Indiana Pacer guard Byron Scott, a Laker for seven seasons under Riley, says, "The first couple of years with Riles, you're seeing everything he's doing is basically working. He's a master motivator. But after a period of time, guys get a little tired of it. Pretty soon they hear him, but they don't hear him. I think it's inevitable, especially in the pros."
But Riley will not surrender even that much ground. He says the extreme effort he demands "is what [chasing] greatness is all about." And if the things he is being accused of now sound hauntingly like charges leveled at the time of his departure from the Lakers in 1990, after he had won four titles in nine seasons, Riley remains unconvinced that he's the one with the blind spot.
Part of Riley's contrariness traces to his unshaken view of what a coach is—an indispensable authority figure, a team conscience. Riley also rejects what he calls "New Age...avant-garde ideas about the player of the '90s, this idea that everybody has to find a "player's coach' who can 'relate' to modern players."
"Well, no. No, no. no," Riley says. Within seconds, it's as if this subject has lit a bonfire in his gut. His voice heats up. His words are spit out like hot ingots.
With the Knicks, all he has done is win. Rather than be cowed by criticism he's absorbing, rather than exit New York with a forced smile, as he did Los Angeles, Riley—this time—keeps drawing his line in the sand.
Riley's decision to leave L.A. was reportedly cemented after Laker sixth man Michael Cooper went over his head and met with general manager Jerry West. Los Angeles was in the midst of a league-best 63-19 season. After listening to Cooper's gripes, West went to Riley and told the coach he had a problem.
"No," Riley responded, "Cooper has a problem."
And he now has exactly the same retort about this fractious year: He's not the one with the problem. "I wasn't hired to relate to these guys, I was hired to coach them," he begins. "The only thing I'm going to relate to them is how important it is for us to be on the same wavelength and to get them to do what it takes to win.
"I'm not in any way, shape or form condemning today's players—I'm really not," Riley insists. "But there has to be a basic set of rules within a team. Or there's going to be anarchy. And when management begins to get rid of coaches because players no longer want to adhere to what coaches say needs to be done, well. I don't believe in that. If a player tunes you out as a coach, then you as a coach damn sure better get rid of him. Until their values are the same as mine about things like what it takes to win, then we're going to knock heads. Because I'm not going to let go. I won't. I'm going to hold on to those values. To the last."
Riley is probably the only current NBA coach who has the portfolio to take such a hard line. He is so good at what he does that a veteran Western Conference rival coach says, "Riley added to a .500 team is worth 15 to 20 more wins a year."