But is winning enough balm? Or is Riley's monomania always destined to be perceived—fairly or not—as egomania? Magic Johnson, Riley's staunchest locker room ally in L.A., has said that once Riley began to accrue more credit for winning than the players, Riley "had to go." (Riley has agreed, having once told Vanity Fair that "toxic envy" did him in.)
Riley still takes star turns in New York. And his last three seasons have featured escalating clashes. In 1992-93 he benched guard Greg Anthony, forward Anthony Mason and guard John Starks for flippant behavior during a loss, and then reaped hosannas when the Knicks won their next game without them. In '93-94 Riley smacked Mason with a three-game suspension and reinstated him for the postseason almost literally at the last minute; Mason was magnificent in the playoffs. In another firestorm last season, Riley called a team meeting and angrily demanded to know which Knicks anonymously told the New York Daily News that the team's offense focused too much on All-Star center Patrick Ewing. Word of Riley's inquisition also leaked out. of course, and a next-day headline in the New York Post screamed: HELP FIND THE RAT IN KNICKS' LOCKERROOM!
Even by New York standards, though, this has been Riley's toughest season.
For all the pretending that athletes have some mystical internal gyroscopes that can't be disturbed lest they lose their winning mind-set, the truth is that carping occurs on most teams. Rule No. 1 regarding any pro locker room is, Don't underestimate the pettiness of the jealousies at work. One Knick, while talking about the team two weeks ago, actually griped how "unfair" it is that Mason had won something called the Knicks Sharpshooter of the Month award three straight times. The award goes to the New York player with the highest field goal percentage, and the griper groused. "All Mase does is shoot layups. They need to change the criteria or something."
The plunder for winning the award? Absolutely nothing. A TV and VCR are given to a charity. That's it.
As the '94-95 season has gone on, there have been the usual player complaints about playing time, Riley's nitpicking, the offense being too predictable, Starks's insistence on hoisting three-point shots—611 of them, an NBA record, despite a .355 three-point percentage. New York had to overcome injuries to Ewing, who begins the playoffs with a strained left hamstring, and small forward Charles Smith, as well as to Oakley.
But the Knicks' gravest crisis was a stretch that began with a Feb. 17 victory over the visiting Miami Heat. Riley pulled his starters with five minutes to play and a 21-point lead. The Heat got within seven before New York won 100-91. Afterward Riley said, mystifyingly, "In 15 years of coaching, that's the most unprofessional attitude of a team that I've ever been around."
The players were stunned and confused. When it was suggested that perhaps Riley was angry that starting point guard Derek Harper had provoked the crowd to cheer for reserve guard Charlie Ward to enter the game, Harper retorted, "Tough. I know I'm a professional."
Riley kept his foot on the gas. He accused the Knicks of playing like "cream puffs" in a subsequent loss to the Seattle Super-Sonics. Then on March 14, during a home game against the Denver Nuggets, a heated sideline discussion between Riley and Mason ended with Mason storming off the court. It was the next day before anyone was told that Mason hadn't deserted on his own—Riley had ordered him off. By then Riley had made what would become an oft-cited "winning is a smoke screen" statement, saying there were three or four other unnamed players whose attitudes threatened New York's title chances.
Mason was suspended for five games. On the surface the immediate results were the desired ones—the Knicks looked inward and won four of five, and since returning. Mason has played commendably, as always. But the victory may yet prove Pyrrhic. Riley may have become a distraction to his own team. He aired the problem in the media—something he constantly tells players not to do. And the Knicks will undoubtedly lose Mason to free agency this summer.