Friday, May 28, 2010

Dick Motta: A Lotta Bull

     The departure of the Bulls' popular head coach Johnny “Red” Kerr after the 1967-68 season was a serious blow. But when managing partner Dick Klein tapped an obscure young coach from Weber State University in Utah to replace Kerr, he probably saved the franchise. The announcement attracted little notice in the press—because Dick Motta’s first day as coach of the Bulls was also George Halas’s last as coach of the Bears. It was May 27, 1968, forty-two years ago yesterday.
     The two-year-old Bulls franchise was still all but invisible in Chicago. “We had four people in the front office,” said Motta. “We had a coach and no assistant. There were no newspaper people following us on the road. We didn’t do radio on the road. We didn’t do TV on the road. They sold, I think, 38 season tickets that year.”
     The Bulls opened the 1968-69 season with a starting five of Jerry Sloan and Flynn Robinson at guards, Bob Boozer and Jim Washington at forwards, and rookie Tom Boerwinkle at center. Their new coach was quite a contrast from the easy-going Kerr. He battled ceaselessly with his bosses, the media, referees, and any player who didn’t want to do things his way. A month into the season, Motta went home from practice one night and called Klein at home. “If Flynn [Robinson] is there tomorrow,” he said, “I’m gone.”
     Klein resented the ultimatum and told Motta so. Nonetheless, he traded Robinson to the Milwaukee Bucks for forward Bob Love and guard Bobby Weiss. Then he phoned Motta to “congratulate” him for forcing what he called the worst trade he’d ever made. “Motta had no idea who we were,” said Weiss, “and Klein did not like the deal. It was just one of those things that worked out.” Motta later described the trade as “the major turning point of the franchise.” The wiry, six-foot-eight Love became a force at both ends of the court (he would lead the Bulls in scoring for seven consecutive seasons), and the scrappy Weiss proved a solid sixth man.
     The Bulls went 33-49 and missed the playoffs in Motta’s first year, but they were starting to jell.
     Pat Williams was appointed general manager in 1969, replacing Klein, who had run afoul of his fellow partners. “I rubbed some furs the wrong way,” said Klein. Williams's first order of business was to complete a trade with the club he had just left, the 76ers, for forward Chet Walker.
     Walker, master of the pump fake and an excellent free-throw shooter, was just what the Bulls needed—a go-to guy who could deliver in pressure situations. “Chet [Walker] was a great clutch player,” said teammate Matt Guokas. “When teams stopped our offense, we needed good one-on-one players to finish it off. Chet was the guy.” Walker teamed with Love to give the Bulls a superb forward tandem.
     Meanwhile, the fiery Sloan thrived under Motta, a kindred spirit, emerging as the most tenacious defender in the league. “It took me about 10 minutes to recognize that he was very special,” Motta said. “There weren’t many players that had his intensity.” And Boerwinkle developed into an outstanding rebounder and passer. “He really set the whole Motta program up,” said Sloan, “because of his ability to pass the ball.”
     The 1969-70 Bulls finished 39-43 and won only one of five games in their first-round playoff series. It was clear, however, that they were on the verge of being one of the elite teams in the league. As Motta left the locker room after the last playoff game, he said, “I wish the season started all over again tomorrow.”
     The Bulls won 50 or more games in each of the next four seasons. Attendance soared. The Bulls didn’t win any championships in those years, but they won over enough Chicagoans to ensure that the franchise was here to stay. “The thing I really feel a little bit of pride in,” said Sloan, “is the fact that we kept the franchise here. Otherwise it would have been gone.”

Adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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