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"I really don't think so," Riley replied.
Less than two weeks later Van Gundy quit. Even those who abhor the way Riley let Van Gundy dangle over the summer insist that he resigned for his family and has been happier ever since. "Pat had nothing to do with Stan's decision," says Bill Van Gundy, Stan's father, "and Pat doesn't deserve any rap of that nature."
Whatever you believe about this change, Riley's return to coach O'Neal and Wade always seemed logical, if only in a narrative sense: He was the marquee coach in the league's glory years, and his return to work motivational magic on its most outsized personality and its newest superstar gave the Heat a glamour Detroit and San Antonio will never match. TV programmers loved the prospect--no team appeared more on cable TV during the season--and the players saw it as their due. "Stan did an incredible job here," Mourning says, "but coaching credibility? Hands down, Pat has it. So why not have the teacher here instead of the pupil?"
Riley's public stance was that this was a ride to the rescue: Van Gundy's sudden departure demanded only one fix. "I'm the best person," Riley said when he took over. "The team is a mess." In returning to the chase, Riley has been forced to face constant reminders of time's ravages. His 96-year-old mother, Mary, began to decline in upstate New York, and Riley missed the final two games of the season to be with her. Then on the Friday before the opening game of the playoffs, Mary died, and Riley found himself preparing and coaching in grief. "My mother always used to say, and she told me time and again this week, Life goes on, so get on with it," he said before the opener.
Four months earlier, his return to the bench had all but coincided with the release of Glory Road, a movie about the first all-black college team to win a national title. Riley, who had jumped center in the historic '66 loss to Texas Western, was a consultant for the film, produced by his friend Jerry Bruckheimer, and there was chatter about it everywhere as winter turned to spring--TV, magazines, theaters, the in-room network in every hotel room--everywhere reminders of his younger self, 40 years gone.
Last Jan. 21 when all the Runts gathered in Lexington's Memorial Hall to commemorate the '66 team, Riley was to have been there. It was all arranged: The university would send a jet to pick him up, he'd miss a practice. In Heat circles the fact that Riley agreed to this was taken as a sign of his mellowing; the younger Riley would never have skipped practice for a mere reunion. But then, the night before the gathering, Miami lost to San Antonio at home. Riley sent regrets and went back to work. Nineteen sixty-six was lost; he still had a chance to win this season.
ALONZO MOURNING is on his hands and knees. He's down on the Pistons' floor, gasping; no one touched him, and yet something is wrong. Even before this late March clash in Auburn Hills, Mourning's constant refrain had been mere survival. "Today could be my last game," he says. "I could get a call from my doctor, and he'd say, 'I can't let you play Sunday'. Next year is not promised to me. Next game isn't."
But, no, it's not his kidney, and finally Mourning is up and limping off the floor. It's a torn right calf muscle. Although the Heat is up by six when Mourning goes down, and doubles that lead before halftime, the Pistons' core of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace sticks to its game plan: front O'Neal and deny Wade the ball, play relentless, smart basketball--Riley-ball, in fact. When Detroit makes its run, the Heat has no answer, and with Mourning gone, the Pistons steam to the win.
Just after the players return to their locker room, the door opens. Riley steps out and states a simple truth: "They took it from us." And suddenly there's a hint that his massive gamble--the summer deals, the coaching change--could go south. Riley knows too well that the clock is ticking: Payton is 37, Williams 30, Walker will be 30 this summer. Everyone knows. "We've got to do it, and we'd better do it," O'Neal says. "Because the time is now, the setting is now, we're built for now."
When he came to Miami in '95, Riley spoke of a champion's parade but vowed he wouldn't chase titles into his 60s. "That'll kill you," he said then. The last time he coached even close to a contender, in 2000, the Knicks stole another Game 7 and Mourning found him weeping at his desk.