None connected, and a violent situation turned comical: Van Gundy raced from the bench, fell while trying to get between the two men, grabbed Mourning's leg and refused to let go. Mourning looked down and, growing more embarrassed by the second, shook his leg like a mailman trying to shake off a chihuahua. "I looked like a fool," Van Gundy said. The entire scene was ugly and stupid and, considering Mourning's repeated vows this season to keep his cool, proved that nothing had changed for the Heat center, who in 1996 signed his own seven-year, $105 million contract. After the game he apologized to his teammates but said, "I just had to make a stand. You've got to draw the line somewhere. Hey, my manhood was tested."
Then things got really strange. On Friday everyone, including Riley, seemed prepared to treat the incident as an isolated tiff between two old enemies—with Mourning rightfully taking a huge share of the blame. (Swinging? With 1.4 seconds to play? With last year's suspensions still fresh in mind? With Game 5 looming?) When the suspensions of Mills, Mourning and Johnson were announced, no one protested. At practice, when asked about Mourning's role in the workout, Riley smirked. "He's sitting there," he said, "making $105 million."
But when Riley heard that Van Gundy had said Mourning was "always whining" and should "bang and bump like a man," the Miami coach began to fume. Issues of manhood are paramount to Riley; he's a master at transforming a basketball game into warfare, at using metaphors like "lofting grenades" and "kicking ass," at raising the machismo level of any team he coaches. It's no coincidence that the NBA's last three high-profile fights (which also include a Knicks-Bulls donnybrook in the 1994 Eastern semifinals) have involved a Riley-led team, and certainly no surprise that the hot-tempered Mourning got enmeshed in such a test of "manhood." Riley talking macho to Mourning is like setting a match to dry tinder. But Van Gundy's comments flushed the combativeness out of Riley like nothing else has: On Saturday, Riley declared that his only disappointment was that Mourning's punches never connected.
"Last year Van Gundy called P.J. a coward for flipping [Ward]," Riley said. "A guy takes my knees out [as Ward was accused of doing to Brown]? I would've done the same thing. [Van Gundy] called 'Zo an a——because 'Zo takes a punch at his guy, who's trying to take [Mourning's] broken face off. Who's provoking? Who's provoking? That's where it comes from. Unless you've been in a situation where the primal instincts come out, you can't deal with that. This is not about intellectual behavior here. This is about protection. Winning—and the consequences—does not transcend that.
"From a coaching standpoint, I wish he could've walked away," Riley said of Mourning. "From a man's standpoint, he was not wrong." In other words, instead of being smart and understanding that it's better to fight another day, Mourning was right to go after Johnson. "If it costs us the series, then that's the way it goes," Riley said.
As for Van Gundy, Riley blasted his former assistant. "The only one out of control the other night was him," Riley said. "Totally." Then he compared Van Gundy to a little boy: "A guy starts lobbing spitballs, and somebody's going to turn on him."
Riley turned. Yes, both men were coaching in the media, and his former protégé had learned from the best. But Van Gundy was obviously stung by the personal nature of Riley's attack. He had challenged Riley's manhood, and what was once a warm relationship was now something else. "Coach Riley has done a lot for me and my family," Van Gundy said after Sunday's game. "I learned a lot from him as a coach. I respect him greatly. His opinion has obviously changed of me. But that won't change my opinion of him."
It was all very revealing. Mourning took off his mask in Game 4 and revealed himself as still a victim of his own worst impulses. His absence from Game 5 showed just how thin the Heat (especially without Austin) truly was. Riley suffered the most embarrassing playoff elimination of his career and crippled a friendship, but showed that he would wave all that off as the price of adhering to a personal code. Maybe you'll lose something important, but as the newspapers trumpet your legend, you will always find a way to tell yourself that what you lost wasn't that important. You will find yourself sitting in an increasingly quiet arena and telling yourself, Yes, it was worth it. Yes, it was.