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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.
Riley is 61 and in need of a new hip. Soon after he returned as coach of the Miami Heat last 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." When Riley, who has been team president since '95, returned to the sideline in December, he needed 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 this one in late March, his 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 he's not there by choice. It is 6:45 p.m., little more than an hour away from Miami's road showdown against the reigning Eastern Conference champion Pistons, and the media are 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 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 the 2004-05 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 87 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 '99 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. 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've 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.
AN HOUR before game time 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.
But Shaq isn't ready for that. He sees Mourning, and moves to head him off. Nodding to the music, he steps in so that Mourning must step back; Mourning, startled, looks for an instant as if he'd like to slam an anvil over O'Neal's skull. But Shaq keeps coming, still nodding, moving into Mourning's space until he's just inches from his nose. He grins. Zo glares, trying to remain Zo, but the music and that goofy face get him. He starts nodding slowly, and then he cracks, and the two giants, grinning and nodding, stand close enough so both can hear the words: