Not long ago, Pat
Riley admitted he's not the man he used to be. Neither are you," he then
said to a reporter, softening the jab with a dry laugh and the concession that,
yes, he wishes he could be the force he was in his prime: slick and driven,
resourceful and remorseless, electric with ideas and the ways he got them
across. The very picture of success in the 1980s and the '90s, Riley was a
stylish shark who made being an NBA coach nearly as cool as being a player.
It's different now.
Riley is 61 and in need of a new hip. Soon after he returned as coach of the
Miami Heat in December, as his team gathered around him, he had to grab hold of
Alonzo Mourning's leg as he tried to take a knee. "He was showing his
age," the Heat center says. "That's the first time I'd seen that."
Riley came back needing to update himself on opponents and plays, but it's what
he calls the "interminable" regular season that hit him hardest. He
moves less on the sideline these days, with a shorter stride, and when you see
him up close on a night like tonight, late March, fourth road game in five
days, there's no missing the crevasses cut into his famous face. Riley's right;
no baby boomer is what he used to be. Still there's that doo-wop signature,
slicked hair just a comb stroke shy of a ducktail. View it either way, as
pathetic or heroic: The man won't give in.
He is standing in
the Heat locker room, but not by choice. It is 6:45 p.m., little more than an
hour away from Miami's road showdown against the Eastern Conference champion
Pistons, and the media is pouring through the door. At home and on the road,
Riley keeps himself at a chilly remove from the world; he is almost never
around when the reporters get their 45 minutes in the locker rooms--nor, for
that matter, are most of the team's marquee players. He ducks into his office,
they hide in the trainer's room, and both emerge only when the swarm has been
booted. But the folks who designed The Palace of Auburn Hills have put a
postmodern twist on NBA gamesmanship: Boston's Red Auerbach regularly turned up
the heat in his visitors' locker room; the Pistons have cut off all avenues of
escape. Ankles get taped on a table near the door. Players can retreat only to
cramped lockers. The media swarm fans out, circles, and soon Mourning,
Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Jason Williams, Gary Payton, Antoine Walker and
Udonis Haslem--the most intriguing team gunning for a title this season--find
themselves under siege.
Only Riley stands
unmolested, as if surrounded by a force field that would fry the reporter
foolish enough to approach him. He's staring at an oversized dry-erase surface
covered with words and squiggles and arrows, play diagrams, Detroit tendencies.
Riley loves a good board. When Stan Van Gundy, the Heat's previous coach,
tearfully resigned at a press conference in December--in what he called a bid
to reclaim his family life and the cynical call Riley's bid to win one last NBA
title-- Riley went off on a rhapsodic tangent about the quality of Van Gundy's
boards, the virtues of soft chalk and nice handwriting. These days, assistant
coach Erik Spoelstra mans the board, and his more ethereal tips can range from
MAKE THEM FEEL YOU�to EXPECT NORMAL JAZZ BULLS---. Tonight, though, the
board is message-free. Detroit beat Miami in the seventh game of last season's
conference finals. That should be motivation enough.
There's a reason
no one speaks to Riley. Though capable of immense charm, his aura is carefully
cultivated to keep outsiders at bay and insiders off balance. By the time he
left the Lakers in 1990, his intensity had so overwhelmed the franchise that
staffers were calling him Norman Bates, and his maneuvering to bolt the Knicks
in '95 stamped him with a reputation for Machiavellian intrigue that hasn't
faded. Last summer, despite having a close-knit team that came within 86
seconds of playing for the NBA championship, Riley told a stunned Van Gundy
that he might replace him on the bench, then overhauled the roster.
"Frankly? You think you know him, but you don't," says Phoenix Suns
assistant coach Marc Iavaroni, who was a Miami assistant under Riley from 1999
through 2002. "There's no way you can predict what he's thinking. That's
part of the mystique."
staring at the whiteboard. He picks up a red marker, then raises it, stops,
then presses its tip on the board. The final e on the end of the word sideline
is slightly smudged, so he dabs at it, then tilts his head like a painter
addressing a canvas. He dabs again at the e, then notices that another
word--OPT--under a play called 13 Strong also needs work. Riley delicately
traces the marker over all three letters. He steps back, gently caps the
marker, puts it down. Then he turns and walks through the locker room and into
In the final weeks
of the 2005-06 season, Riley repeatedly criticized himself; later tonight he
will say, "I have to do a better job, period." And in truth he hasn't
done his best coaching this season. He returned to a team that, with O'Neal
missing 18 games, began the season 11-10; under him the Heat finished 41-20,
took a 2-0 lead over the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs and
are considered a near-lock to meet Detroit again in the conference finals.
What's striking, however, is how little the '05-06 Heat, despite its
considerable firepower, seems like a Pat Riley team: The perimeter defense is
full of holes, the transition defense is, as Riley says, "sometimes
deplorable." "They've got great players, great athletes, and they got
two legitimate shot blockers," says John Starks, whose career was made by
Riley in New York. "But no, they settle."
In fact, it's only
when Mourning, the quintessential Riley player, was on the floor that the Heat
seemed at all driven. Riley's face lights up whenever he talks about his backup
center; he actually flexes his biceps and clenches his fists in prideful
imitation of Mourning's on-court menace. Of all Riley's disciples, there may be
none more receptive to Riley's grandiose machismo, no truer believer than 'Zo,
and it was only when the 36-year-old Mourning, three years removed from a
kidney transplant, started slapping shots out-of-bounds--averaging 2.66 blocks
in just 20 minutes a game--and shoving opponents to the ground that the Heat
appeared primed for a long playoff run.
Yet, as the months
passed, even Mourning couldn't avoid the feeling that something wasn't right.
NBA rule changes have rendered the bruising style Riley made infamous in New
York impossible to implement, so he stocked Miami with scorers, hoping to teach
defense along the way. Mourning kept waiting for his teammates to match his
fire, for that Riley magic to kick in. But "Riles" wasn't pushing as
hard. "He doesn't punish us like he used to," said Mourning in early
March. "He used to punish us with defensive drills back in the '90s; it was
grueling. He still has the same schemes and the same approach to the game as
far as preparation, but he's cut back on our court time. It could have an
effect on us not getting what he wants us to get soon enough.
improved since he first stepped in to coach. But I hope we don't run out of
time. I just hope we get it before it's too late."
An hour before
gametime in Auburn Hills, O'Neal wanders toward the trainer's table. Around his
neck are headphones he need not place on his ears: Stevie Wonder's Pastime
Paradise is crackling just under his chin, low enough for anyone else to miss
the lyrics but loud enough to annoy. Now here comes Mourning, glowering,
game-ready, seeing nothing. A matchup with the Pistons in Detroit is just the
type of "statement game" Riley likes and Mourning embraces; it will
tell plenty about what kind of team Miami is. It demands seriousness.