The New York Knicks had allowed a 20-point lead to turn into overtime last Friday at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., and Knick coach Pat Riley stood near midcourt, hands on hips, beige blazer swept behind his monogrammed blue cuffs, barking like a madman. "Post, post!" Riley ordered, and center Patrick Ewing stationed himself to the left of the basket against the Washington Bullets' Pervis Ellison. New York point guard Mark Jackson dribbled at the top of the three-point arc, waiting for Ewing to gain position—and for Riley to tell him when to deliver the ball. "Wait, wait, wait," Riley said. "Now!"
With that, Jackson passed to Ewing, who spun to the baseline and nailed a fadeaway jumper. New York took a 119-112 lead and shortly thereafter won its fifth straight game, 125-114.
To say the Knicks are an extension of Riley is to fire a metaphorical air ball. They are—to use his pop-motivational vernacular—all about him. Since coming to New York last spring after a one-season stint as a commentator with NBC, Riley has instilled a hungry outlook in a team that once was prone to pointing fingers and thumbing noses. Despite a 120-113 loss to the Golden State Warriors at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, the Knicks led the Atlantic Division by 1½ games and, with a 28-16 record, were nine games ahead of last season's pace. Riley's ways, and his words, have taken root. "Pat is all about the team and all about winning," says Ernie Grunfeld, New York's vice-president for player personnel, adopting a Rileyesque elocution. "And I think, by osmosis, that's what the players are all about now."
When Riley coached the talent-laden Los Angeles Lakers, who won nearly three fourths of their games and racked up four NBA championships during his nine seasons with them, some observers suggested that he simply rolled out the ball. Then when he left L.A. in 1990, it was suggested that he had become a control freak. The first approach wouldn't have worked with the pre-Riley Knicks; there weren't enough balls in a 14th Street pool hall to keep them happy. As for the second approach, no amount of control could be deemed excessive for a selfish team that had been rocked by waves of change. In the last six years New York has had six different coaches and three different general managers and had not advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs.
February 10, 1992
"Pat came in with all the credentials," says Indiana Pacer coach Bob Hill, who was one of those six Knick coaches. "When he spoke, the players not only listened, they carried out his ideas. They bought it."
Then again, if Riley were selling stock in Macy's, the Knicks would be buying. "There is no running over a Riley, like with a young coach, where you have a natural tendency not to respect him until he proves something to you," says Gerald Wilkins, a New York swingman for the last seven seasons. "He's won championships. The bottom line with' him and the bottom line with the guys is that if he gives us something to do and we do it, nine times out of 10 we're going to win."
When it comes to discussing his role in rebuilding the Knicks, the 46-year-old Riley politely opts for No-Show Time. He says that he doesn't want or need the attention and that publicity might disrupt a team still finding its stride. Such self-effacement is not out of character for Riley. On the other hand, few coaches have the temerity to stiff-arm the New York press and not get gang-tackled for it. Knick practices are closed, and team flights, which arc chartered, are off-limits to the media. Riley, however, does do televised state-of-the-Knicks addresses, in which he's cryptic and doesn't say a lot. He recently put a positive spin on a lackluster victory, noting, "It's all about blue skies."
For the record, this is the mantra Riley recites about his mission: "The only thing we've emphasized is to become the hardest-working, best-conditioned, most professional, most unselfish team in the league." The Knicks have not become that, but they may be on their way. After a three-hour practice, more than half the players will often lift weights or run sprints on their own.
Riley's fanatical preparation sets the tone. Says New York president Dave Checketts, "I've called him at 8:30 in the morning after a night game, and he's already looked at film—twice."
The Knicks now flex a muscle game, relying upon consistent board work and a no-frills defense. With four of them pulling down more than six boards a game, they had outrebounded the opposition 28 times through Sunday. The Knick D was giving up 100.3 points a game, three fewer than last season's average. Unlike the Lakers' offense, which relied on a glitzy fast break under Riley, New York's Ewing-centered offense will never win on style points.
Riley counts only six games this season in which New York's effort was unacceptable. He squeezes out the sweat in a variety of ways. There are the prepared pregame speeches, which are always pointed and often quite personal. There are the printouts covering everything from the players' hustle to their field goal percentage from various spots on the floor to how well they stack up against others in the league. There are the sober atmospherics of the locker room, where only music piped through headphones is permitted. There are the pop quizzes asking, say, which team the Boston Celtics, the Knicks' chief Atlantic Division rivals, are playing that night. There are the bulletin board slogans, like the one that appeared in the locker room recently encouraging thoughts of title contention: GET IT IN YOUR MIND!
Mostly, though, there is direct, daily communication, which has each player believing in his role. Take starting power forward Charles Oakley, who has watched his playing time and his production drop precipitously. "I'm not thinking about doing a lot of moaning," Oakley says. "It's about getting the most out of players."
And take Jackson, who has shed 15 pounds as well as his annoying finger-wagging celebrating. His confidence and career, both of which had suffered since he was named Rookie of the Year in 1987-88, have been resurrected. "It's great to have him, because he believes in us," says Jackson of Riley.
But the Riley who calmly instructs his players during timeouts, the Riley who coolly walks the sideline chewing gum and a referee's ear, the Riley who can passionately lead the Garden in a pregame prayer for Magic Johnson—that's not the same Riley who can rip into a player for a bad pass during one of the Knicks' clandestine practices. "He's not afraid to get in your face, no matter who you are," says Wilkins. "He gets on me about growing every night. If I slip, he lets me know it the next day. I can come in feeling like I had a good one, and the next thing you know he's down my throat. I'm like, Oh no. My chest just sinks in. But if the starters aren't playing the way they should and the coach gets on them, that says a lot. You can always get on the 12th man, but are you willing to get on your superstars? He is, so everyone is equal. That's how you build chemistry and how you build trust."
Riley's attention to detail can be seen in practice schedules worked out to the last minute: "12:30 bye-bye." Moreover, unlike in recent years, the Knicks' front office conveys a sense of intelligent direction. Much of the credit belongs to Checketts, a former Utah Jazz honcho. A few months before he was hired in March, he had lunch with Riley in New York to discuss coaching-clinics abroad. Checketts, 35, was working for the league as a vice-president of development, and Riley was still with NBC. "All we ended up talking about was the league," says Checketts. "Walking back I thought about how I had missed the adrenaline of being part of a team and a season, of putting everything on the line. Then it hit me that Pat felt the same way." Three months after Checketts joined the Knicks, he signed Riley to a five-year, $6 million deal.
Since then, to the pleasure of Garden courtsider Spike Lee, Checketts has done the right things. Over the summer, he downplayed Ewing's attempt to invoke an escape clause in his contract and test free agency, never allowing the dispute to become personal. When an arbitrator ruled in New York's favor, the Knicks suffered no disruptive repercussions. Checketts also alleviated one cause of Ewing's frustration by getting him help on the floor. He sent Jerrod Mustaf, Trent Tucker and two second-round draft picks to the Phoenix Suns for rugged forward Xavier McDaniel, who was averaging 15.7 points through Sunday and has won several games so far with his jump shooting. And Checketts invited a couple of obscure but equally fearless warriors to compete on the Knicks' entry in the Los Angeles summer league: 6'5" journeyman guard John Starks and 6'7" forward Anthony Mason.
Starks, 26, is an elastic leaper with ever-expanding range on his shot. At week's end, he had a team-high 42 threes and was scoring 14.9 points a game. Unflappable in all situations, he plays the closing minutes of a tight game as if he were bagging groceries at a Tulsa Safeway—which he was doing full-time for $3.35 an hour 5½ years ago. In the defeat of the Bullets, for instance, Starks made two buckets and a steal-in overtime, despite having been lifted by Riley for throwing away a behind-the-back pass in the first half and being blasted by him for jawing at guard A.J. English too much in the second.
Mason, 25, is a hybrid—upper body by Michelin, legs by the Rockettes. At 250 pounds, he has the deltoid muscles of a javelin thrower and the most efficient running style on the team. When needed, Mason can even break the press. Four years ago, he was a lithe forward at Tennessee State. The year after that, he was a three-point marksman in Turkey. Like Starks, Mason has benefited greatly from Riley's willingness to spot him with the starters. "He showed a lot of confidence in me," says Mason, who was averaging 6.1 points through Sunday. "He's a great motivator. He gets you fired up."
Riley also knows how to keep the proud Ewing (23.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocks a game) motivated. Not long ago, for instance, he benched Ewing for the fourth quarter of a 119-109 loss to the 76ers, noting afterward that Ewing's production was down 20% in the Knicks' last 14 games. Ewing responded with a 35-point, 21-rebound effort in a 114-109 victory at Golden State two days later.
Though the Knicks have progressed greatly, they have little hope of winning the league championship this season. They have only one dependable scorer (Ewing), a horrendous touch from the free throw line (71.8%, next to the last in the league, at week's end) and three callow players (rookie guard Greg Anthony, Mason and Starks) in their eight-man rotation. "With most teams you get to the point where you can intuitively predict the outcome of its next game," says Checketts. "I haven't gotten there with this one."
Maybe it will happen soon. In the meantime, there's an Atlantic Division title to chase and a sense of optimisim at the Garden. For the Knicks these days, it's all about blue skies.