David Checketts, the Madison Square Garden Sports Group president, has remained firmly behind Riley. He says he's nonplussed that some free agents won't come to New York, or that some might leave, because of Riley's style. "That has happened." Checketts says. "But for all the
Horace Grants and Xavier McDaniels who say it's too tough, there've been guys like Charles Smith and Derek Harper and John Starks who want to stay here. I'd rather have those guys than the guys who don't have the guts to play in New York."
It would be easy to dismiss the 1994-95 Knicks' travails or Riley's stalled contract talks as just more headline fodder, if it weren't for Riley's own slant. He acknowledges that this season's problems were "fatiguing" and sometimes "defused my energy for coaching." He concedes that getting the Knicks to take the leap of faith with him might have backfired when, after doing all the grunt work he asked, they didn't win the title last season. "Maybe doubt creeps in, or they said, 'He lied to us,' " Riley says. He noticed his exhortations to win what he calls "statement games"—against conference rivals Orlando, Indiana and the Chicago Bulls—"fell on deaf ears more this season, for some reason." (The Knicks finished 6-7 against those teams.) He says anyone would be hurt by the "mocking, humiliating" criticism he attracts for "going to war over what's important. Then I become a dictator, an autocrat, a control freak. All of a sudden I'm a coach who is losing his team. Well, teams lose coaches too. Players lose coaches. It goes both ways, you know."
Hearing him talk like that, it's hard to know if Riley really is making his way to the door or if he just needs a few months off.
In many ways the Knicks have been a stealth team this season—eclipsed by Orlando's ascent, Michael Jordan's surprise comeback with Chicago and then the San Antonio Spurs' late rise in the West. The Knicks often hear how their title chances are undermined by the advancing ages of Harper (33), Ewing (32) and Oakley (31). But truth be told. New York's relative lack of athleticism is more threatening to its chances. The Knicks play superb team defense, allowing only 95.1 points per game, second best in the NBA. But slashing teams like Chicago give the Knicks fits. Scoring (98.2 points per game, 21st in the league) is a nightly problem too.
New York's edge—"our only edge," says Riley—is that it has won in the playoff crucible before. But when Riley looks ahead to the coming weeks, he says, "If anyone out there is underestimating us, they're making a big mistake."
And beyond that? Riley won't commit. "Every now and then, I just sit down and I sigh and say, Dammit. It used to be so much easier," he says. "Players played. Coaches coached. We had disagreements. But it wasn't like now. Now it's like open war."
It would be disingenuous to say Riley hasn't picked some fights. But Riley says his intent was right: "Those comments about unprofessionalism. I wasn't talking about the Patrick Ewings, the Derek Harpers. I just wanted some players to stand up and smack some of these other guys in the face, show them they're messing things up for all of us." Riley says that when he looks at Ewing, "I really don't want him to go through his career not winning a championship. And the same goes for Oakley. Harper, the good guys.... I've already got six championship rings. I don't need another to justify myself when I'm 60."
Indeed, Riley, who turned 50 on March 20, has a secure place in NBA history. So why keep grinding on? He laughs and says, "That's the sick part of it. Despite all these things we all lament, there isn't any game like this game that makes you feel more alive." Laughing again, Riley adds, "I think I should take a sabbatical. I think every five years every coach in the NBA should get to take a sabbatical—a one-year paid vacation during which you would do just nothing, absolutely nothing."
And if he could? "Then," Riley says, "my big decision of the day, after I put on my T-shirt and jeans, would be whether to wear socks."