But the key to Miami's quick start has been Mourning, who can still become a free agent at the end of the season. When he turned down a seven-year, $78.4 million contract offer from Charlotte, the Hornets had little choice but to trade him. But his approval was essential to any swap because no team wanted to deal for him without some assurance that it would have a reasonable chance of signing him after the season, which was why Riley made that wee-hours phone call to Mourning. Still, the Heat has no guarantee that Mourning won't move on after this season. "There is no wink, no handshake deal," says Riley.
Although Mourning professes to like Miami well enough, he is not the kind of man who is seduced by bright lights and nightlife or even soft ocean breezes. " Miami reminds me a lot of LA.," he says. "I'm not an L.A. fan, to tell you the truth." The good news for Heat fans is that Mourning is so single-minded that it wouldn't matter to him where he was playing, as long as it was for a winner. "I don't care what else Miami has," says Charlotte forward Scott Burrell. "If it has a good team and a good weight room, Zo will be happy."
But happiness is not an emotion that often registers on Mourning's face. On the court he is all scowls and growls. "When people see my facial expressions, they think I'm mad at somebody, but a lot of times I'm just disappointed at something I've done wrong out there," he says. "I'm not an angry guy, I'm not a bad guy, but I'm not the kind of guy who can play with a smile on my face."
Riley would not have him any other way. Mourning's temperament sets the tone for the kind of team the coach wants to build, although some questioned his tactics early on. After Geiger whacked Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal in the preseason and put him out of action for eight weeks with a broken thumb, there were complaints that the Heat was using the same thuggery employed by Riley's Knicks. But during the regular season Miami had been whistled for only one flagrant foul through Sunday. The Heat has been aggressive, but it has been clean. "Some people, like the coaches over there in Orlando, are starting to complain because they see us as a rival," Riley says. "They're already trying to get an edge when it comes to the officials because they know that we are potentially a threat to them."
Neither Mourning nor Riley is a stranger to criticism. Mourning believes he has been unfairly cast as greedy and selfish by Hornet owner George Shinn for turning down the lucrative contract offer. "George is going to say what George has to say to cover his own butt," he says. "But I want to get as much as I can out of this game. If people want to criticize me for that, then I can't convince them otherwise."
The circumstances of Riley's departure from New York, after which the Knicks accused Miami of tampering, were far uglier. Riley, who left with a year remaining on his contract, was roasted in the New York press for, among other things, announcing his resignation by fax. "I wanted to make the statement and not make an issue of it, not get into a lot of accusations and name-calling, but I got killed for it in the press," he says. "I could have done it differently, but it wouldn't have made any difference. I got forced out in L.A., everybody knows that. I was asked to leave. But I played along. I had the press conference and introduced Mike Dunleavy as my successor and did the whole thing. And you know what? I still got killed in the press."
And so Riley and Mourning share a bond that goes beyond player and coach, one that may very well keep Mourning in Miami for a long time. They are a couple of guys who came to Florida looking for a fresh start—and, of course, an honest day's work.