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."
At home at night, Riley ought to be serene in the knowledge that he has records no active coach can challenge. "I don't think we've ever had a better coach in our league, at least not since I've been here," says the Philadelphia 76ers' Larry Brown. But that's small consolation to a man who seems to gauge his own self-worth by the number of games he wins.
"I know he can't sleep," says Hornets forward Jamal Mashburn, who played for Riley in Miami. "Even with us, one loss would have him so frustrated. He wouldn't know what to do. He couldn't sleep then, and I'm literally talking about one loss. I can't imagine what he's going through now."
Riley's early teams were some of the greatest assemblages of talent in basketball history, and were treated as such. It is easy to understand why a coach who can put Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the floor every night wouldn't get credit for winning championships. Over nine seasons in Los Angeles, nine seasons in which the lowest winning percentage he amassed was .659, Riley was voted the NBA's Coach of the Year exactly once, in 1989-90.
When he accepted the job coaching the Knicks in the fall of 1991, after a year's hiatus during which he co-hosted "NBA Showtime" on NBC, he stepped into a different world. He inherited the burden to win in the country's most fervent basketball market, and a roster of players with limited talents. The star of the team was Patrick Ewing, a fiercely determined 7-footer with a soft jump shot. Ewing had the potential to muscle his way to NBA greatness, but his grace and athleticism reminded nobody of Abdul-Jabbar.
In accordance with the resources at hand, Riley set out to remake himself as a coach, and to remake the team in his image. Instead of the freewheeling style of basketball he used with such success in Los Angeles, he installed a half-court game so tight as to be almost airless. This required a level of preparation unprecedented in the history of professional basketball. Every game was carefully choreographed. Many came down to the final minutes, and Riley's Knicks, almost as driven as he was, would invariably win them.
They didn't have the talent to overcome Jordan's Bulls, and so Jordan owns six championship rings and Ewing none. Still, for those four seasons in New York, four seasons that seemed like a decade because of the intensity with which basketball was played night after night, Riley pushed the limits of how much a coach can achieve with a sturdy but unspectacular team.
In doing so, he gained a reputation as the coach's coach. It is a truism in the NBA that, unlike college basketball, no coach can transcend the talent level of his players, even for a little while, but Riley sure came close. He could have been forgiven if he began to think that he, not Ewing or John Starks or Charles Oakley, was the determining factor. "I don't think it was ever an arrogance," says Van Gundy, whose brother, Jeff, succeeded Riley as the Knicks' coach. "But he feels very confident that he knows what it takes to win. To some degree, you get to a point where you think that if guys would just take this approach, they can make up for any deficit in talent."
If he did think that, he doesn't now. He was fond of last season's Miami team, proud of its improvement, but by March he had already spread the word that, conservatively, half of them would be gone by autumn. "What I've learned is, I can't take five guys off the street and win with them," he says. "I've learned that I need talent, I need skill, I need veteran players."
The Riley system demands a selflessness that comes with experience. Only later in the arc of an NBA career does sacrificing individual success for the chance to contend for a title typically become palatable. With too few talented veterans on his roster, Riley tried to fast-forward the process and win with players who still needed to be nurtured and taught. That might be possible for coaches who understand the college mentality, but not Riley. "He seems to have gotten better at loosening up around the players, but that's not really who he is," says 11-year NBA veteran LaPhonso Ellis, a bench player for Riley's Heat last season. "His approach might seem abrasive to a young player. The practices are long, and sometimes you think you'll be getting a day off after two games, but you don't. He's always trying to find ways to put us in a better situation to go out and win the next game, whatever that takes. It's a total commitment."
It isn't just the hard work and the long hours. Riley coaches like no one else in the NBA. He compiles notebooks full of singular statistics, quantifying heretofore unquantified attributes such as effort and unselfishness, as well as their negative counterparts. He spends hours preaching his system to his players, inoculating them with a unique philosophy of basketball. "We prepare more than anyone," says Grant, one of the few Heat players who could start elsewhere in the league. "If anything, he has tightened the screws as far as everything we do. It's his way to say, ëNobody here is going to give up.' "
But Riley the coach answers to Riley the team president, and the possibility exists that the power to make personnel decisions, which brought him to Miami from New York, has raised him to a level beyond his qualifications. The sports critics in Miami are calling him the worst general manager in the league (never mind that he has delegated that particular title to Randy Pfund); a coach who fouled his own nest by using up his salary cap on Mourning; a coach without the humility to admit the need to rip up his roster and start again.
"There are really only two phases you should be in," says Mike Dunleavy, a former coach of the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers now working in television. "Either you're competing for a championship or rebuilding; you don't want to be stuck in the middle. The worst is when you have a team that's supposed to win, and they do horribly. That's the killer."
Riley entered last season mouthing the words of a winner. If Mourning stayed healthy and young players like Caron Butler, the rookie from the University of Connecticut, were able to make an immediate impact, the team had the chance to contend. Perhaps he believed it, perhaps he was trying to delude himself -- but in any event, he couldn't keep up the pretense for long. The Heat lost seven of their first eight games and settled into last place in the Atlantic Division. Having not yet exorcised the pain of the previous year, Riley was soon faced with willing away a season even as it unfolded.
Even if Riley had the touch of a Jerry West, who built and rebuilt the Lakers, the fact exists that the NBA is perhaps the most difficult league in which to construct a winner. Traditional wisdom has it the other way; in a sport that utilizes only five players at a time, acquiring a single superstar means immediately revamping a fifth of your starting lineup. But traditional wisdom never dealt with the NBA salary cap. Whether they place the blame on Riley the coach, Riley the general manager or the forces of fate, nearly all observers agree that the road back up will be a longer ride than the road down. "He can talk about a plan, but, really, nobody has a plan to build," says Larry Brown. "The way the salary cap is, it prohibits teams from making a fast impact. That's what I see being difficult for him."
Some coaches might appreciate squeezing blood from a basketball as an academic exercise, but Riley derives no enjoyment from it. Moral victories aren't in the calculations of a man who has won nearly 70 percent of the games he has ever coached. "We have to learn to take away growth, we have to take away guys learning to believe that they can play, and I don't like doing that," he says. "I don't like coaching for those reasons. I like coaching to make the playoffs. I like coaching to win."
Three nights later, the 76ers are visiting AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. Riley is agonizing about trying to negate Sixers star Allen Iverson. He wants to see a Heat player stop a superstar cold, essentially remove him from the game. It hasn't happened all year. "All the great ones do that," he says, oblivious to the fact that he has started players named Rasual Butler, Anthony Carter and Eddie House this season, players whose resemblance to Magic, Worthy and Kareem begins and ends with the profession they list on their passport applications.
If this collection of the immature, the infirm and the aged want to win as badly as Riley does, it's sure hard to read in their eyes. At one point before the game, Riley strides into the locker room and diagrams a play on the blackboard. He'll run though it with the team closer to tip-off, but by the time he leaves the room minutes later for his plush office, closing the door softly behind him, nobody has even shown enough curiosity to step up and take a look. And why should they? With the end of the season only a few games away, what difference will a new play possibly make?
Riley refuses to think that way. He doesn't have it in him. "He's never going to concede that he can't win," Stan Van Gundy says. "He's always going to think he can find a way to win. It makes you miserable, but it also makes you great." With a storied athletic career behind him that began when he spurned an offer to play football for Bear Bryant at Alabama and chose basketball under Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Riley may be too old to learn how to rebuild. He'll come to the starting line again this fall with a championship in his sights. It is all he knows. He has not won one since 1988, but he hasn't forgotten the feeling, you can be sure.
Those who care about him hope he stays mindful of reality. "Pat has incredible faith in what he teaches," says West, the man who hired him in Los Angeles. "He does get his players to play at their very, very maximum. But great players have an extra gear. Some of these younger players are going to be very fine players, but they're not there now. He has to know that. I hope he knows that."
Now the general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies, West sought out Riley last season and gave him a pep talk. Though the record might not indicate it, West told Riley, he felt that he was watching one of the better coaching jobs of Riley's career. "I think when he looks back on his life, he's going to find gratification in what he accomplished," West says now. "To see his team play so many close games, to be right there in the end game after game. I told him that he's going to have to find some consolation in the improvement his team is making."
Eventually, Riley might gain enough perspective to understand. He can't see it now. He looks ahead at the coming season knowing he'll do almost anything to avoid a repeat of the last two. He'll work even harder, if that's what it takes. He'll prepare more thoroughly, ratchet up the stakes even higher with his team. A new power forward, a new play, a longer practice.
What he won't do, intimates stress, is walk away. It would be easy to do exactly that at this point, with the understanding that the Heat job as it exists today requires the patience of a younger man, or perhaps a man without four championship rings. But Riley still wants to prove that he can win one more without three Hall of Famers in the locker room; with less overt talent, but a more evolved philosophy. In a sense, that would validate everything he has done since leaving Los Angeles. "I suspect he'll keep on doing it until he gets it right," says Mashburn. "Don't expect to see him go riding off into the sunset."
Outside AmericanAirlines Arena, the sun has set long ago. As Riley leaves his office for home after another night of frustration, he has to be wondering if he'll ever see it rise again.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.