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The Strife of Riley

Are Pat Riley's days of winning NBA titles long behind him? Or can his steadfast coaching strategies turn the Heat back into contenders?
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03

Inside the MCI Center on a Saturday in March, every seat is accounted for. The whiff of spring in the Washington night is evidence that the National Basketball Association playoffs are fast approaching. The Wizards are chasing after eighth place in the Eastern Conference, scrapping to keep their season alive and straining to give Michael Jordan one last run.

In front of the opposing bench, Miami coach Pat Riley stands with his toes edging the sideline like a diver. He sees Jordan receive the ball near the baseline, cup it with his right hand and then loft a floating shot that nestles into the basket. Riley presses the tips of his fingers together hard and allows his features to contort into a grimace. Then the moment passes and a mask of blankness returns.

Riley's springtime battles against Jordan have become the stuff of NBA legend. He coached the Lakers against Jordan and the Bulls in an epic NBA final, coached the Knicks against him in three dramatic playoff series, and saw his first two Miami Heat teams tested and ultimately vanquished by His Airness. On this night, Jordan's impending retirement would seem to make this conrontation all the more ,ompelling as among the last of its genre.

Out the truth is, Riley's meaningful games against Jordan ended months ago. Miami is 21-44, careening toward Riley's first 50-loss season (the Heat finished 25-57). For the second successive season, the team will not make the NBA playoffs.

In two decades as a head coach with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat, Riley has amassed an unprecedented record of success. He won division titles in his first 12 seasons, and finished every season from 1981-82 through 2000-01 with a winning record. Riley has led teams to eight appearances in the NBA Finals -- winning four championships -- and has coached in 255 playoff games, a league record.

But before the calendar had even turned on the 2002-03 season, Riley was showing up for games with the air of a man desperately keeping up appearances, a Heart of Darkness character who carefully knots his tie each morning even as the jungle closes in. He coaches every night as though it was a matter of grave import, when in truth, the results of a team bound for nowhere hardly matter at all. "The hardest part is walking in here tonight and knowing we are not playing for a playoff position, we are not playing against a rival that we're competing against," Riley said before one late-season game. "That is the emptiness of where we are."

The 2002-03 Heat team was beset by injuries. Alonzo Mourning, the franchise player, missed the season with complications from a kidney disorder. Other stars -- Eddie Jones, Brian Grant -- played hurt, or didn't play at all. Beyond that, however, the roulette wheel that every coach spins finally landed on double-zero for the 58-year-old Riley, who started at the top with the Lakers more than two decades ago, then managed to remain there. "If you stay in the business long enough, you'll feel it," says Doug Collins, the Washington coach. "Once you get acclimated to winning -- and winning as big as he did -- it makes those losses doubly hard. But I can tell you this: he's no less of a coach than when he coached Magic and those guys."

Not everybody is as supportive. Universally admired, Riley is far from universally liked; his intensity has earned him more enemies than friends. Riley isn't the type to huddle at the bar with coaching friends at the league meetings or call ahead for tee times at the All-Star Game. His life is basketball, and he prefers the company of basketball lifers. "Either you're with him, one of his guys, or you're not," says P. J. Brown of the New Orleans Hornets, who played for Riley in Miami. At one point last season, an NBA referee remarked to Riley with scarcely contained glee that a lot of people were deriving pleasure from his struggles. The referee was fined $1,000, but the remark resonated around the league, eliciting one knowing shake of the head after another.

In Riley's first 19 years as a coach, losing meant the sting of the occasional regular-season defeat and the mounting frustration of being unable to win another championship after leaving Los Angeles. "There's winning and there's misery, he used to tell us," Brown says. By that standard, Riley exists these days in a constant state of misery. "He puts a lot of responsibility on himself," says Heat assistant Stan Van Gundy. "He expects to find a way to get it done regardless. I think it's one of the things that tears him up. He should be able to get us to execute a little better, he should be able to get us better shots."

If anything, Riley works harder now to create scoring opportunities for his players than he did when they were named Abdul-Jabbar or Worthy or Ewing. He devises plan after plan to help his inexperienced, and not especially talented, team succeed. Then his players get the open shots -- and can't hit them. "All of a sudden, your plays don't get you the basket," says Memphis Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown. "Or the guys get fouled, but now they only make one of two, or maybe they miss two. There is an incredible upheaval within yourself of questioning your philosophies, questioning your ability to reach the players. It has to wear on you."

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