of Motta, nothing is quite so novel about him as his candor. He has a habit of saying what he believes. "I operate on the theory that if you always tell the truth you don't have to remember anything," he says.

This sort of behavior has knocked everybody for a loop: the league seems to waver between amazement and outrage. The fans, on the other hand, are enthralled. Motta's off-season speaking schedule, with question-and-answer sessions that have been described as "awesome," has increased so that he has had to engage an agent. Reporters who encounter Motta for the first time often stare open-faced when he begins to spill out simple hard opinions as if he were giving the weather report. What do you think of Mendy Rudolph? "He's a dirty——and you can quote me." Suppose an underground paper that prints that sort of language picks up the quote? "Fine, all right. There's not a bad word in my vocabulary that I haven't learned in the NBA, from the referees and other officials." And he goes on: this player was bad, that one undependable, this one let up, that one plays such rotten defense that the Bulls run all their plays at him. It is all there; just take out the pencils and jot it down. Many cannot bring themselves to. "A lot of reporters have been conned so long," Motta says, "they don't know the truth anymore. If I came out and said I had a game plan and three or four secret plays every game, hey—they'd print that stuff."

What most astonishes the press and the fans—and what often irritates the Bulls—is Motta's frankness in openly criticizing his players. He figures pro athletes are well-paid public figures who should learn to live with passing criticism or acclaim. In fact, of course, many are narcissists who cannot. Anyway, Motta explains his attitude:

"Players are like my family. People don't understand that. At halftime of one game in the playoffs I came in and called them cowards. I called them chicken. I called them yellow. And you want to know something? I was wrong. I saw the movies afterwards, and I was wrong. But I've spanked my son very hard sometimes, too, and I guess sometimes I was wrong in doing that. And if I was wrong, like this time, I said so. The point is, I spank my son but I still love him. I spank my son, I swear at the players—same thing. That wipes the slate clean. I guess that may be my greatest ability. I won't carry a grudge."

Where Motta runs into his more substantial conflicts is in an extension of this philosophy. As he loves his son and his team he loves the sport and the league, and he is as wounded by the NBA's shortcomings as he is when the Bulls or Kip Motta let him down. "I'm not half as hard on the officials as I am on my players," he says, a rationale that simply does not cut any ice in the league office, especially when a report comes in that he has spit on a ball before tossing it back to an official, or loudly used profane language that got the same point across.

Still, there is a consistency to even his most gross eruptions. Simple incompetence on the part of an official only stirs rueful I-told-you-so head holdings from Motta. It is when he perceives injustice, prejudice, sloppiness or hypocrisy that he goes into his act. Obviously, much of this is self-serving (if he had a superstar, would he still bother to protest that they get special handling?), but his attitudes confound the NBA authorities.

Motta is convinced that the reason Mendy Rudolph is so often enraged at Motta is not that Motta calls him the most incredible names in the heat of an argument, but that Motta quietly calls out to Rudolph to hustle during the action. "I just tell him to do what he says officials are supposed to do in his book," Motta says. And why? It can only infuriate Rudolph. Similarly, what possessed Motta to declare a couple of years ago, "Fifth-place teams get fifth-rate officials"? That way he got both referees and the league on him. That was one of his first big fines, a $250 number.

In all the years that Red Auerbach was waving his prop cigar and accusing officials of blindness and one-sidedness, he never received fines approaching the $1,500 and $1,000 that Kennedy hit Motta with last season. Apparently, no matter what Auerbach said, Kennedy understood it was all a game, that old Red was just looking for a little edge so maybe next time the official's call would go his way. But what is Motta up to? "I'll put my life up against anybody," he says. "The way I live, the way I treat people. I don't think Walter can understand that. What does he want of me?" Perhaps Motta should only be flattered that the league has put a higher price on his honest rage than on the old-style histrionic storms.

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