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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.
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."
Riley stops 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 the bathroom.
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.
"We have 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.