THE SUBJECT of the conversation was Alonzo Mourning, upon whom Pat Riley was lavishing great praise. The more Riley discussed Zo's inspirational comeback, however, the more frustrated his voice sounded. "What I see in him, I hope rubs off on some of our other veterans," he said by phone from Los Angeles on Dec. 6. "When they're coasting, when they're not playing hard or they're sitting out too long, I hope they look over at him and realize how they should be responding.... We need to get the whole team playing at the same level as Zo." He sounded very much like a coach-in-waiting.
In addition to applying for a construction permit for a house he plans to have built in Malibu and consulting with doctors about a hip replacement, Riley had come to Southern California to meet with Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. In a three-hour meeting two days earlier, Van Gundy had told his mentor and longtime friend that he would probably step down after two-plus years, a decision he made official on Monday, when Riley also announced he would be making his long-anticipated return to the Heat bench.
The rumors that Riley would take over had been percolating since the Heat's Game 7 loss to Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals last June. A month later one prominent Eastern Conference executive told SI that Shaquille O'Neal was spreading the word to friends that Riley was the best coach to lead Miami to a championship. The executive agreed. "Stan had his chance and didn't get it done," he said. "Pat should be coaching that team."
Riley had already fueled the conspiracy theories earlier in the summer by publicly admitting that, at age 60, he planned to take a more hands-on role in the daily management of the team and that he was also intrigued by the idea of returning to coaching. During the first week of the season, after a lackluster preseason, Van Gundy told Riley he was seriously considering resigning, only to be talked out of it by his boss, who says he spent the next six weeks constantly trying to persuade Van Gundy to stay.
Van Gundy, who was 112-73 (and 17-11 in the postseason) during his tenure as Miami coach, says he left so that he could spend more time with his wife and four children. As he listened to Monday's press conference from the Suns coaches' lounge, Phoenix assistant Marc Iavaroni found Van Gundy's explanation plausible. "Stan's plugged in almost psychically to his children," says Iavaroni, who, with Van Gundy, was an assistant under Riley in Miami from 1999 through 2002. "I know he has a real feeling for them. That part [of the story] is real."
But there is no denying that Van Gundy was undermined by the underwhelming effort he was getting from players who seemed to believe the whispers about their coach's imminent demise. They're ready for Riley, but is he ready for them? Riley admits that he hasn't watched game film or read a daily scouting report in the two years since he last coached. Still, he is certain to demand far more from a team that, with the exception of Mourning and Dwyane Wade, has not played up to its potential. During his trip to California, Riley spoke ominously about the need to avert "a disaster." The irony is that many people believed the team's problems stemmed not only from the prolonged absence of Shaq from the lineup but also from the off-season moves made by Riley: the signings of Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and Jason Williams, which have created chemistry issues.
It will take all of Riley's best-selling motivational skills to jump-start the Heat, but he believes it can still be done. "When you have a lot of competitive guys who have been on teams that haven't had much success, the challenge for the organization is to find leadership," Riley said. "[Opponents] fear us. If we ever really get it, we could be very lethal, but we need to fast-track."
Having assembled the roster that failed to respond to Van Gundy (right), Riley now faces a monumental test of his motivational skills.