Dallas Two-Step: Dick Motta and Mark Aguirre, 1984

[In 1981, the Dallas Mavericks selected Mark Aguirre, an All-American forward from DePaul, with the first pick of the NBA Draft. It was a gutsy move for the second-year expansion franchise, which badly needed a major talent like Aguirre, who could score in bunches and hopefully put fans in the seats. But Aguirre’s scoring prowess also came with serious questions about his “character,” that vague, all-stigmatizing word and label that translates to “beware, he could be trouble.”

“I’m not bringing Mark in here with the attitude this whole thing is going to fail,” said the Mavericks’ veteran coach Dick Motta, defending the choice to the second-guessing local media. “I don’t foresee any major player-coach problems. I’ve never had the chance to coach anyone with the potential to be a superstar—until now.”

But, as a Dallas reporter later quipped, the Motta-Aguirre match was “a marriage made in Las Vegas.” And it was obvious from the start. Motta, an old-school, overachieving, my-way-or-the-highway white coach from conservative rural Utah, grumbled to high heaven when Aguirre, a moody, hardheaded Black kid from Chicago’s rough-and-tumble West Side, arrived at rookie camp chubby and uninspired. Motta being Motta, let him know about it. Aguirre being Aguirre, shrugged it off . . . and kept loafing through Motta’s preseason drills.

And yet, over time and out of necessity, this NBA Odd Couple worked on their generational communication gap and learned to coexist, more or less. Oh, there were still several public spats. Like the time during the 1984-85 season when Motta and Aguirre had a locker-room blow up in front of players and note-taking reporters. Motta called Aguirre a quitter. Aguirre told Motta he wanted a trade. Motta scoffed, “Nobody wants you.” The next season, miffed at Motta, Aguirre refused to play in the second half of what turned into a blowout loss. The Mavericks suspended Aguirre; but, as always, coach and player made up—until their next family feud. 

“It’s really a delicate situation,” Aguirre said. “Now, I would really run away from any confrontation. If anything happens on the court, I know there’s going to be a confrontation. I’m trying to tune it out. I don’t know how long it will last, but I hope one day I can get past this and stop having to analyze it.”

Dallas would trade Aguirre to Detroit in February 1989, or nearly two years after Motta stepped down from the Mavs. What follows is two articles from 1984 that let us take a closer look at Motta and Aguirre during their good times. The first is a profile of Motta from Jan Hubbard of the Dallas Morning News. The second article, also by Hubbard, profiles Aguirre and predicts some form of détente has finally been reached between coach and franchise player. It was, of course, wishful thinking on Hubbard’s part. But he is right to mention that the two could at times bring out the best in each other in this classic NBA tale of a coach and a player who badly need each other but just don’t have much, if anything, in common except their mutual love of the game. Both articles were published in the February 1984 issue of Basketball Digest.]

Daydreaming allowed him brief escape from the hard work and the old man, but he could not flush reality from his mind. He assured himself that life had more to offer than a Utah truck farm. But when he fantasized, he was a victim of his environment.

“I would daydream that I could tie the most radishes or carry cabbages on my back the longest distance, the most weight,” said Dick Motta, who remembers wanting to be the best at anything he did early in life. Usually, he didn’t have a choice. His father made sure of that.

“I was wrong twice a day,” Motta said. “I didn’t want to go to bed early, so I was a bum. Then I didn’t want to get up at 4:30, so I was lazy. I was wrong twice before I got up. He was tough. Still is.”

Authority was a condition Motta had no choice but to understand. Later, it would be hard to accept that others could not understand as well, although time and experience would soften his rigidity. “When you’re eight years old, you know the difference between right and wrong,” Motta said. “There are two ways to do it—one way and the wrong way.”

While he was a child, Motta learned one way. But he never quit dreaming. “I knew something would happen,” he said. “I knew I would do something.”

By the time the Vietnam War was nearing an end, Motta had gone through big changes, although there was one constant: At everything he attempted, he tried to be the best. More often than not, he was. There was one exception—when he was a senior, he was cut from his high school basketball team.

But that was unimportant compared to what he had accomplished: He was the first member of his family to graduate from high school. He went to Utah State University, where he earned his degree and, more important, became interested in coaching. When he was a junior, he left school for a week to attend an all-sports clinic. After that, he read every piece of literature he could find on coaching, watched films, and attended clinics. 

When he became a seventh-grade teacher at Grace (Idaho) Junior High School, the basketball team needed a coach. Motta accepted, but enjoyed it no more than teaching biology. His first team won nine consecutive games before losing the championship in double overtime.

After a year in the Air Force, he moved to Grace High School for three years, where his teams had a 61-13 record and won a state championship in 1959. After a year in graduate school, he coached Weber Junior College for two years and compiled a 44-17 record. Weber State became a four-year college the next year, but that changed nothing. Motta’s team was 22-4. Six years at Weber State resulted in a 120-33 record. 

For good reason, he had a reputation as a winner. But he was better known for his intolerance of anyone who did not respect authority, his dislike of bums and lazy people, his intensity and determination, his ranting and raving, and his disdain for those who did not want to be the best. 

“He was very, very tough,” said Phil Johnson, a Utah Jazz assistant coach who played for Motta in junior high, high school, college, and was Motta’s assistant for six years in college and the NBA. “He always stressed hustling and being in shape. In high school, you were too tired to go out after practice. But he always wanted us to have fun. I think he used that term more than any other. He has a reputation of yelling at his players, but he picks his spots . . .”

Motta changed little when he accepted the Chicago Bulls head coaching job in 1968. His intensity was stronger than ever. He became somewhat of wild man—spitting on basketballs, punting basketballs into the stands, storming out of hotels without the team, and fighting with the players, press, and front office.

The sport was his salvation. He loved the purity of the game. On the court, he was a master. He built teams with this work-ethic image. They did not possess the natural talent of other teams, but survived and excelled because of hard work, intensity, and determination. He had four teams that won more than 50 games, but never had a champion or a center—except in his daydreams. “We fought and scrapped every inch of the way,” Motta said.

He enjoyed referring to his Bulls as a “blue-collar team,” and he had a favorite line in the locker room before games: “Punch the clock and take your lunch pails. We’re going to work.”

But success changed the players. Some held out for more money. No-cut contracts became popular, which removed some of the coach’s authority. How could Motta gain a player’s respect if the player knew he would get paid no matter what? “I couldn’t understand paying people when they didn’t earn their money,” he said.

He also disliked constant references to his religion. “I was a Mormon, and we’re supposed to be prejudiced,” he said. “I never read, ‘Bill Fitch, the Catholic coach,’ or ‘Frank Layden, the Irishman.’ But it was always, ‘Dick Motta, the Mormon from Utah.’ Every Black player that came in would be worried about that. Agents would use it against me. But I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of being racist. If I have, it was behind my back.”

Contracts and prejudice disrupted his authority, but the breakdown was more complicated than that. Players weren’t following him blindly, as they had in junior high, high school, and college. There were reasons. And when he went on a State Department-sponsored tour of Vietnam in 1972, some became evident.

“When I was young, I was single. I had a car and a couple of bucks in my pocket,” said Motta. “It was easy to sell my stuff then, because the [players] all wanted what I had. Then I passed through the generation gap. There were hard times—the Vietnam War; we had a president quit us, and a war they wouldn’t let us win. It was a debacle. I went over and saw it. I probably eased up then and saw that it wasn’t as important to win basketball games.

“I grew up with the work ethic. I grew up thinking doctors, lawyers, and cops were God-like. I couldn’t believe there was any corruption. I couldn’t believe people like that were ordinary. I always wanted them to be better. I always wanted my athletes to be better. I had more rules for them.

“People born in the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s are the hardest to control. They basically fought any type of authority, whether it was right or wrong. We had a vice president impeached, a president who was a cheater, a war where we lied to the public. Our schools were deteriorating to a point where there was no authority in the classroom, the divorce rate was 50 percent.”

He began to understand. He still ranted and raved, but he mellowed. He did not, however, forsake his values. In 1978, his Washington Bullets team, which was on the way to the NBA championship, won a playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers, who had several colorful characters, including Darryl Dawkins, Lloyd Free, and Joe Bryant. “That,” Motta said, “was a victory for the work ethic over earrings.”

As Motta, the fifth-winningest coach in NBA history, approaches the middle of his fourth season as the Mavericks coach and his 16th season in the league, the values are intact. “You do change,” he said, “but there are certain things you never give up. Young people still need guidance and direction.”

Motta has watched society evolve and witnessed changes he could never have foreseen. One of his peers in junior college coaching was Cotton Fitzsimmons, now coach of the Kansas City Kings. Fitzsimmons and Motta are tough, conservative disciplinarians, but both have changed. Fitzsimmons now has his hair permed. “Maybe I’ll get one of those,” Motta said, not seriously.

Nor can he understand why rookie Derek Harper likes to wear an earring. The Mavericks front office people have tried to convince Motta an earring is no different than a necklace, but Motta still is having difficulties. “They’ve told him not to wear it around me,” Motta said, “but he still does . . .”

As always, his salvation is the game. “I really think I’m enthusiastic,” he said. “I haven’t noticed any changes, but I’d be the last to notice. I don’t get as uptight for games. They’re not do or die anymore. I still like practice. You probably go more two-a-days than any other team: There are no shortcuts.”

And as long as there is no true center in Dallas, the Mavericks can expect to see and hear the demanding Motta. He made that clear last season. The more the Mavericks won, the tougher he got. He was critical, insulting, nasty, and obnoxious—and that was when the Mavericks were winning. This season, he may be harder . . .

No Maverick was subjected to more abuse from Motta last season than Mark Aguirre, and that was because Motta said Aguirre was not taking full advantage of his considerable talents. “Young people don’t understand that 99 percent of the time I deal in negatives,” Motta said. “But how else do you improve unless you point out what they’re doing wrong? That’s the only way I know how to do it. I don’t like to have things taken for granted. I think that’s hard for them to understand, but I’m not going to change.

“It sounds like I’m treating [Aguirre] like a dog every second. I don’t. I point out his mistakes as often as he makes them. That’s my job. I’ve never kicked my dog once, and I’ve never had a player die on the floor from overwork or overabuse. And my dog still likes me. You know his name? Champ.”

That is the key. Until the Mavericks have a name like Motta’s dog, they will continue to be treated accordingly—like dogs, not champs. And if they become champs, who knows? They still may get dog treatment. But some understand.

“He’s tough,” forward Jay Vincent said, “but it’s no problem. He’s always explaining things to you. I think he just wants to make you better.”

“I think he’s a master at dealing with players,” Dallas player personnel director Rick Sund said. “He knows when to push a player and when to pat him on the back. He may test players, but he’s always straightforward. And he respects people that are straightforward with him. Dick Motta commands respect, and management backs him. We really emphasize that it’s Dick Motta’s show. And if you can’t accept that, too bad.”

Authority rules, which is the way it should be. There’s one way and the wrong way. Dick Motta knew that when he was eight years old.

[And now, here is Hubbard’s profile of Aguirre. Basketball Digest ran the story under the headline – Mark Aguirre: Fiery Leader of Motta’s Mavericks. The subhead suggests: It took some time for the coach to tame the biggest Maverick, but now they’re both happy he took the trouble.]

First impressions were not lasting, which was fortunate for Mark Aguirre and the Dallas Mavericks. Otherwise, Aguirre might have been the biggest flop since LaRue Martin, and the Mavericks would have wasted a once-in-a-franchise opportunity—the privilege of picking the No. 1 player in the college draft.

It took two years before they were certain, but the Mavericks are confident they made the right pick when they took Aguirre instead of Isiah Thomas or Buck Williams in 1981. And after a bombastic beginning, even Dallas coach Dick Motta— Aguirre’s most-demanding critic—says the 24-year-old small forward is approaching greatness. 

“He’s got to wait until Dr. J., Jamaal Wilkes, and Marques Johnson reach their peak and start on the way down,” said Motta. “By then he’ll be there. He’ll be on the All-Star team. And he’ll be on the All-Pro team. First team.”

When Aguirre made his first appearance at training camp in 1981, Motta thought he might be a candidate for the all-deep-dish team. Aguirre loved pizza and pasta, which made him plump and Motta peeved. Aguirre had been telling reporters that he weighed 223 pounds. When he stepped on the training camp scales, he weighed 241. His body fat was only 9.7 percent, but the Muffin Man—the popular moniker bestowed upon him at DePaul when he regularly flirted with the 250 mark—had arrived in Dallas in a very large way.

In scrimmages, he was great. Points were like calories. Aguirre inhaled both. In drills, however, he acted like first was last—or more accurately, next to last. Aguirre was careful never to finish last in a drill. He had great peripheral vision. He always was glancing across court, making sure one player was behind him.

“I didn’t compete in practice,” Aguirre said. “I practiced well, but I didn’t try to improve.”

The bottom line was one that did not surprise, but did infuriate Motta. He was familiar with Aguirre’s animated act on the court—the screaming, whining adolescent who seemed to always be putting on an act. And Aguirre had the reputation of not being a coach’s player. There were no doubts about his ability or his desire. But would he work? Motta had mixed feelings. 

“I had to look at his oncourt antics and see if he was incorrigible or immature,” said Motta. “That was hard for a non-psychologist to know. But I came away with two opinions of him and they haven’t changed. First, the guy loved basketball. He was basically a basketball junkie. 

“Second, he is a good person and a good kid. But I came away knowing it was going to be tough for me to get this guy to play in our system—to take this atomic bomb and neutralize it.”

Aguirre’s rookie season exploded on December 9, 1981, when he broke a small bone in his right foot in a game in Kansas City. He missed 31 games and failed to overcome the depression caused by his first major injury. He embraced rehabilitation like it was a dietetic spaghetti. He was late for workouts often, which led to numerous fines, which depressed him even more. 

Meanwhile, fellow forward Jay Vincent and the Mavericks were flourishing in Aguirre’s absence. With Aguirre as the main scorer, the Mavericks were 4-16. With Vincent leading the scoring, the Mavericks were 13-18. Did the Mavericks really miss Aguirre? Dallas officials began to wonder if Aguirre might go the way of LaRue Martin, who had a dismal career after being selected first by Portland in the 1972 draft.

At the end of the season, Aguirre and Motta had a meeting that Motta described as “awesome.” Nothing was held back. Motta told Aguirre he was headed for failure.

“He said it was upsetting to him the way I played, and I had a lot of work to do,” said Aguirre. “He said the way I came to camp, he felt like sitting me on the bench the whole year. He told me I wasn’t coachable, and that was upsetting. When a coach says things like that, you either do it [work], or you don’t do it. I figured if I could satisfy Coach Motta, I could play for any coach in the NBA. I wasn’t going to give up.”

Five months later, Aguirre stepped on a running track in Dallas for Motta’s annual two-mile run to open the 1982 training camp. He weighed 229 pounds. His body fat was less than 5 percent. Salad and quiche had become his favorite meals. The coach was impressed. “He made a hell of an offseason sacrifice,” said Motta. “That was step one. I had to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to give this guy the benefit of the doubt.’”

Motta promptly got tougher. The better Aguirre looked and the better he played, the harder Motta got. Motta spent the 1982 season screaming at Aguirre; demanding improvement, demanding the greatness expected of a No. 1 pick. “I said things that I was embarrassed to say,” said Motta. “I’ve said things to him that I wouldn’t say to my dog.”

Aguirre refused to crack or whimper, however. He was the primary reason the Mavericks, who had won 15 games their first season and 28 games in Aguirre’s rookie season, won 38 games in their third season. Aguirre averaged 24.4 points a game, sixth best in the NBA, and helped the Mavericks become the third most-successful third-year team in modern NBA expansion history (since 1966). For the Mavericks, however, the major highlight was the way Aguirre withstood Motta’s mental assault. 

“It was difficult,” said Aguirre. “But it helped. It helped me to know Dick. If everything is going to work here, we’re going to have to work. Sometimes, I’m kind of wild, and it helped to tone me down a little bit. I accepted all that—all that whupping talk.”

But it wasn’t easy.

“Sometimes it hurts,” Aguirre said. “I feel like I’m trying the best I can, and some nights it’s not gonna be your night. But he always feels I’m not supposed to have an off-night. It hurts to a point where you’re thinking. ‘He’s doing it to make me better, he’s doing it to make me better.’ But after a while, it just piles up, and you’re like: ‘Will you please give me a break now. I’ve been talked about for four weeks straight. Will you please give me least two days off, then talk about me after that.’ 

“I think he sees that. He lets up off me sometimes. But then when I do something crazy, he just jumps back on me.”

The mental tension finally eased when the 1983-84 camp began. Aguirre had been a guest instructor in Motta’s offseason basketball camp in Dillon, Montana, where he impressed Motta with his work with kids and his dedication to the idea that if the Mavericks were to be good, he would have to be great. When Aguirre reported to camp in September, he weighed 226 and, again, his body fat was less than 5 percent.

In drills, he often finished first. When rookie teammates let up, he would yell at them to work harder. On the court, he scored at will. But he also passed unselfishly and rebounded with intensity. Every aspect of his game has improved, and other coaches have noticed.

“He is a more mature player and under control better,” said New Jersey coach Stan Albeck. “He certainly has improved a lot. He is really playing with a purpose now.”

“It’s really fortunate for Mark that he came to an expansion team.” said Motta. “We needed his total game. If he’d been with L.A. or Philly or Boston, they probably wouldn’t have demanded as much, and he wouldn’t have had to give as much. He could’ve been a scorer and someone else could’ve gotten rebounds and covered for him on defense. But we needed everything.”

His willingness to sacrifice and work, and his efforts to be the leader that Motta said was a necessity for the young Mavericks, so impressed Motta that the coach concentrated on other Maverick problems. “I haven’t had to raise my voice to him once this year,” said Motta. “You know he’s got to be thrilled when he sees me jumping on the other players.”

“Oh yeah,” said Aguirre. “That feels great. The first year, I got about 70 percent of all the hollering. The second year, it was about 50 percent. He still gets on me, but he talks to me more like an adult. He’s not gonna yell at me anymore. I’m not going to let him. All he wants me to do is work in practice. And I’m going to do that.”

So, finally, the person Aguirre has dedicated himself to pleasing is beginning to accept him. “There were times I wondered in the first couple of years if we were going to make it,” said Motta. “And we haven’t made it yet. But he’s gonna make it. And that’ll be a hell of a thing for me, too. I’m gonna be proud of myself, because it hasn’t been easy.

“I’m going to be the first to tell him when he achieves what I thought he could. I’m going to say, “’See, you S.O.B., I told you so.’ But I don’t have to call him an S.O.B., because our relationship is different. I won’t have to trick him. I don’t have to play games with him anymore.”

The last hurdle Aguirre must clear before reaching stardom is acceptance by other coaches—specifically Western Conference coaches, who select the All-Star substitutes. Aguirre probably was the best player not to make the all-star team last season, and although he claims he won’t be upset if he doesn’t make it this season, he will be.

He is part of the problem, however. He still is animated and exuberant, and often his enthusiasm either looks fake or looks like he is trying to be a showman. It rubs some people the wrong way. “The purist coach probably doesn’t like him,” said Motta. “I didn’t like the stuff I saw on the floor. But there’re a lot of coaches in the league who would like to have him. If he does make the all-star team, though, I’ll have another battle to fight. He’ll be so high up, I’ll have to bring him down.”

“Naw,” said Aguirre. “He’s not going to have any problems with me if I’m an all-star. Maybe after we win a championship. Then he might have some problems.”

“After that,” said Motta. “I don’t care.”

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