With everything within inches of their grasp, the Bulls led by nine points, only to give it all up and lose. Back in Oakland for Game 7, they led by 14, but lost again. So quickly do seasons and teams fall apart.
In the locker room after the final contest all bad feelings and checked anger rushed to the surface. For some time Motta had seethed over what he considered selfishness on the part of his two early-season holdouts. In turn, Love and Van Lier had been infuriated when Motta reneged on his promise to renegotiate their contracts. Now the coach lashed out at his broken team. In what has become a cause c�l�bre in Chicago, Motta referred to Love and Van Lier as he snapped, "When you vote on playoff shares, remember who wasn't at training camp."
Later, in conversation with the
Chicago Tribune's Bob Logan, who was writing a book on the Bulls, Motta asked, "Is this book talk?" When Logan said yes, Motta proceeded to call Love "the greediest player in the league" and say, "I fear for Van Lier. I'd hate to trade him to a friend. I would like in the worst way to get rid of them both."
This was hardly rhetoric to hang a dream on, or a new season. Especially since the feeling seemed to be mutual. Nonetheless, both men returned this winter, again after contract hassles, Van Lier to blast Motta's coaching strategy ("He never used Thurmond right," "He never backs me up on technicals," etc.) and Love to issue daily announcements about how unappreciated and underpaid he is.
"My foot," says Motta, approximately. "These guys went for the brass ring last year and failed. Now they've cracked. I've always said coaching is just a matter of getting rid of the bad apples." A prevailing rumor holds that Motta makes hourly attempts to trade Van Lier, who has never been mistaken for Johnny Appleseed. So far, however, the only stormin' Norman will be doing out of a Chicago uniform will be as a reserve for the West in the NBA All-Star game on Feb. 3.
Chet (The Jet) Walker is one Bull who left the china shop. Always regarded as one of the game's gentlemen, Walker claims Motta's insensitivity was the clincher in his decision to retire. "I spent most of last season bleeding inside, calming down people and baby-sitting this team," Walker said the other day. "At the end we had busted our guts for this man, and he tells us not to pay those two. I couldn't believe it. The Chicago Bulls died in Oakland, all right. But it wasn't on the court, it was in the locker room."
Walker's absence and his accompanying running feud with Motta in the newspapers still haunt the Bulls. Had he returned, Walker would have been a significant influence on the young inside men, Mickey Johnson and Clifton Pondexter, as well as a valuable catalyst in the always difficult transitional period in which an old team turns young. But when Motta asked Walker to reconsider retirement, The Jet's conditions were practically laughable: he wanted a huge salary plus total control as coach and general manager.
That power is something Motta always demanded. To be fair, were it not for him the team probably wouldn't even be in Chicago. But shortly after he came out of the Utah mountains to take the Bulls by the horns, Motta discovered that being the coach didn't give him enough leverage to determine his own destiny. The team has experienced turmoil ever since.
The ultimate departure from any semblance of tranquillity occurred after the 1972-73 season, when Motta brandished rival coaching offers in front of the Bulls' 300-pound, gravel-voiced majority owner, Arthur Wirtz, and persuaded the team's executive board to give him the duties (though they withheld the title) of general manager as well as coach. This move forced out Pat Williams, who since has emerged as general manager at Philadelphia. Most important, it set up Motta as the man who both coached the Bulls on the floor and battled them in contract negotiations off it—a double-faced job hardly easy for a man of Motta's volatile ways.
Motta uses an expression from the Old West in pointing out that his only contract problems have been with Love and Van Lier. "The squeaky wheels get all the grease," he says. But there have been other squeaks. Since Williams and controversial Scout Jerry (The Sleuth) Krause departed, Motta has experienced plenty of misery in regard to trades as well as in signing players from the college draft.