Pat Riley Won't Give In

Machiavellian. Redemptive. Necessary. Each of those words has been used to describe the Miami coach's decision to return to the bench this season, and in what could be his last shot at one more title, the heat has never been more intense
April 30, 2006

Not long ago, PatRiley admitted he's not the man he used to be. Neither are you," he thensaid 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 themacross. The very picture of success in the 1980s and the '90s, Riley was astylish 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 theMiami Heat in December, as his team gathered around him, he had to grab hold ofAlonzo Mourning's leg as he tried to take a knee. "He was showing hisage," the Heat center says. "That's the first time I'd seen that."Riley came back needing to update himself on opponents and plays, but it's whathe calls the "interminable" regular season that hit him hardest. Hemoves less on the sideline these days, with a shorter stride, and when you seehim up close on a night like tonight, late March, fourth road game in fivedays, 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, aspathetic or heroic: The man won't give in.

He is standing inthe Heat locker room, but not by choice. It is 6:45 p.m., little more than anhour away from Miami's road showdown against the Eastern Conference championPistons, and the media is pouring through the door. At home and on the road,Riley keeps himself at a chilly remove from the world; he is almost neveraround when the reporters get their 45 minutes in the locker rooms--nor, forthat 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 beenbooted. But the folks who designed The Palace of Auburn Hills have put apostmodern twist on NBA gamesmanship: Boston's Red Auerbach regularly turned upthe heat in his visitors' locker room; the Pistons have cut off all avenues ofescape. Ankles get taped on a table near the door. Players can retreat only tocramped lockers. The media swarm fans out, circles, and soon Mourning,Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Jason Williams, Gary Payton, Antoine Walker andUdonis Haslem--the most intriguing team gunning for a title this season--findthemselves under siege.

Only Riley standsunmolested, as if surrounded by a force field that would fry the reporterfoolish enough to approach him. He's staring at an oversized dry-erase surfacecovered 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 bidto reclaim his family life and the cynical call Riley's bid to win one last NBAtitle--Riley went off on a rhapsodic tangent about the quality of Van Gundy'sboards, the virtues of soft chalk and nice handwriting. These days, assistantcoach Erik Spoelstra mans the board, and his more ethereal tips can range fromMAKE THEM FEEL YOU to EXPECT NORMAL JAZZ BULLS---. Tonight, though, theboard is message-free. Detroit beat Miami in the seventh game of last season'sconference finals. That should be motivation enough.

There's a reasonno one speaks to Riley. Though capable of immense charm, his aura is carefullycultivated to keep outsiders at bay and insiders off balance. By the time heleft the Lakers in 1990, his intensity had so overwhelmed the franchise thatstaffers were calling him Norman Bates, and his maneuvering to bolt the Knicksin '95 stamped him with a reputation for Machiavellian intrigue that hasn'tfaded. Last summer, despite having a close-knit team that came within 86seconds of playing for the NBA championship, Riley told a stunned Van Gundythat he might replace him on the bench, then overhauled the roster."Frankly? You think you know him, but you don't," says Phoenix Sunsassistant coach Marc Iavaroni, who was a Miami assistant under Riley from 1999through 2002. "There's no way you can predict what he's thinking. That'spart of the mystique."

Riley stopsstaring 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 sidelineis slightly smudged, so he dabs at it, then tilts his head like a painteraddressing a canvas. He dabs again at the e, then notices that anotherword--OPT--under a play called 13 Strong also needs work. Riley delicatelytraces the marker over all three letters. He steps back, gently caps themarker, puts it down. Then he turns and walks through the locker room and intothe bathroom.

In the final weeksof the 2005-06 season, Riley repeatedly criticized himself; later tonight hewill say, "I have to do a better job, period." And in truth he hasn'tdone his best coaching this season. He returned to a team that, with O'Nealmissing 18 games, began the season 11-10; under him the Heat finished 41-20,took a 2-0 lead over the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs andare considered a near-lock to meet Detroit again in the conference finals.What's striking, however, is how little the '05-06 Heat, despite itsconsiderable firepower, seems like a Pat Riley team: The perimeter defense isfull of holes, the transition defense is, as Riley says, "sometimesdeplorable." "They've got great players, great athletes, and they gottwo legitimate shot blockers," says John Starks, whose career was made byRiley in New York. "But no, they settle."

In fact, it's onlywhen Mourning, the quintessential Riley player, was on the floor that the Heatseemed at all driven. Riley's face lights up whenever he talks about his backupcenter; he actually flexes his biceps and clenches his fists in pridefulimitation of Mourning's on-court menace. Of all Riley's disciples, there may benone 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 akidney transplant, started slapping shots out-of-bounds--averaging 2.66 blocksin just 20 minutes a game--and shoving opponents to the ground that the Heatappeared primed for a long playoff run.

Yet, as the monthspassed, even Mourning couldn't avoid the feeling that something wasn't right.NBA rule changes have rendered the bruising style Riley made infamous in NewYork impossible to implement, so he stocked Miami with scorers, hoping to teachdefense along the way. Mourning kept waiting for his teammates to match hisfire, for that Riley magic to kick in. But "Riles" wasn't pushing ashard. "He doesn't punish us like he used to," said Mourning in earlyMarch. "He used to punish us with defensive drills back in the '90s; it wasgrueling. He still has the same schemes and the same approach to the game asfar as preparation, but he's cut back on our court time. It could have aneffect on us not getting what he wants us to get soon enough.

"We haveimproved since he first stepped in to coach. But I hope we don't run out oftime. I just hope we get it before it's too late."

An hour beforegametime in Auburn Hills, O'Neal wanders toward the trainer's table. Around hisneck are headphones he need not place on his ears: Stevie Wonder's PastimeParadise is crackling just under his chin, low enough for anyone else to missthe lyrics but loud enough to annoy. Now here comes Mourning, glowering,game-ready, seeing nothing. A matchup with the Pistons in Detroit is just thetype of "statement game" Riley likes and Mourning embraces; it willtell plenty about what kind of team Miami is. It demands seriousness.

But Shaq isn'tready for that. He sees Mourning, and moves to head him off. Nodding to themusic, he steps in so that Mourning must step back; Mourning, startled, looksfor an instant as if he'd like to slam an anvil over O'Neal's skull. But Shaqkeeps coming, still nodding, moving into Mourning's space until he's justinches from his nose. He grins. 'Zo glares, trying to remain 'Zo, but the musicand that goofy face get him. He starts nodding slowly, and then he cracks, andthe two giants, grinning and nodding, stand close enough so both can hear thewords:

... They've beenspending most their lives
Living in a pastime paradise
They've been wasting most their time
Glorifying days long gone behind....

O'Neal is not likethe men who anchored Riley's championship teams in Los Angeles, or the grittysquads in New York and Miami. Though he responded dramatically to Riley'sFebruary demand to lose weight--dropping, for the first time since 1993, to asvelte 322 pounds--there's a part of O'Neal that refuses to see basketball aswar, or a statement of manhood. O'Neal likes parties where he can dress up likehis favorite movie character, Scarface, and with film roles and a gig as a U.S.deputy marshal, his life comes off like a kid's idea of adulthood, all fun andgames. That lightness makes him easily the NBA's most engaging player, but hiscasual attitude toward the regular season seemed infectious; often the Heatperformed as if playoff-level basketball was just a matter of flipping aswitch. "I know when to get mean," O'Neal promised in March. "Idon't like to get mean too early. It's coming."

And make nomistake: Though this has been his least productive season, O'Neal remainsMiami's dominant personality and his performances in Games 1 and 2--he averaged24.5 points on 63% shooting--shows that he may have enough left to carry thisteam into June. He says he has never been happier, and one reason is that thelow-key Wade has no interest in being the alpha dog. The tone was set onMiami's first day of open gym last season, when Wade tried to dunk over O'Neal.("I had to," Wade says.) O'Neal slammed him to the floor, and told Wadenever to try it again. He hasn't challenged Shaq since. "Kobe is Kobe; hebe who he be," says the Heat's Gary Payton, who played in L.A. with O'Neal."Dwyane wants everybody to be good--and he just plays his ass off."

O'Neal doesn'tbegrudge Wade's success, a change from his earlier partnerships with PennyHardaway and Bryant. "When I was coming up with those other guys, it wasall about me," O'Neal says. "Young Shaq and young Penny: Young Shaq gotto be in control. Medium Shaq and young Kobe: Medium Shaq got to be in control.But old Shaq and nice, humble guy? I'm not going to be stopping him. It's likeThe Godfather: Penny Hardaway was like Fredo. Kobe was like Sonny: He wanted tobe the man so bad. And Dwyane is like Michael, and the time has come to say,I'm going to let you do what you do. I've got to. I'm slowing down."

Who knows how mucha role that decline played in the signals Riley began sending last summer?Though he walked away in 2003 after the two worst seasons of his coachingcareer ("It's been nothing here but failure," he said at the time."Everything I get credit for I did 14 years ago"), Riley had oftenmentioned in Heat circles that he might coach again, and friends such asMemphis G.M. Jerry West pushed him to get back on the sideline. "I told himtwo or three times: 'I think you're crazy for not coaching,'" West says."He's too good."

Last June, as teampresident, Riley told reporters that "I may take a little bit more of anactive participation" in the team, sparking a frenzy of speculation. VanGundy, who had done a superb job with the seventh-place team Riley handed himjust four days before the 2003--04 season, had no choice but to think he'd beenput on notice. A month later former Heat broadcaster and legendary coach JackRamsay reported on ESPN that Riley would be taking over as Heat coach. Rileycalled the report "absolutely unconscionable," the leaker"gutless" and the leak "an absolute lie."

It was alluncharacteristically clumsy, and Riley's next flurry of moves were equallyconfounding. In the next two months Riley made Miami the pivot point in afive-team, 13-player trade. Gone were Van Gundy favorite Eddie Jones,sharpshooter Damon Jones, Keyon Dooling and Rasual Butler. Replacing them werePayton, Williams, Walker and James Posey. It seemed like Riley was loading upon big names--Showtime Redux?--for a quick-fix run before O'Neal ran down forgood. Says Ramsay, "I don't know anybody who didn't scratch his head whenthey assembled this team."

All that, not tomention O'Neal's convenient return to the starting lineup for Riley's firstgame back, leads many to view Van Gundy's resignation as window-dressing. Andthe Heat's policy of forbidding Van Gundy, who is under contract until June2008, from speaking publicly--he wasn't allowed to speak to SI, and a requestby TNT to use him on playoff broadcasts was also rejected--only feeds aleaguewide image of Riley as paranoid. Yet the truth about Van Gundy'sdeparture is more subtle. There are those close to Van Gundy who say Riley'sactions created working conditions that made it easier for him to leave; VanGundy never could dismiss the thought that his boss was eyeing his job. At thesame time, the 46-year-old Van Gundy desperately missed his four kids and wifeKim, and the endless travel proved less appealing than going to his son'sbaseball games and making runs to Home Depot.

On Dec. 1, Rileywas walking across the Heat's practice floor with Louie Dampier, his roommatefor four years at Kentucky and a teammate on the famous Rupp's Runts who lostto Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA title game.

"Think you'llever get back into it?" Dampier asked.

"I reallydon't think so," Riley replied.

Twelve days later,Van Gundy quit. Even those who abhor the way Riley let Van Gundy dangle overthe summer insist that he resigned for his family and has been happier eversince. "Pat had nothing to do with Stan's decision," says Bill VanGundy, Stan's father, "and Pat doesn't deserve any rap of thatnature."

Whatever youbelieve about this change, Riley's return to coach O'Neal and Wade alwaysseemed logical, if only in a narrative sense: He was the marquee coach in theleague's glory years, and his return to work motivational magic on its mostoutsized personality and its newest superstar gave the Heat a glamour Detroitand San Antonio will never match. TV programmers loved the prospect--no teamhas appeared more on cable TV this season--and the players saw it as their due."Stan did an incredible job here," Mourning says. "But coachingcredibility? Hands down, Pat has it. So why not have the teacher here insteadof the pupil?"

Riley's publicstance was that this was a ride to the rescue: Van Gundy's sudden departuredemanded only one fix. "I'm the best person," Riley said when he tookover. "The team is a mess." Two weeks later Ramsay approached himbefore the Heat's Christmas Day game and asked if everything was O.K. betweenthem. Riley smiled and said, "We're coaches. Sure!"

Those who knowRiley weren't shocked at his return to the sideline. Even now, few of Riley'speers are more organized or work harder, and his ability to take something heread or heard on TV and spin it into a compelling motivational speech remainsunmatched. And now, no matter what happens in these playoffs, the dip at theend of his coaching bio will be balanced by a final spike upward, a blue-chipstock's final rebound. And if he could make it past Detroit? "His legacywould certainly expand," West says.

In returning tothe chase, Riley has been forced to face constant reminders of time's ravages.His 96-year-old mother, Mary, began to decline in upstate New York, and Rileymissed the final two games of the season to be with her. Then last Friday,before the playoff opener against Chicago, Mary died, and Riley found himselfpreparing and coaching in grief. "My mother always used to say, and shetold me time and again this week, Life goes on, so get on with it," he saidbefore the opener.

Four monthsearlier, his return to the bench had all but coincided with the release ofGlory Road, a movie about the first all-black college team to win a nationaltitle. Riley, who had jumped center in the historic '66 loss to Texas Western,was a consultant for the film, produced by his friend Jerry Bruckheimer, andthere was chatter about it everywhere as winter turned to spring--TV,magazines, theaters, the in-room network in every hotel room--everywherereminders of his younger self, 40 years gone.

On January 21,when all the Runts gathered at Lexington's Memorial Hall to commemorate the '66team, Riley was to have been there. It was all arranged: The university wouldsend a jet to pick him up, he'd miss a practice. In Heat circles the fact thatRiley agreed to this was taken as a sign of his mellowing; the younger Rileywould never have skipped practice for a mere reunion. But then, the nightbefore the gathering, Miami lost to San Antonio at home. Riley sent regrets andwent back to work. Nineteen sixty-six was lost; he still had a chance to winthis season.

The Runts weredisappointed. That Riley evolved into such a grind didn't square with the Patthey knew at Lexington; there he had been less disciplined, less obsessive. Intheir room Riley would monopolize Dampier's phonograph player, and it wasalways spinning: the Four Tops, the Supremes. "He was a free spirit,"Dampier says. "He really loved music and dancing."

That part of himhasn't wholly disappeared. On Feb. 12 in Miami, Wade outscored the Pistons inthe fourth quarter, and the Heat won by two. Before the game the Miami playerswere sitting at their lockers when the arena's P.A. system started blaring theDoobie Brothers' classic tune Long Train Running. Riley then came in through adoor, gyrating. The players stared, looked at one another, stared some more.Riley didn't say a word, but for a few long minutes he jerked, he moved, hespun. "Half the dances he was doing? I didn't know what the heck theywere," Haslem says.

Finally Rileystopped, red-faced and winded, and stated the day's lesson: Be loose. If theydidn't know it before, they all knew now. The man is capable of just aboutanything.

Alonzo Mourning ison his hands and knees. He's down on the Pistons' floor, gasping; no onetouched him, and yet something is wrong. Even before this late March clash inAuburn Hills, Mourning's constant refrain had been mere survival. "Todaycould be my last game," he says. "I could get a call from my doctor,and he'd say, 'I can't let you play Sunday'. Next year is not promised to me.Next game isn't."

But, no, it's nothis kidney, and finally Mourning is up and limping off the floor. It's a tornright calf muscle, and it could well end Miami's hopes of dethroning Detroit.It's certainly the end of Miami's hopes this night. Although the Heat is up bysix when Mourning goes down, and doubles that lead before halftime, the Pistonscore of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace andRasheed Wallace sticks to its game plan: front O'Neal and deny Wade the ball,play relentless, smart basketball--Riley-ball, in fact. When Detroit makes itsrun, the Heat has no answer, and with Mourning gone, the Pistons steam to thewin.

Just after theplayers return to their locker room, the door opens. Riley steps out and statesa simple truth: "They took it from us." And suddenly there's a hintthat his massive gamble--the summer deals, the coaching change--could go south.Riley knows too well that the clock is ticking: Payton is 37, Williams 30,Walker will be 30 this summer. Everyone knows. "We've got to do it, andwe'd better do it," O'Neal says. "Because the time is now, the settingis now, we're built for now."

Mourning hasn'tplayed since Detroit, and Miami finished with 52 wins, seven fewer than lastyear. Riley looked hollowed out down the stretch. When he came to Miami in '95,Riley spoke of a champion's parade but vowed he wouldn't chase titles into his60s. "That'll kill you," he said then. The last time he coached evenclose to a contender, in 2000, the Knicks stole another Game 7 and Mourningfound him weeping at his desk.

"I want towin, deeply--win a championship; it's not any different," Riley said inearly April. "I never thought I would be a lifer. But here I am. So ...play it out." Then he walked back into the locker room, and to the team hecreated, slacks falling just so, with far too much time left before he could gointo the arena and feel the crowd and sharpen himself against 48 minutes ofmayhem. What did Mary say? Get on with it.

SI.COM
For all the news and views of the NBA playoffs, check out the Playoff Blog andMarty Burns's Fast Breaks at SI.com/nba.

Shaq isn't like the men who anchored Riley's titleteams. There's a part of him that refuses to see basketball as war, or astatement of manhood.

"He doesn't punish us like he used to,"Mourning says of Riley. "He used to literally punish us in practice withdefensive drills. It was grueling."

Wade has no interest in being the alpha dog."Dwyane wants everybody to be good," says Payton, "and he plays hisass off."

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Rosato PHOTOFERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESAt his coach's behest, Shaq dropped 20 pounds and raised his game against Chicago. PHOTOBOB ROSATO'Zo, Riley's most ardent disciple, fears his teammates might not yet be true believers. PHOTOISSAC BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESWith Shaq's blessing, Riley has turned to Wade to be his go-to guy in crunch time.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)