Take the man at his word. Near the end he just sat on the bench
at Miami Arena, watching an entire season's promise leak away,
watching the clock tick off the seconds, watching his dauntless
team lose badly. If he's to be believed, seeing Miami Heat coach
Pat Riley get beaten by the New York Knicks on Sunday afternoon
was like seeing him fall into the grave. He looked hollowed out.
This happens when you make basketball more than a game. This
happens when you burden a sport with hyperbolic visions of
manhood and are willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to win.
There was a time when Riley might have taken comfort from the
fact that the man down on the other end of the floor, former
protege and current Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, knew exactly
how he felt. "Jeff and I equate losing with dying," Riley once
said proudly. But that was before he decided to sacrifice Van
This is an article from the May 11, 1998 issue
The seventh-seeded Knicks' 98-81 win over the second-seeded Heat
in the fifth and deciding game of their Eastern Conference
first-round series propelled them into this week's second round
of the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers. But it is cold fact
that from here on out New York will be hard-pressed to top what
it did against Miami. Expunging the memory of last year's
playoff debacle, in which the Heat beat the Knicks in the
fight-marred conference semifinals, was the least of it: Still
lacking center Patrick Ewing, out since December with a
dislocated right wrist, New York wreaked vengeance on Riley that
went well beyond mere payback. Following last Thursday's
infamous Game 4 swing-and-miss-fest between New York forward
Larry Johnson and Miami center Alonzo Mourning (which resulted
in two-game suspensions for both), the Knicks became the
instrument that called into question everything from Riley's
ethics to his skill as a team builder to Van Gundy's image as a
Riley clone. In an interview with The Miami Herald, Riley said
of the biting words he directed at Van Gundy as the series was
slipping away, "This is coaching. This transcends friendship."
"I have different values," Van Gundy said after Sunday's win. "I
was speaking to my wife about that today: I value family,
friendship and loyalty above my job."
Game 5 will be remembered as a milestone: the day Van Gundy
arrived. Since March 8, 1996, when he replaced Don Nelson as
Knicks coach, the diminutive, balding, 36-year-old Van Gundy had
looked like a kid trying to fill out his father's suit. He had
spent four formative years as an assistant during Riley's years
as the Knicks' coach in the early '90s, and while no one doubted
Van Gundy's work habits or ability, some Knicks officials
wondered if he could compete against someone he so obviously
admired. After all, he'd given one of his daughters Riley as a
middle name and as recently as last season's playoff showdown
with Miami was still saying of his opponent, "Everybody aspires
to be as great as he is."
But on Sunday, after weathering a public attack by Riley that
questioned his self-control and his coaching tactics, Van Gundy
coolly hit his former mentor where he lives and dies. Lacking
Ewing, Johnson and forward Chris Mills (who was suspended for
one game after leaving the bench during Thursday's brouhaha), he
somehow left Riley looking outmanned and outcoached. New York
broke to a 19-point second-quarter lead, neutralized Miami point
guard and noted Knicks-killer Tim Hardaway for nearly three
quarters and never trailed, humiliating the Atlantic Division
champion Heat on its own floor. Without Mourning's defense or
the offensive firepower Riley lost when he dealt valuable backup
center Isaac Austin to the Los Angeles Clippers in February for
guard Brent Barry, the Miami coach struggled to piece together a
cohesive lineup. Curiously, he left forward Mark Strickland, who
energized the Heat in the second half, on the bench until it was
too late. A year ago Miami was considered a bona fide threat to
the Chicago Bulls' supremacy, and Riley collected his third
Coach of the Year award. On Sunday, Van Gundy made Riley's team
"You know he wanted to beat his teacher," said Knicks guard John
Starks, whose own career was boosted by Riley and who had 22
points on Sunday. "Any pupil wants to do that. He came up big.
We came up big."
"Coach Van Gundy can downplay it and be as humble as he wants,
but he took a giant step today by beating Pat Riley," said
Knicks forward Buck Williams, who helped compensate for
Johnson's absence with 12 points and 14 rebounds. "Now he steps
into his own personality as a coach. He's no longer in the
shadows of Pat Riley."
In truth, Van Gundy began to step out during last year's playoff
horror. Before that series the two men had been quite friendly.
Riley, who during his tenure in New York had constantly touted
Van Gundy as a future NBA coach, tried to hire him as an
assistant when he left the Knicks for the Heat in '95, failing
that, hired Van Gundy's older brother, Stan. Though on a
different planet from the Knicks coach stylistically--Jeff Van
Gundy drives a Honda Civic, often to a McDonald's
drive-through--Riley told the press before last year's series
that they were "no more similar than your left and right hand."
He called Van Gundy at 6:30 a.m. two days before the series
began to wish him luck and joked, prophetically, "I will never
speak to you again."
By the end of the series, the Knicks had squandered a 3-1
lead--mainly because of a Game 5 brawl precipitated by a tussle
between Miami forward P.J. Brown and New York guard Charlie Ward
that led to the suspensions of several key Knicks for leaving
the bench--and had blown a real chance at a championship. As
tensions rose during the series, Riley hinted that Van Gundy had
instructed Knicks players to use dirty tactics and Van Gundy
called Riley "absurd." After the Heat won Game 7, in Miami, Van
Gundy forced himself to go to Riley's office to offer
congratulations. The two men talked, but something had changed.
They haven't talked since.
But last year was merely Act I. Last Thursday in Madison Square
Garden, with 1.4 seconds left to play in a very physical 90-85
Knicks' Game 4 victory, Johnson hammered Mourning--playing for
the first time without the mask designed to protect his left
cheekbone, fractured on March 31--with a forearm to the face.
The two men, teammates with the Charlotte Hornets from 1992-93
to '94-95, had never gotten along in Charlotte, clashing over
issues of ego and money. In 1993, after Johnson signed his
outrageous 12-year, $84 million contract, Mourning, according to
sources then with the team, yelled at coach Allan Bristow, "You
paid him all this damn money, and now you won't pay me!" The two
men tussled briefly on Feb. 1 under the basket in New York, but
that was nothing like Thursday's explosion: After pausing for an
instant after Johnson's blow, Mourning threw several wide,
off-target punches. Johnson threw several as well.
None connected, and a violent situation turned comical: Van
Gundy raced from the bench, fell while trying to get between the
two men, grabbed Mourning's leg and refused to let go. Mourning
looked down and, growing more embarrassed by the second, shook
his leg like a mailman trying to shake off a chihuahua. "I
looked like a fool," Van Gundy said. The entire scene was ugly
and stupid and, considering Mourning's repeated vows this season
to keep his cool, proved that nothing had changed for the Heat
center, who in 1996 signed his own seven-year, $105 million
contract. After the game he apologized to his teammates but
said, "I just had to make a stand. You've got to draw the line
somewhere. Hey, my manhood was tested."
Then things got really strange. On Friday everyone, including
Riley, seemed prepared to treat the incident as an isolated tiff
between two old enemies--with Mourning rightfully taking a huge
share of the blame. (Swinging? With 1.4 seconds to play? With
last year's suspensions still fresh in mind? With Game 5
looming?) When the suspensions of Mills, Mourning and Johnson
were announced, no one protested. At practice, when asked about
Mourning's role in the workout, Riley smirked. "He's sitting
there," he said, "making $105 million."
But when Riley heard that Van Gundy had said Mourning was
"always whining" and should "bang and bump like a man," the
Miami coach began to fume. Issues of manhood are paramount to
Riley; he's a master at transforming a basketball game into
warfare, at using metaphors like "lofting grenades" and "kicking
ass," at raising the machismo level of any team he coaches. It's
no coincidence that the NBA's last three high-profile fights
(which also include a Knicks-Bulls donnybrook in the 1994
Eastern semifinals) have involved a Riley-led team, and
certainly no surprise that the hot-tempered Mourning got
enmeshed in such a test of "manhood." Riley talking macho to
Mourning is like setting a match to dry tinder. But Van Gundy's
comments flushed the combativeness out of Riley like nothing
else has: On Saturday, Riley declared that his only
disappointment was that Mourning's punches never connected.
"Last year Van Gundy called P.J. a coward for flipping [Ward],"
Riley said. "A guy takes my knees out [as Ward was accused of
doing to Brown]? I would've done the same thing. [Van Gundy]
called 'Zo an a------ because 'Zo takes a punch at his guy,
who's trying to take [Mourning's] broken face off. Who's
provoking? Who's provoking? That's where it comes from. Unless
you've been in a situation where the primal instincts come out,
you can't deal with that. This is not about intellectual
behavior here. This is about protection. Winning--and the
consequences--does not transcend that.
"From a coaching standpoint, I wish he could've walked away,"
Riley said of Mourning. "From a man's standpoint, he was not
wrong." In other words, instead of being smart and understanding
that it's better to fight another day, Mourning was right to go
after Johnson. "If it costs us the series, then that's the way
it goes," Riley said.
As for Van Gundy, Riley blasted his former assistant. "The only
one out of control the other night was him," Riley said.
"Totally." Then he compared Van Gundy to a little boy: "A guy
starts lobbing spitballs, and somebody's going to turn on him."
Riley turned. Yes, both men were coaching in the media, and his
former protege had learned from the best. But Van Gundy was
obviously stung by the personal nature of Riley's attack. He had
challenged Riley's manhood, and what was once a warm
relationship was now something else. "Coach Riley has done a lot
for me and my family," Van Gundy said after Sunday's game. "I
learned a lot from him as a coach. I respect him greatly. His
opinion has obviously changed of me. But that won't change my
opinion of him."
It was all very revealing. Mourning took off his mask in Game 4
and revealed himself as still a victim of his own worst
impulses. His absence from Game 5 showed just how thin the Heat
(especially without Austin) truly was. Riley suffered the most
embarrassing playoff elimination of his career and crippled a
friendship, but showed that he would wave all that off as the
price of adhering to a personal code. Maybe you'll lose
something important, but as the newspapers trumpet your legend,
you will always find a way to tell yourself that what you lost
wasn't that important. You will find yourself sitting in an
increasingly quiet arena and telling yourself, Yes, it was worth
it. Yes, it was.