You know you're getting old when you can remember when Pat Riley used to coach basketball and not these two-hour episodes of E.R. he now produces. His teams used to be sleek, tuned Ferraris—all whir and hum—instead of what they are now, which is a kind of prison fight in shorts. I miss the old Riley. He had style before he decided the true way to teach the game is by opening another branch office of Assault, Mayhem and Thuggery. He used to be as classy as his $1,500 Armani suits. Now he is nothing more than a discount finger-breaker dressed up for the Bootlegger's Ball.
After he was on the job for about three games with the Miami Heat, you could see that his four black-and-blue years with the New York Knicks were not just Riley trying to make do with the collection of bouncers and bodyguards he had been handed. He took the Knicks over the Welt Line (2,000 personal fouls for the season) his last three years in New York, which put them among the league leaders in battery. It was Riley's Knicks who were largely responsible for giving us the popular flagrant-foul point system as well as the wildly thrilling hand-check rule. It was Riley's Knicks who helped turn an NBA game into a three-hour Free Throw Derby, But we figured he was matching strategy to personnel.
Now we know different. What we know is that Riley's coaching encourages thuggishness, and somebody ought to make him stop it.
In the recently completed exhibition season, Riley's first with the Heat, Miami led the league in fouls, with an appalling 280 in eight games. If the Heat can keep that up, they will be the bloodiest team in NBA history. They got off to a good start last Saturday night when guard Sasha Danilovic scuffled with Cleveland Cavalier forward Chris Mills and needed stitches afterward. In an exhibition game, another of Riley's cementheads, center Matt Geiger (since traded to the Charlotte Hornets), put a chop on Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal that looked more like an intent to maim than an attempt to block a shot. The NBA fined Geiger $10,000, a drop in an ocean compared with the loss of the league's second-biggest name for six to eight weeks with a broken thumb.
But what was scarier than Heat players' using their hands as axes was what Geiger said after the incident: "I didn't lose any sleep over it. That was our game plan. If Shaq got it down too low, put a good foul on him." And then Stacey King of the Heat said, "We are not going to allow any easy baskets.
We will put it in the backs of our opponents' minds: 'When I go to the hole, somebody will hammer me.' It's not dirty play, it's hard defense."
No, it's dirty play.
Magic Johnson used to hint that Riley's Los Angeles Lakers had an unwritten rule: Any player who doesn't give a hard foul on a layup gets fined. There is also word out of Miami that any Riley player who helps an opponent up from the floor incurs a $1,500 fine.
Don't blame a lummox like Geiger, who was only being Riley's Oddjob. Riley appears to be teaching his Miami Beat to do whatever it takes, short of using weaponry, to keep a player from putting the ball into the basket. Apparently, Riley's thinking with the Heat is the same as it was with the brass-knuckle Knicks: If my guys can't play this game, then nobody else's should he able to, either.
O'Neal has said he's not going to take it anymore. "Rod Thorn can start pulling out his fine book," Shaq said of the NBA senior vice president of basketball operations, "because when I come back, the first person that tries something like that, we're just going to have to get down. We're going to be fighting all day." Riley says he is teaching the Heat to be "aggressive," but this is the start of something ugly. Members of the Magic are already talking about "the challenge" that is coming this Saturday when the Armani Assassin hits town with his Heat.