The New York knicks' practice had just ended when coach Pat Riley walked into an anteroom at the team's practice site in suburban Purchase, N.Y., greeted Chuck Daly and then sized up his former coaching rival. Back when they were butting heads in the late 1980s—Daly as the Detroit Piston coach, Riley as the leader of the Los Angeles Lakers—Daly was just acquiring the gilt-edged image Riley already had: the NBA titles, the savoir faire, the corporate speaking gigs and something akin to that free wardrobe deal Riley still has with Armani.
Now here was Riley looking weary and thin, with a day's growth on his chin. Daly, who works for Turner Sports these days, had come with a TV crew to interview Riley for a TNT half-time show. A few days earlier Daly had been in Augusta, at the Masters. If there are moments when he regrets walking away last spring from his job burping the crybaby New Jersey Nets, Daly is hiding them well. Riley, noting Daly's tanned glow, said, "Man, Chuck. You look great."
Daly, only half-jokingly, shot back, "You look like hell, Pat."
Pick any season in Pat Riley's 13-year coaching career with the Lakers and the Knicks, and his condition at playoff time would be roughly the same: the hollow-eyed look and the thousand-yard stare, the nerves strung as taut as piano wire, the demands that become even more unforgiving as the pressure to win is ratcheted up.
Since arriving in New York four years ago to take the helm of a team that was listing badly, Riley has whip-cracked and cajoled the Knicks to three Atlantic Division titles and four straight 50-win seasons, a franchise record. However, New York's failure to win its division crown this season snapped Riley's 12-year streak of coaching winners of such titles. But always-sold-out Madison Square Garden still rocks, the Knicks are still the defending Eastern Conference champions, and they are still the team that came within three baskets of winning the 1994 NBA championship. Despite stumbling to a 12-12 start this season and then losing linchpin power forward Charles Oakley to foot surgery for 28 games, New York closed with a 43-15 blaze and amassed the second-best record in the East, behind the Orlando Magic.
Yet many Knick players headed into their first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers this week by predicting this will be their last hurrah together. And Riley, who has one year left on his five-year, $6 million contract, hasn't quashed speculation that he might be the first one out the door.
Contract extension talks between Riley and the New York front office began 19 months ago. Riley reportedly has a $3 million-a-year deal in hand, but he still has not signed it. This has been what he calls "a judgmental, questioning, allegation-oriented, accusatory-type year."
The tired talk about his hair gel, his chiseled good looks and his Hollywood connections remains a large part of the public's fascination with him. But basketball insiders have long understood that Riley wins because of his substance: his gym-rat nature and his obsessive-compulsive bent; his genius for motivating teams and plucking insights from the game films he watches endlessly; his tightly scripted practices that some players come to regard as three-hour descents into hell.
"If you ain't used to working, I guess it could get to you," Oakley says with a shrug. "But you have to respect all the work he puts in to make things good for the players, even if"—and here Oakley laughs—"even if sometimes he goes on like a preacher with a story, repeating himself, telling you about the bullfrog and the dog, the cat and the rat, and we're all just sitting there, ready to run out [screaming], 'Let's just get ready to rummm-ble.' "
Riley drives himself as hard as his teams. It's nothing for him to drop 10 pounds during a playoff run. But among the many questions hanging over the Knicks is. When does Riley's messianic zeal suddenly become too much?