The most interesting matchup with the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls used to be Michael Jordan against the whole Knick team. Now it is Pat Riley against Phil Jackson. Sometimes you wish you could put them both out there in their elegant clothes and let Jackson throw elbows at Riley, the way he used to throw elbows at everybody. Then Riley could put his head down and try to run over Jackson, which is the way he played when he got off the bench. They would both feel a lot better. Riley and Jackson do not like each other at all, whatever lies they tell this week.
Riley thinks Jackson tries to steal big games by complaining to referees. Jackson has always thought there was a lot to complain about, because Riley has a dirty team. We always go from there. Even when they try to say nice things about each other, you are afraid they will choke on them.
Tuesday, Jackson called Riley “one of the classiest people in the league.” Then there was Riley after his own practice, saying Jackson is a “great” coach. After that, Riley talked about Jackson’s discipline and said it is all right there for you when you break down the tapes, something Riley would rather do than eat.
And when he was done with all that, the Knick coach smiled, because he still does that once or twice a month during the playoffs, and said, “My feeling about that has nothing to do with the fact that he whines now and then.”
Riley was asked why and said, “It’s all for the edge.”
The two coaches in this series are bright, fascinating men. If they quit tomorrow, they both go to the Hall of Fame. But both want more. Both still have something to prove, and not just to each other. Riley lost Magic Johnson a while ago. This is Jackson’s first season without Jordan. Jackson tries to win another championship without the best player in the world on his side. Riley has been trying to do the same since he arrived in New York.
Riley also tries to become the second coach in NBA history to win championships with two teams. Alex Hannum did it with the St. Louis Hawks in the 1957-58 season and the storied Philadelphia 76er team of 1966-67. There is as much on the line here for the coaches as the players, whether these things are discussed or not. Riley has four championships already, Jackson three. There has never been a one-on-one game for coaches quite like this. Because what they have is not enough.
“It’s not just two different teams with Pat,” Knick assistant Dick Harter said. “It’s two completely different styles of play. That’s the important thing. Most guys when they move from one place to another take everything with them. Not Pat.”
If the Bulls win a fourth consecutive title without Jordan, it will go down as one of the great basketball accomplishments of all time and can only make Jackson bigger. A title in New York does the same for Riley. For years in Los Angeles, he heard that anyone could coach Magic and Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar to NBA titles. Now he has won 166 regular-season games in three seasons with the Knicks and made it to the conference finals last season. The only thing left, as a way of showing everybody, is winning it all in New York.
Jackson and the Bulls are once again in Riley’s way. They are always in the way this time of year. Someone asked Riley on Tuesday if the Knicks have the same respect for the Bulls they once had. “We have not earned the right to not have respect for anybody,” he said.
Once again we find out there is so much to this series, even without Jordan. You start with the two cities. New York doesn’t worry too much about Chicago, but there are always hard feelings coming the other way, along with the usual Second City insecurities. You have Ewing and Bill Cartwright, who played together once, and Charles Oakley, who came to the Knicks in the Cartwright trade. And there is Scottie Pippen, who would also like to win a title without having to pass the ball to Jordan.
Riley vs. Jackson just makes it all better. Both say this is all about the players in the end. Neither really wants to believe that.
Riley was asked if he thinks a coach can successfully lobby the referees at this time of year. Jackson clearly thinks so. He usually starts crying about the referees before the series and doesn’t stop until his team gets ahead. Last year, Riley waited until the series was 2-2 before he said Ewing didn’t get enough respect from the referees, or enough free throws. Then Ewing and the Knicks got what seemed like a hundred free throws in Game 5; they just couldn’t make them.
"(Referees) are too smart for that,” Riley said. Then he was talking about Sunday’s game, and pointing out that the game was being officiated the same way when the Bulls were ahead 15 points as when they fell apart. “We outrebounded them, 16-8, in the fourth quarter,” Riley said. “Eight of those rebounds were offensive. . . . When you do that, good things are going to happen.”
Riley has not looked for an edge yet with the referees, because he has a 2-0 edge in the series after Wednesday’s 96-91 Knick victory. That will come later, maybe when the series moves to Chicago Stadium Friday night. Jackson, of course, started to lobby as soon as Game 1 was over.
“It’s all coach-ese,” Riley said. “All about the edge.”
Ewing has so much on the line here, because he has never won in the pros. Pippen has a lot on the line. But so do the coaches. They look for the edge, and try to win again, Phil Jackson without Jordan this time, Pat Riley without Magic. Both have made history. It just feels too much like someone else’s history. Now they fight to make some of their own.