Work in Sports
In a stormy series that saw the Heat's Alonzo Mourning punch himself out, the Knicks' Jeff Van Gundy quietly outcoached former friend and mentor Pat Riley
By S.L. Price
Issue date: May 11, 1998
Take the man at his word. Near the end he just sat on the bench at Miami Arena, watching an entire season's promise leak away, watching the clock tick off the seconds, watching his dauntless team lose badly. If he's to be believed, seeing Miami Heat coach Pat Riley get beaten by the New York Knicks on Sunday afternoon was like seeing him fall into the grave. He looked hollowed out. This happens when you make basketball more than a game. This happens when you burden a sport with hyperbolic visions of manhood and are willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to win. There was a time when Riley might have taken comfort from the fact that the man down on the other end of the floor, former protégé and current Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, knew exactly how he felt. "Jeff and I equate losing with dying," Riley once said proudly. But that was before he decided to sacrifice Van Gundy, too.
The seventh-seeded Knicks' 98-81 win over the second-seeded Heat in the fifth and deciding game of their Eastern Conference first-round series propelled them into this week's second round of the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers. But it is cold fact that from here on out New York will be hard-pressed to top what it did against Miami. Expunging the memory of last year's playoff debacle, in which the Heat beat the Knicks in the fight-marred conference semifinals, was the least of it: Still lacking center Patrick Ewing, out since December with a dislocated right wrist, New York wreaked vengeance on Riley that went well beyond mere payback. Following last Thursday's infamous Game 4 swing-and-miss-fest between New York forward Larry Johnson and Miami center Alonzo Mourning (which resulted in two-game suspensions for both), the Knicks became the instrument that called into question everything from Riley's ethics to his skill as a team builder to Van Gundy's image as a Riley clone. In an interview with The Miami Herald, Riley said of the biting words he directed at Van Gundy as the series was slipping away, "This is coaching. This transcends friendship."
Game 5 will be remembered as a milestone: the day Van Gundy arrived. Since March 8, 1996, when he replaced Don Nelson as Knicks coach, the diminutive, balding, 36-year-old Van Gundy had looked like a kid trying to fill out his father's suit. He had spent four formative years as an assistant during Riley's years as the Knicks' coach in the early '90s, and while no one doubted Van Gundy's work habits or ability, some Knicks officials wondered if he could compete against someone he so obviously admired. After all, he'd given one of his daughters Riley as a middle name and as recently as last season's playoff showdown with Miami was still saying of his opponent, "Everybody aspires to be as great as he is."
But on Sunday, after weathering a public attack by Riley that questioned his self-control and his coaching tactics, Van Gundy coolly hit his former mentor where he lives and dies. Lacking Ewing, Johnson and forward Chris Mills (who was suspended for one game after leaving the bench during Thursday's brouhaha), he somehow left Riley looking outmanned and outcoached. New York broke to a 19-point second-quarter lead, neutralized Miami point guard and noted Knicks-killer Tim Hardaway for nearly three quarters and never trailed, humiliating the Atlantic Division champion Heat on its own floor. Without Mourning's defense or the offensive firepower Riley lost when he dealt valuable backup center Isaac Austin to the Los Angeles Clippers in February for guard Brent Barry, the Miami coach struggled to piece together a cohesive lineup. Curiously, he left forward Mark Strickland, who energized the Heat in the second half, on the bench until it was too late. A year ago Miami was considered a bona fide threat to the Chicago Bulls' supremacy, and Riley collected his third Coach of the Year award. On Sunday, Van Gundy made Riley's team look bewildered.
"You know he wanted to beat his teacher," said Knicks guard John Starks, whose own career was boosted by Riley and who had 22 points on Sunday. "Any pupil wants to do that. He came up big. We came up big."
"Coach Van Gundy can downplay it and be as humble as he wants, but he took a giant step today by beating Pat Riley," said Knicks forward Buck Williams, who helped compensate for Johnson's absence with 12 points and 14 rebounds. "Now he steps into his own personality as a coach. He's no longer in the shadows of Pat Riley."
In truth, Van Gundy began to step out during last year's playoff horror. Before that series the two men had been quite friendly. Riley, who during his tenure in New York had constantly touted Van Gundy as a future NBA coach, tried to hire him as an assistant when he left the Knicks for the Heat in '95, failing that, hired Van Gundy's older brother, Stan. Though on a different planet from the Knicks coach stylistically -- Jeff Van Gundy drives a Honda Civic, often to a McDonald's drive-through -- Riley told the press before last year's series that they were "no more similar than your left and right hand." He called Van Gundy at 6:30 a.m. two days before the series began to wish him luck and joked, prophetically, "I will never speak to you again."
By the end of the series, the Knicks had squandered a 3-1 lead -- mainly because of a Game 5 brawl precipitated by a tussle between Miami forward P.J. Brown and New York guard Charlie Ward that led to the suspensions of several key Knicks for leaving the bench -- and had blown a real chance at a championship. As tensions rose during the series, Riley hinted that Van Gundy had instructed Knicks players to use dirty tactics and Van Gundy called Riley "absurd." After the Heat won Game 7, in Miami, Van Gundy forced himself to go to Riley's office to offer congratulations. The two men talked, but something had changed. They haven't talked since.
But last year was merely Act I. Last Thursday in Madison Square Garden, with 1.4 seconds left to play in a very physical 90-85 Knicks' Game 4 victory, Johnson hammered Mourning -- playing for the first time without the mask designed to protect his left cheekbone, fractured on March 31 -- with a forearm to the face. The two men, teammates with the Charlotte Hornets from 1992-93 to '94-95, had never gotten along in Charlotte, clashing over issues of ego and money. In 1993, after Johnson signed his outrageous 12-year, $84 million contract, Mourning, according to sources then with the team, yelled at coach Allan Bristow, "You paid him all this damn money, and now you won't pay me!" The two men tussled briefly on Feb. 1 under the basket in New York, but that was nothing like Thursday's explosion: After pausing for an instant after Johnson's blow, Mourning threw several wide, off-target punches. Johnson threw several as well.
None connected, and a violent situation turned comical: Van Gundy raced from the bench, fell while trying to get between the two men, grabbed Mourning's leg and refused to let go. Mourning looked down and, growing more embarrassed by the second, shook his leg like a mailman trying to shake off a chihuahua. "I looked like a fool," Van Gundy said. The entire scene was ugly and stupid and, considering Mourning's repeated vows this season to keep his cool, proved that nothing had changed for the Heat center, who in 1996 signed his own seven-year, $105 million contract. After the game he apologized to his teammates but said, "I just had to make a stand. You've got to draw the line somewhere. Hey, my manhood was tested."
Then things got really strange. On Friday everyone, including Riley, seemed prepared to treat the incident as an isolated tiff between two old enemies -- with Mourning rightfully taking a huge share of the blame. (Swinging? With 1.4 seconds to play? With last year's suspensions still fresh in mind? With Game 5 looming?) When the suspensions of Mills, Mourning and Johnson were announced, no one protested. At practice, when asked about Mourning's role in the workout, Riley smirked. "He's sitting there," he said, "making $105 million."
But when Riley heard that Van Gundy had said Mourning was "always whining" and should "bang and bump like a man," the Miami coach began to fume. Issues of manhood are paramount to Riley; he's a master at transforming a basketball game into warfare, at using metaphors like "lofting grenades" and "kicking ass," at raising the machismo level of any team he coaches. It's no coincidence that the NBA's last three high-profile fights (which also include a Knicks-Bulls donnybrook in the 1994 Eastern semifinals) have involved a Riley-led team, and certainly no surprise that the hot-tempered Mourning got enmeshed in such a test of "manhood." Riley talking macho to Mourning is like setting a match to dry tinder. But Van Gundy's comments flushed the combativeness out of Riley like nothing else has: On Saturday, Riley declared that his only disappointment was that Mourning's punches never connected.
"Last year Van Gundy called P.J. a coward for flipping [Ward]," Riley said. "A guy takes my knees out [as Ward was accused of doing to Brown]? I would've done the same thing. [Van Gundy] called 'Zo an a------ because 'Zo takes a punch at his guy, who's trying to take [Mourning's] broken face off. Who's provoking? Who's provoking? That's where it comes from. Unless you've been in a situation where the primal instincts come out, you can't deal with that. This is not about intellectual behavior here. This is about protection. Winning -- and the consequences -- does not transcend that.
"From a coaching standpoint, I wish he could've walked away," Riley said of Mourning. "From a man's standpoint, he was not wrong." In other words, instead of being smart and understanding that it's better to fight another day, Mourning was right to go after Johnson. "If it costs us the series, then that's the way it goes," Riley said.
As for Van Gundy, Riley blasted his former assistant. "The only one out of control the other night was him," Riley said. "Totally." Then he compared Van Gundy to a little boy: "A guy starts lobbing spitballs, and somebody's going to turn on him."
Riley turned. Yes, both men were coaching in the media, and his former protege had learned from the best. But Van Gundy was obviously stung by the personal nature of Riley's attack. He had challenged Riley's manhood, and what was once a warm relationship was now something else. "Coach Riley has done a lot for me and my family," Van Gundy said after Sunday's game. "I learned a lot from him as a coach. I respect him greatly. His opinion has obviously changed of me. But that won't change my opinion of him."
It was all very revealing. Mourning took off his mask in Game 4 and revealed himself as still a victim of his own worst impulses. His absence from Game 5 showed just how thin the Heat (especially without Austin) truly was. Riley suffered the most embarrassing playoff elimination of his career and crippled a friendship, but showed that he would wave all that off as the price of adhering to a personal code. Maybe you'll lose something important, but as the newspapers trumpet your legend, you will always find a way to tell yourself that what you lost wasn't that important. You will find yourself sitting in an increasingly quiet arena and telling yourself, Yes, it was worth it. Yes, it was.
"I value family, friendship and loyalty above my job," says Van Gundy.
Riley said his only disappointment was that Mourning's punches didn't land.
Issue date: May 11, 1998