It was 3 a.m. when they forged their alliance, and they like the notion that they were up and working while others slept. Above all, Miami Heat coach Pat Riley and center Alonzo Mourning share a reverence for long hours and short rest, a belief that one of life's few certainties is that hard work will be rewarded. And so it was that Riley struck the right chord with Mourning during their phone conversation in the wee hours of Nov. 3, the day the NBA season opened, convincing him to agree to the trade that would send Mourning from the Charlotte Hornets to Miami. "We talked about a lot of things," says Mourning. "But basically he just said, Zo, come to Miami, and let's go to work.' "
Their labor has been fruitful and their wins have multiplied. The pursuit of pleasure is almost a religion in South Florida, but if Riley and Mourning continue their early success, a devotion to hard work could actually become trendy. Through Sunday the revitalized Heat was 11-3 and in second place in the Atlantic Division. And it was safe to say that in the new, businesslike mentality that Riley is emphasizing, Mourning, with averages of 23.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks, was the employee of the month. "They're wearing the same uniforms as last year," Dallas Maverick coach Dick Motta says of the Heat, which was 32-50 in 1994-95, "but that's not the same team."
Riley, who joined Miami as coach, president and part owner in September after a messy end to his four-season tenure as coach of the New York Knicks, arrived with the intention of lighting a flame under the tepid Heat. In Mourning he found the ideal 6'10" blowtorch. "Alonzo is a whirling dervish, a cyclone of a player," says Riley. "He embodies everything we want this team to be—passionate, committed, aggressive, tireless. Those aren't vague concepts you have to try to get across to your players. You just say, 'Look at Zo.' "
Mourning and Riley can scarcely talk about each other without referring admiringly to their shared capacity for work. " Coach Riley killed us, he just killed us in practice today," Mourning said after a 111-89 Heat victory over Dallas on Nov. 28. "I love it when he does that." One of Riley's favorite Mourning stories is about the time the Heat arrived in Miami at 3 a.m. after a loss in which Mourning missed several jump shots. At 9:30, Mourning was back in the gym, practicing jumpers for two hours. "That night [in a 111-91 win over the Vancouver Grizzlies, in which Mourning scored 30 points], he hit three or four of the same shots he'd missed the night before," Riley says. "What else do you need to know about Alonzo Mourning?"
Riley and Mourning (who arrived from Charlotte with forward LeRon Ellis and guard Pete Myers in exchange for center Matt Geiger, guard Khalid Reeves and swingman Glen Rice) have brought true star power to the Heat for the first time in the franchise's eight-year history. With a healthy portion of the local populace busy planning Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula's retirement party (following story), the sharply dressed, slick-haired Riley arrived just in time to fill the vacant position of resident sports genius. The Miami Herald greeted Riley's arrival with a story listing the hip nightclubs, restaurants, clothiers and hair salons that were worthy of his patronage; pal Jack Nicholson, a fixture at Los Angeles Laker games when Riley coached in L.A., has been spotted in the Miami Arena crowd. What's more, Riley's five-year deal (potentially worth $40 million) with new Heat owner and cruise-ship mogul Micky Arison includes a $300 per diem. All those sorts of things contribute to the impression that Riley is as much celebrity as coach.
But Riley is focused on rebuilding the Heat; he keeps a sign in his office that reads: i DID NOT COME HERE FOR A QUICK TRIP TO SOUTH BEACH. "People may not believe it, but I look for the background," he says. "In New York you didn't see me at movie openings or Broadway shows. The perceptions about me have always been a little out of whack with reality."
In Miami, Riley has the complete control over the basketball operation that he lacked in New York. No area is too trivial for his attention, including the Heat cheerleaders, who were banished from the baselines. "I think to have long-term success as a coach or any other position of leadership, you have to be obsessed in some way," he says. "Am I a control freak? No. Do I believe in organization? You bet. In discipline? In being on time and making sure everything at the hotel is ready and right? Definitely. I don't control players; I try to control the environment around the players so they can flourish. Discipline is not a nasty word. This notion that the NBA has to be a freelance, free fall of frivolity is nonsense."
But while he has tightened the Miami ship, he also made sure that ship was a luxury liner. He upgraded the hotels the Heat stays in on the road to the fit-for-royalty variety and had the team's home locker room refurbished. A new, customized team plane was scheduled to make its first flight this week, and a new practice facility should open early in '96. The players appreciate the first-class treatment—especially those who remember the penny-pinching ways of former owners Billy Cunningham and Lewis Schaffel, who stopped providing food on the Heat's plane during the second half of last season. Point guard Bimbo Coles remembers when the players held shooting contests, with the loser having to go to Subway or KFC to buy food for the Heat to eat on the plane. "Things are being done now in a first-class, professional way," Coles says. "That makes you want to play in a first-class, professional manner."
The best evidence of the Heat's improvement is not in its record but in the way it has achieved it. Defensively, Miami has stopped acting like a Boy Scout troop and started attacking like a S.W.A.T team. The Heat had allowed a league-low average of 92.2 points through Sunday, compared with last year's 102.8, which ranked 16th. "More aggressive? That's an understatement," says forward Kevin Willis. "We're playing D like we mean it. Guys are fighting to get over picks, giving help quicker, denying more passes."
Mourning's arrival enabled Willis to return full-time to his natural position, power forward, where he continued to lead the team in rebounds, averaging 10.2. Small forward Billy Owens, an under-achiever during most of his four-year career, has been transformed into a consistent performer under Riley. With a 17.1 average, Owens was the Heat's second-leading scorer, thanks largely to a more reliable jump shot. "All I heard about Billy was that he was a nightmare," Riley says. "What I've seen is a guy who has gotten in shape and gotten serious about his game, and now he's maybe the most versatile player on the team." Coles has been steady at point guard, and rookie shooting guard Sasha Danilovic has been effective enough (11.7 points) to at least partly mitigate the loss of the high-scoring Rice. Sixth man Keith Askins fits neatly into Riley's system because of his strong defense, and has been the Heat's best three-point shooter.