TURNING UP THE HEAT : After Leaving L.A. and New York, Riley Is Winning His Way in Miami

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Homecomings, he's had a few but then again, a few too many.

When Pat Riley first came back to Los Angeles as coach of the New York Knicks, there was a little swirl of activity. He had his players dress at the hotel to duck the press. The Forum crowd gave him a polite welcome. The Knicks scored 68 points. Riles wound up slumped on his bench, like an Armani bag of potatoes.

He barely knew what "controversial" meant back then, but he was about to find out.

Four years later, he returned to New York with the Miami Heat. Godzilla advanced on Tokyo with less fanfare. The tabloids made it a weeklong recrimination-fest. The fans booed. Because of injuries, he had to start Danny Schayes, Kevin Gamble, Kurt Thomas, Keith Askins and Bimbo Coles, and lost, 89-70.

Tonight, he's back at the Forum.

Riley likes to say he has coached 2,000 games and had his butt kicked a lot. His .702 second-best winning percentage suggests otherwise, but when you bring his kind of hunger to work each day, defeat carries a special sting.

Two in a row, like this week when the Heat's 14-game road winning streak ran into the Utah Jazz and Seattle SuperSonics, and Miami's sky turns from azure to as leaden as those that greeted Riley and Co. in the Pacific Northwest.

In New York, they used to play "This old heart of mine, been broke a thousand times," when Riles hit the Madison Square Garden floor. He picked it out himself.

Had he only known what was coming next:

1,001--Knicks grow old and fade.

1,002--He takes the Miami job.

1,003--Knicks claim tampering. Heat settles, for $5 million and a No. 1 pick.

1,004--Riley suffers through horrific first season, starting 11-3, finishing 19-11 . . . going 12-26 in the middle.

1,005--Riley pulls his greatest coup, signing free agent Juwan Howard. The NBA overturns it.

That last one really hurt.

In a conference call responding to the league's decision, Riley's voice seemed to break. In a subsequent interview for an ESPN yearbook story, he produced some lines of verse he'd received, casting about for consolation:

Here I lie,

Wounded but not slain,

I lie down,

To bleed awhile,

But will rise to fight again.

So he has.

If the new Heat didn't look like a team destined to win three of every four, it was created in Riley's image and shares his outlook.

"To me," Riley said last week, "the most single important ingredient in the game is the ability to endure and to be tough. They're not tough guys but tough-minded, tough mentally, tough spiritually . . . tough!

"And to be able to sustain it. You've got to be able to find the right kind of people. There are a lot of players in this league, they want to take the easy way out. And I don't want to be around players like that."

This ain't no fooling around. The Heat just announced a front-office "streamlining" in which two vice presidents and two department heads were streamlined onto the street.

Night in and night out, it gets sustained. Lots of players play hard. The Heat plays like demons.

"The thing about it, what's so good about the NBA," said Alonzo Mourning, seizing a silver lining after the Seattle loss, "you've got a game either the next day or within a couple days' time. . . .

"Getting a win, regardless of how you do it, is so much more of a relief. You can sleep better, regardless of how many points you scored, how many turnovers you might have had, how many rebounds or blocked shots.

"A win is a win in this league. You play so many games in this league, that's what you fight for, regardless of how you do it. It's so much more of a stress reliever."

Back when he was a Laker and his path, relatively, was strewn with roses, Riley divided an NBA season into "winning and misery."

Winning, he subdivided into two states, "savoring victory and being too damn tired to savor victory."

So Riley and his hand-picked troupe will do everything they can. It's not just that they want to win. It's not just that they need to win.

It's because anything else is intolerable.

*

They are warriors as much as basketball players. The problem with warriors, however, is that they keep getting in wars.

In one of the ironies in recent NBA history, Riley, one of the league's brightest stars, the man at the helm of glamour franchises in Los Angeles and New York, has found himself in a battle of wills with Commissioner David Stern, no man to overlook a marketing opportunity.

The conflict seems so stark, Riley wonders if Stern isn't out to get him. Around the Heat, it's accepted as gospel.

"David Stern runs this league," Mourning said in camp. "If he really wanted Juwan to be in Miami, it would have happened. . . .

"I think the animosity had built up over the last couple of years against Pat Riley and [Miami owner] Micky Arison. Micky Arison is the new guy on the block, a young owner with a lot of money; and Pat Riley, he has won everywhere he goes. . . . With the tampering, Micky pays the fine like it isn't nothing and you've got a lot of front-office people a little envious. Pat Riley leaves the Knicks and 11 months later he has a great team. They're saying, 'How can that happen?' "

The rift is undeniable. There are other possible explanations, however.

If Riley didn't invent physical basketball--lots of teams played as rough in the '80s--his Knicks became its leading exponents in the '90s. When they began colliding with the Chicago Bulls, figuratively and literally, Stern felt obliged to choose between Riley's gritty values and the more graceful ones embodied by Michael Jordan.

It wasn't a hard choice. Riley could deliver New York. Jordan could deliver America.

Thus began the stream of regulations, designed to clean up play and, incidentally, defang the Knicks. The flagrant foul rule, it was said, might as well have been the Charles Oakley Rule; no hand checking, the Derek Harper Rule.

Then Riley left for Miami, followed by the tampering claim, finishing him as a New Yorker, real or sentimental. Afterward, Stern secured the power to levy fines up to $5 million for tampering. It might have been called the Riley Rule.

All this was mere prelude, however, to the Howard affair.

The deal was a year in the making, and a painful year at that. Riley lost four starters to injury, moved all the holdovers except Askins but created millions of dollars of cap room. By actual count--he does these things--Riley signed, traded for, traded away or auditioned 127 players in 12 months.

"The injuries were tough, the trades," Askins says. "I was the only one left from that previous team.

"I had friends that left. I was really close with Bimbo [Coles] and that was tough on me. Last year was like I'd been traded because I was on a new team as well."

Riley, the rookie executive, then signed Howard to a $105-million contract. It shook the Eastern Conference and well it should have.

It was totally unexpected and made the Heat a budding power. The 6-foot-9 Mourning had always been on undersized front lines but now his forwards, P.J. Brown and Howard, would be 6-11 and 6-9. With Mourning, Howard and a resurgent Tim Hardaway, firepower worries were over. Brown could defend at either forward spot.

Then the East shook again.

Riley had been pushing the envelope administratively as he did on the sideline, with a new form of creative financing, awarding huge "unlikely bonuses"--ones that hadn't been realized the year before and didn't count toward the cap.

Hardaway got $2.5 million, with a $1.5-million bonus if the Heat won 45 games and he had a 3-to-1 assist-turnover ratio. He must have thought it over but since the hard-pressed Heat had won 42 and his ratio had been 2.7-to-1, it wasn't the longshot of the ages.

The league, however, asserted that the bonuses were "likely," belonged with the cap--and made it impossible to pay Howard his $9.4 million this season.

It seemed negotiable or arguable, but before it could be negotiated or argued, everything unraveled.

The Heat asked for arbitration but couldn't get a speedy hearing. With his agent, David Falk, vacationing in France, Howard got another $105-million offer from his old team, the Washington Bullets, who had previously stopped at $95 million, and signed with them. Neither Falk nor Howard would return the Heat's frantic calls.

Stern said later that the league's lawyers had been willing to work it out.

"I don't know what he means by that," Riley replied. "We were on our knees. . . .

"All we wanted to do was work with them. They had no interest in working with us. They said, 'Go to arbitration,' and while we were going to arbitration, they were taking Juwan away from us."

Four months later, you can't actually see the bruises anymore.

"I was very upset for a while," Riley says. "Then we let it go. It's like anything else, you've got to let it go. There was nothing we could do about it."

If he writes another book, look for a whole chapter on the summer of '96.

*

Mourning is upset.

What else is new?

For Mourning, a game is two hours of finely tuned rage. NBC's Bill Walton thinks Mourning's assortment of scowls, frowns, snarls, et al., are designed to scare opponents and they are, in fact, fearsome to behold. But when Mourning is asked about it later, he laughs.

In the Riley-Mourning era, games are emotional maelstroms. After the Jazz ended the Heat's road streak, Mourning ripped Karl Malone. Now the SuperSonics are sending half the squad at him if he even thinks of posting up, and the refs are calling fouls on him every time he changes expression.

The SuperSonics go up 10 by halftime as Mourning is in for nine minutes.

Not that they're conceding anything in Heat-dom.

Riley strikes his get-down, hands-on-knees pose when they're on defense. Once he gets so far out on the floor, he almost bumps Hersey Hawkins on a three-point shot and has to twist out of the way. Referee Mike Mathis comes over, grinning, and suggests Riley contain his enthusiasm or risk a four-point play.

The Heat rallies to take the lead.

The SuperSonics swarm Mourning after a rebound. He elbows Gary Payton in the nose and gets a flagrant foul. In abject disbelief, Mourning issues more anguished cries and makes more faces. (Actually, it wasn't malicious. Payton and a teammate were jumping all over him and he needed some room, so he moved his elbow back an inch or two.)

The SuperSonics surge ahead by 12 with 6:43 left.

Uncowed, the Heat cuts it to 85-81 with 4:23 left.

Seattle's Sam Perkins, camped behind the arc, hits two three-point baskets to put it away. Mourning keeps getting caught trying to help inside and can't get back to him.

He fouls out with 1:38 left, then leaves with a vintage yelling, arm-waving tirade.

Seattle wins, 94-85. In the paper the next day it'll look like a routine victory, but the SuperSonics will remember the Heat has been there.

Afterward, Mourning criticizes the officials obliquely enough to keep from being fined--this time--and offers his description of the SuperSonic defense: "They run around with their heads cut off." All in all, it's just another night for him.

"A lot of people," he says later, "they really don't know me. They say, 'Look at him, he's out there arguing with his teammates.'

"And it's not that. I'm my biggest critic. I get down on myself so much. This game is a very emotional game from that standpoint. . . .

"When the game's over, especially if we lose, I beat myself up. No question, I beat myself up in my head. . . . I lay in bed and parts of the game just go straight through my mind. Constantly. Game situations, things I could have done differently.

"I'm probably one of the worst losers on the planet."

Hours later, he'll be seeing Perkins camped on that line, over and over. Mourning will be running to get there, but it's like he's in quicksand and when he finally arrives, the ball has just left Perkins' hand. . . .

It's hell being a Heater on nights like this. Pray for whoever's up next on their schedule.

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