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
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?"
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.
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
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.