The New Life of Riley : He Is Determined to Bring Winning Tradition Back to Madison Square Garden


Tradition has been nothing more than a magnificent memory at Madison Square Garden. Recent history has had little in common with the proud and stable days of the late 1960s and early 1970s when a grand and dignified man named Red Holzman coached the Knicks for 10 seasons.

When the 1990-91 season ended, the team lost its sixth coach in 10 years. A title was nothing more than a fantasy. Reality was despair.

Holzman's polished teams won championships in 1970 and 1973. The last was against the Los Angeles Lakers, who had a tough, hard-working backup guard named Pat Riley. It was the second time Riley had been in a championship series. He would appear in nine more -- 11 overall, winning six -- as a player, assistant coach and finally as head coach of a team with a tradition steeped in glamor: The Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


Last season, Riley sat in the NBC studios while the Knicks franchise was burning. He was co-host of a basketball show, but in name only.

He still was a coach.

When the Knicks job became available, Riley was clearly intrigued. He remembered playing in the Garden in those championship series. He remembered the electricity generated by the Knicks' hands-on fans. He said one day on television he always had thought New York was "the Mecca of basketball."

But he didn't believe it -- at least not in a current sense.

"Based on my own experience -- the last 10 years -- it would be stupid for me to say that this is the Mecca of basketball and at the same time diminish what we did in Los Angeles," Riley said recently. "In the last 10 years, the Mecca of basketball was there."

But, oh, the possibilities. After several erratic years, the Knicks franchise seems to be back on track. And the tradition was there, waiting to be revived.

"I remember watching Willis Reed walk on the court in 1970 and I followed that series closely," said Riley, who played for the San Diego Rockets at the time. "They won Game 7, and you could see the excitement on TV. It gives you goose bumps when you think about it -- Frazier getting the 36 and 19 assists. When we played them (in 1972 and 1973), it was incredible. The electricity in this place for a championship -- it's crackling. It's incredible."

And now, as Riley begins his first season as Knicks coach -- bringing with him a winning tradition of his own as Lakers coach -- he is trying, in a very conscious way, to revitalize the team by instilling in the players feelings about the winning tradition that was the Knicks. Do that, Riley is saying, and the players -- and the fans -- will follow.

"One of the great things about this audience is that if you play your ass off and you give everything you've got and it translates into winning, they're going to be right there with you," Riley said. "They're just a little more into it, a little more vocal than other places. They're passionate about it. And there is such a tradition. It goes a long way back with the Garden and New York City and basketball being a city game. You talk about New York, and you talk about back doors, moving without the ball and all this stuff."

Ernie Grunfeld, now the Knicks' vice president of player personnel, was in junior high school and high school in Queens when the Knicks won their titles. "All of New York was proud of the Knicks because they played smart basketball and they played hard and they played as a team," Grunfeld said. "One of my fondest memories was watching the Knicks box out. Every man would have somebody to box out. Nobody went for the ball. Then the ball would hit the ground and the Garden would just go crazy because they are such knowledgeable fans that they would really appreciate the fact that all five guys were boxing out. I've talked with Pat about some of those things, and he's interested."

Walt Frazier, now a Knicks broadcaster, said if Riley can lead the Knicks to a title, it will be an experience unlike any he's ever had. "Even though he won four championships in L.A., he'll never know what it's like to have a Knicks crowd behind him," Frazier said. "The Lakers' crowd is not like the Knicks' crowd. They're more choreographed and they're just there to be seen. But in New York, they're there to win."

To reinstate the sense of tradition, Riley and Knicks President Dave Checketts have gone so far as to bring back one link to the championship teams of 1970 and 1973 -- the old coach. Checketts was shocked when Holzman told him he had no active role with the Knicks. Holzman was paid as a team consultant, but he was not being consulted. Checketts asked Holzman to become more involved, and that decision was embraced by Riley.

"Tradition is very meaningful to Pat because he grew up in the shadows (of New York) and watched it and felt it," Checketts said. "It means a lot to him. This is something that a lot of people don't know, but he wondered how much Red would be involved. Whenever Red walks into practice, Pat is very careful to make everyone aware of who he is. He wanted to have him more involved than Red really wanted to be. We all knew it wouldn't work with Red being an assistant or anything like that, but Pat wondered if there were some times that Red might want to be on the bench. Red decided not to, but that's how Pat thinks."

Holzman said: "At the beginning, Pat asked if I'd be interested in being on the bench. But I wouldn't do that at this stage of the game, and he understands that. Pat's been great to me. He's been very, very friendly. He's always told me, 'If you see anything you want to discuss, I'd be happy to hear it.' He likes the tradition. And that's got to be a positive thing."

Recent tradition, of course, has been something else for the Knicks. Recent tradition is of a succession of general managers unable to bring to New York the players who could repeat the past successes or even cope with the changes in the league. If tradition is the word associated with the championship Knicks, then the word most associated with recent teams was "disarray."

Which is why taking over the Knicks was so attractive to Checketts -- and why, Checketts said, he was able to lure Riley to the Knicks.

"I compared the Knicks to a rodeo," Checketts said. "Say you're at a rodeo, and you're walking by the gates and you see a bull and a guy tells you it has been ridden seven or eight times. Then you go to the next gate, and that bull is pretty mean and has been ridden three or four times. And then you see the next bull, and the guy says that nobody has ridden that one. Now which one do you want to hop on?

"This bull (the Knicks) has been ridden, but it's currently the one that's bucking the most and it's bucked a lot of people off. Between the fact that New York ought to be the basketball capital of the world, and that people demand so much and that the Garden was all new and maybe the best arena anywhere and the fact that this was a tough situation and a tough job -- that's what made it attractive for me. And that's what made it attractive for Pat."

And Riley has made the Knicks attractive to New York again.

"This is the most positive overall I've seen this situation in years," said Marv Albert, beginning his 25th season as Knicks broadcaster. "We have to play it out and see what happens, but just him coming here would be in the top 10 highlights (in the history of the franchise). ... It also helps Pat because this is a terrific situation to take over. When you examine where you want to coach, you don't want to go into a complete 'up' situation because there's nowhere to go. You can look terrific turning something around that looks so hopeless."

Those who know Riley, and those who have played for him, note that there's more to Riley than glitz.

"I think Pat gave us instant credibility, but all of that aside, the real benefit of hiring him has been to watch him work," Checketts said. "You forget that his success isn't just his image. He's a very solid coach. He works so hard and he's so prepared that the players have tremendous confidence in him. And then he works the players so hard that they get into a kind of condition where they have confidence in themselves. They say, 'We're better prepared than the other team and we're supposed to win because we've paid the price."'

Johnson, the Lakers' star, agrees. "He's always pushing you to be at your best, or better than your best," Johnson said. "Sometimes you think you are doing your best, but when you do, he'll pull out his stats and show you. And those stats don't lie. And he's great at motivating you. He'll keep newspaper articles and he'll put them up on the board and he'll tell you what people are saying about you and he'll ask you if you think they are right. He'll have you$so built up that by the time you're ready to leave the locker room, you're growling and saying, 'Let me at 'em."'

"The Lakers were always a never-die team," said Celtics star Larry Bird. "I've never seen one of his teams quit. That's what New York needed."

"He knows people and he knows how to motivate people," Patrick Ewing said. "I don't think I need to be motivated, but sometimes you just don't have it. He knows what button to push to make whoever it is get it. He's going to add experience to our team. He has won four championships (as a head coach). None of us has ever even been to the championship series, so he's going to bring the experience and know-how to get there. That's big."

All of that does not guarantee the Knicks a championship this year. And some of those involved with the Knick tradition warn that merely having Riley as the coach does not guarantee another banner hanging from the Garden rafters next year.

"Most people from New York think that when you get somebody with a name, you're going to win right away," said Dick McGuire, the man whom Holzman replaced as coach in 1967 and who has remained with the team as a scout. "I hope they're right, but it's not that easy. The last time I remember something (being this big) was when we drafted Patrick Ewing. But people thought then we were going to win right away, and it hasn't been that easy."

Potential negatives, however, are not a current concern. Right now, optimism abounds. "The excitement here is unprecedented," Frazier said. "If Riley hadn't come here, this place would be a ghost town. There'd be no excitement at all."

"On the front of our media guide," Checketts said, "there's a picture of Pat with Red and they're both wearing their championship rings. Maybe some people will say that's too aggressive, too optimistic, but the fact remains that they both have something in common now. Pat's got to earn his reputation with the Knicks, but he has a good one in the league and in basketball. Red is our link with the past, and Pat's our look to the future."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World