The night arrives, a number on a pocket calendar. FRIDAY, JAN. 24, 1997. DENVER NUGGETS AT LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS, 7:30 P.M. L.A. MEMORIAL SPORTS ARENA. A quiet note for the far corner of the sports page. No one else really notices, not with the Super Bowl and other important business coming up on the weekend, but Bill Fitch and Dick Motta look up and see each other yet again.
"Hey, how're you feeling?" the 65-year-old Motta asks Fitch just before the start of the game. "You look good."
"I'm O.K.," the 62-year-old Fitch replies. "How about you? Is this working out? Are you doing what you want to do?"
Here they are, the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon of pro basketball, grumpy old veterans of the same wars. They have sat in the same airports through too many delays on too many stormy nights. They have stayed in the same hotel rooms, double-bolted in for the night with their joy or their disappointment or their loneliness. They have howled at the same full basketball moons.
Another night. Another meeting. How many games have these guys seen? How many times have they sat in that special coach's seat, their stomachs boiling and the veins standing out on their necks as they watched tall young men do strange things with that bouncing leather-covered ball? More times than anyone else in the history of the NBA. Twenty-four years for Fitch, five teams, 1,925 regular-season games, 906 wins and 1,019 losses. Twenty-five years for Motta, also five teams, 1,911 regular-season games, 926 wins and 985 losses. Including the postseason, more than 4,000 games, 4,000 nights. They have coached against each other 85 times, with Motta leading the series 44-41. In one of those games, they were both ejected. They wound up watching the game on television in Fitch's office.
"I was coaching the University of Minnesota the first time I saw Dick Motta," Fitch says. "We came to Chicago Stadium to play in a doubleheader. This sad little guy in a trench coat came up to me. He looked like Columbo. He introduced himself and asked if he could talk to one of my players. He was coaching the Bulls, an expansion team, just awful, and I remember feeling sorry for him. Two years later I was coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers, another expansion team, worse, and I looked just as bad."
"Someone stole that trench coat," Motta remembers. "I've never had one since."
Fitch is in his third year as coach of the struggling Clippers, who were 16-24 at week's end. He had a heart attack on Aug. 7, followed by a triple-bypass operation, but he was back on the job six weeks later at training camp. What else was he going to do? Retire? Quit? Be serious.
Motta was supposed to be cruising a little bit this season. He had been bounced in a purge by a new owner of the Dallas Mavericks and had taken a job as an assistant coach, first time in his life, to Denver coach and president Bernie Bickerstaff. Thirteen games into the season Bickerstaff had seen enough of his struggling Nuggets (at week's end Denver was 13-30). He asked Motta to move down a seat on the bench and become the head man. What was Motta to do? Be serious.
So here they are, the old men of this tempestuous public sea. They are still tied to that big fish, following it wherever it goes. "Had one you'd like the other night," Fitch says. "Against Cleveland."