fat lady swan song?

Wed May 19 22:50:45 UTC 2004

        I don't think that there's any real question that the phrase was popularized by Dick Motta in 1978, and that Motta himself credited Dan Cook as his source.  As Fred Shapiro posted a few years ago, there was a pre-existing phrase, "Church ain't out 'till the fat lady sings," datable to 1976 but said to have been in use as a Southern proverb for decades previously.  Here's Dick Motta's own account, from the Dallas Morning News on 3/5/85.  Since Motta says he heard a version of it from Cook, I wonder if Cook may have said "church" and Motta changed it to "opera."

        <<The other subject I always get asked about is the origin of the
  expression "The opera ain't over until the Fat Lady sings.' For the
 uninitiated, I got credit for popularizing that expression during the
 1978 playoffs in which my team, the Washington Bullets, won the world
 championship against Seattle. I never credited myself with coining
 that expression. I first heard a version of it used by Dan Cook in
 San Antonio during a playoff series that season. I repeated it in
 our locker room after we took a 3-1 series lead, but nobody picked up
 on it.

     The big misnomer surrounding my use of the expression is that
 everyone thinks I used it to motivate my team once it got behind.
 That's wrong. The first time it got published was after we had
 beaten Philadelphia in the fourth game of the Eastern Conference
 finals to take a 3-1 lead.

    A reporter would not leave me alone and kept insisting that we
 had the series locked up. He asked me how it felt after 10 years in
 the league to make it to the finals, etc. I said it to get the
 writer off my back, because I knew the series wasn't over. "Listen,'
 I said, "we still have to win that fourth game. The opera ain't over
 until the Fat Lady sings. We've still got some more basketball to

    When we did get into the finals, we were sort of a Cinderella
 team. CBS picked up on it. Our fans picked up on it. When we
 trailed the championship series, 3-2, the media trotted the line out,
 and it became part of the folklore of that series because we won
 Games 6 and 7. There were Fat Lady T-shirts, and a lot of money was
 made by a lot of people off that line, but I never made a cent.

    Before that season, I had been on the verge of getting into the
 finals three times but never made it. A seventh game in that
 Philadelphia series would have been played there, and there was no
 way I was going to accept premature congratulations for something we
 hadn't accomplished. What I was thinking really was a variation of
 the old Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra line. Remember "It ain't over
 until it's over?' It just happened to come out the way it did. To
 this day, some leather-lung fan will greet me when I walk onto the
 court with "Hey, Motta, where's the Fat Lady?' or "When's the Fat
 Lady going to sing?'

    A footnote to the Fat Lady: After the Bullets won the title, a
  T-shirt came out in the Washington area that said: "The Opera is over
 . . . the Fat Lady sang.' The next season, they marketed a T-shirt
 that said: "The Fat Lady will sing again.' Someday, I hope we can
 dust off the Fat Lady and have her sing country and western in

John Baker

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