IT WAS 3 a.m. when they forged their alliance, and they like the
notion that they were up and working while others slept. Above
all, Miami Heat coach Pat Riley and center Alonzo Mourning share
a reverence for long hours and short rest, a belief that one of
life's few certainties is that hard work will be rewarded. And
so it was that Riley struck the right chord with Mourning during
their phone conversation in the wee hours of Nov. 3, the day the
NBA season opened, convincing him to agree to the trade that
would send Mourning from the Charlotte Hornets to Miami. "We
talked about a lot of things," says Mourning. "But basically he
just said, Zo, come to Miami, and let's go to work.'"
Their labor has been fruitful and their wins have multiplied.
The pursuit of pleasure is almost a religion in South Florida,
but if Riley and Mourning continue their early success, a
devotion to hard work could actually become trendy. Through
Sunday the revitalized Heat was 11-3 and in second place in the
Atlantic Division. And it was safe to say that in the new,
businesslike mentality that Riley is emphasizing, Mourning, with
averages of 23.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks, was the
employee of the month. "They're wearing the same uniforms as
last year," Dallas Maverick coach Dick Motta says of the Heat,
which was 32-50 in 1994-95, "but that's not the same team."
Riley, who joined Miami as coach, president and part owner in
September after a messy end to his four-season tenure as coach
of the New York Knicks, arrived with the intention of lighting a
flame under the tepid Heat. In Mourning he found the ideal 6'10"
blowtorch. "Alonzo is a whirling dervish, a cyclone of a
player," says Riley. "He embodies everything we want this team
to be--passionate, committed, aggressive, tireless. Those aren't
vague concepts you have to try to get across to your players.
You just say, 'Look at Zo.'"
Mourning and Riley can scarcely talk about each other without
referring admiringly to their shared capacity for work. "Coach
Riley killed us, he just killed us in practice today," Mourning
said after a 111-89 Heat victory over Dallas on Nov. 28. "I love
it when he does that." One of Riley's favorite Mourning stories
is about the time the Heat arrived in Miami at 3 a.m. after a
loss in which Mourning missed several jump shots. At 9:30,
Mourning was back in the gym, practicing jumpers for two hours.
"That night [in a 111-91 win over the Vancouver Grizzlies, in
which Mourning scored 30 points], he hit three or four of the
same shots he'd missed the night before," Riley says. "What else
do you need to know about Alonzo Mourning?"
December 11, 1995
Riley and Mourning (who arrived from Charlotte with forward
LeRon Ellis and guard Pete Myers in exchange for center Matt
Geiger, guard Khalid Reeves and swingman Glen Rice) have brought
true star power to the Heat for the first time in the
franchise's eight-year history. With a healthy portion of the
local populace busy planning Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula's
retirement party (following story), the sharply dressed,
slick-haired Riley arrived just in time to fill the vacant
position of resident sports genius. The Miami Herald greeted
Riley's arrival with a story listing the hip nightclubs,
restaurants, clothiers and hair salons that were worthy of his
patronage; pal Jack Nicholson, a fixture at Los Angeles Laker
games when Riley coached in L.A., has been spotted in the Miami
Arena crowd. What's more, Riley's five-year deal (potentially
worth $40 million) with new Heat owner and cruise-ship mogul
Micky Arison includes a $300 per diem. All those sorts of things
contribute to the impression that Riley is as much celebrity as
But Riley is focused on rebuilding the Heat; he keeps a sign in
his office that reads: I DID NOT COME HERE FOR A QUICK TRIP TO
SOUTH BEACH. "People may not believe it, but I look for the
background," he says. "In New York you didn't see me at movie
openings or Broadway shows. The perceptions about me have always
been a little out of whack with reality."
In Miami, Riley has the complete control over the basketball
operation that he lacked in New York. No area is too trivial for
his attention, including the Heat cheerleaders, who were
banished from the baselines. "I think to have long-term success
as a coach or any other position of leadership, you have to be
obsessed in some way," he says. "Am I a control freak? No. Do I
believe in organization? You bet. In discipline? In being on
time and making sure everything at the hotel is ready and right?
Definitely. I don't control players; I try to control the
environment around the players so they can flourish. Discipline
is not a nasty word. This notion that the NBA has to be a
free-lance, free fall of frivolity is nonsense."
But while he has tightened the Miami ship, he also made sure
that ship was a luxury liner. He upgraded the hotels the Heat
stays in on the road to the fit-for-royalty variety and had
the team's home locker room refurbished. A new, customized team
plane was scheduled to make its first flight this week, and a
new practice facility should open early in '96. The players
appreciate the first-class treatment--especially those who
remember the penny-pinching ways of former owners Billy
Cunningham and Lewis Schaffel, who stopped providing food on the
Heat's plane during the second half of last season. Point guard
Bimbo Coles remembers when the players held shooting contests,
with the loser having to go to Subway or KFC to buy food for the
Heat to eat on the plane. "Things are being done now in a
first-class, professional way," Coles says. "That makes you want
to play in a first-class, professional manner."
The best evidence of the Heat's improvement is not in its
record but in the way it has achieved it. Defensively, Miami has
stopped acting like a Boy Scout troop and started attacking like
a S.W.A.T. team. The Heat had allowed a league-low average of
92.2 points through Sunday, compared with last year's 102.8,
which ranked 16th. "More aggressive? That's an understatement,"
says forward Kevin Willis. "We're playing D like we mean it.
Guys are fighting to get over picks, giving help quicker,
denying more passes."
Mourning's arrival enabled Willis to return full-time to his
natural position, power forward, where he continued to lead the
team in rebounds, averaging 10.2. Small forward Billy Owens, an
underachiever during most of his four-year career, has been
transformed into a consistent performer under Riley. With a 17.1
average, Owens was the Heat's second-leading scorer, thanks
largely to a more reliable jump shot. "All I heard about Billy
was that he was a nightmare," Riley says. "What I've seen is a
guy who has gotten in shape and gotten serious about his game,
and now he's maybe the most versatile player on the team." Coles
has been steady at point guard, and rookie shooting guard Sasha
Danilovic has been effective enough (11.7 points) to at least
partly mitigate the loss of the high-scoring Rice. Sixth man
Keith Askins fits neatly into Riley's system because of his
strong defense, and has been the Heat's best three-point shooter.
But the key to Miami's quick start has been Mourning, who can
still become a free agent at the end of the season. When he
turned down a seven-year, $78.4 million contract offer from
Charlotte, the Hornets had little choice but to trade him. But
his approval was essential to any swap because no team wanted to
deal for him without some assurance that it would have a
reasonable chance of signing him after the season, which was why
Riley made that wee-hours phone call to Mourning. Still, the
Heat has no guarantee that Mourning won't move on after this
season. "There is no wink, no handshake deal," says Riley.
Although Mourning professes to like Miami well enough, he is not
the kind of man who is seduced by bright lights and nightlife or
even soft ocean breezes. "Miami reminds me a lot of L.A.," he
says. "I'm not an L.A. fan, to tell you the truth." The good
news for Heat fans is that Mourning is so single-minded that it
wouldn't matter to him where he was playing, as long as it was
for a winner. "I don't care what else Miami has," says Charlotte
forward Scott Burrell. "If it has a good team and a good weight
room, Zo will be happy."
But happiness is not an emotion that often registers on
Mourning's face. On the court he is all scowls and growls. "When
people see my facial expressions, they think I'm mad at
somebody, but a lot of times I'm just disappointed at something
I've done wrong out there," he says. "I'm not an angry guy, I'm
not a bad guy, but I'm not the kind of guy who can play with a
smile on my face."
Riley would not have him any other way. Mourning's temperament
sets the tone for the kind of team the coach wants to build,
although some questioned his tactics early on. After Geiger
whacked Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal in the preseason
and put him out of action for eight weeks with a broken thumb,
there were complaints that the Heat was using the same thuggery
employed by Riley's Knicks. But during the regular season Miami
had been whistled for only one flagrant foul through Sunday. The
Heat has been aggressive, but it has been clean. "Some people,
like the coaches over there in Orlando, are starting to complain
because they see us as a rival," Riley says. "They're already
trying to get an edge when it comes to the officials because
they know that we are potentially a threat to them."
Neither Mourning nor Riley is a stranger to criticism. Mourning
believes he has been unfairly cast as greedy and selfish by
Hornet owner George Shinn for turning down the lucrative
contract offer. "George is going to say what George has to say
to cover his own butt," he says. "But I want to get as much as I
can out of this game. If people want to criticize me for that,
then I can't convince them otherwise."
The circumstances of Riley's departure from New York, after
which the Knicks accused Miami of tampering, were far uglier.
Riley, who left with a year remaining on his contract, was
roasted in the New York press for, among other things,
announcing his resignation by fax. "I wanted to make the
statement and not make an issue of it, not get into a lot of
accusations and name-calling, but I got killed for it in the
press," he says. "I could have done it differently, but it
wouldn't have made any difference. I got forced out in L.A.,
everybody knows that. I was asked to leave. But I played along.
I had the press conference and introduced Mike Dunleavy as my
successor and did the whole thing. And you know what? I still
got killed in the press."
And so Riley and Mourning share a bond that goes beyond player
and coach, one that may very well keep Mourning in Miami for a
long time. They are a couple of guys who came to Florida looking
for a fresh start--and, of course, an honest day's work.