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Two for the Ages
Leigh Montville
February 03, 1997
With a combined 49 years of NBA coaching experience, Dick Motta and Bill Fitch have seen it all
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February 03, 1997

Two For The Ages

With a combined 49 years of NBA coaching experience, Dick Motta and Bill Fitch have seen it all

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"I saw that," Motta says. "Double overtime."

"We were winning by two with 11 seconds left in overtime," Fitch says. "We had the ball. You and me and three kids from the concession stand could have won the game. All we had to do was throw the ball inbounds and we win. And we didn't do it! We threw the ball away and they hit a jump shot and we go into double overtime. I tell you, this is why they don't let coaches have guns. I was ready to shoot somebody."

Motta nods. "I know what you mean," he says. "There's been a few players through the years—I'd be out deer hunting, and I'd say, 'What if so-and-so came over the ridge? What would I do?' I'd have been tempted to squeeze one off. I'd bet I'd get away with it. Maybe say that I thought I saw some antlers. How did I know? Maybe get O.J.'s lawyers. They'd get me off, don't you think? Justifiable homicide, at least."

Fitch versus Motta. The Clippers versus the Nuggets. Sentiment grips the moment.

"I'd never seen an NBA game in person before I became an NBA coach," Motta says. "I didn't know anything about it. The 24-second clock? Nothing. The only thing I knew was Wilt Chamberlain against Bill Russell. They seemed to be on television every week. Leaning on each other."

Most people don't seem to pick a lifetime occupation—they sort of just end up in it. One day you're 23 years old, taking a job with a plumber to make a few bucks before moving along to something else. The next day, the four kids are grown, the mortgage is paid off, and you're still rushing out to fix Mrs. Muldowney's sink. Everything simply evolves. Life happens.

"I was at Weber State in Ogden, Utah," Motta says. "I loved it. I wasn't thinking about the NBA at all. Dick Klein, the Bulls' owner at the time, contacted me. He told me to come to Chicago to talk. I'd never been to Chicago. I went there with my wife, and we landed at O'Hare. In Utah, at the time, there weren't more than a million people, and I knew half of them. There were more people at O'Hare than in all of Utah. I had never seen an interchange on the highway before. We came out of the airport with all of those clover-leafs, and I remember thinking: You could drive for 20 minutes and still not be very far from the scene of the accident.

"I told Klein I wasn't interested, but I went back to Weber and some things happened," Motta continues. "I missed out on this seven-foot recruit, who went to Brigham Young. Then the athletic director sent me a memo. He had never sent me a memo before. He was my friend. He had the office next to mine. And he sent me a memo. Something about some NCAA inquiry. I was mad. Why didn't he just talk to me? I crumpled the memo into a ball. I had one of those little backboards and hoops over my wastebasket, you know? I said, 'The hell with it, if this goes in, I'm taking that Chicago job.' The shot went off the blackboard, off a wall, swish. Right into the basket."

Fitch didn't want the NBA either. He was doing fine at Minnesota, had the best freshman team he had ever had. Nick Mileti, then the owner of the Cavs, was insistent. Fitch resisted and resisted, but when he arrived at a hotel in Hutchinson, Kans., for the national junior college championships, his message light was flashing. Phone Nick Mileti immediately. Fitch called, and they talked for 3½ hours until Mileti finally convinced him. Fitch agreed to try the NBA, to use it as a wedge toward a better college job in the future.

"I was feeling pretty good about myself, about my deal," Fitch says. "Then I realized that I had called him. That 3!/2-hour phone call was on my bill."

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