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December 06, 2001

Riley's age starting to show
By Dan Patrick

At age 56, Pat Riley looks tired, drawn and spent. The tan is less vibrant, the hair less slick, the face less tight. At the Heat press conference Monday, the reaction to the coach's appearance was more "gee whiz" than GQ.

Pat Riley
Heat coach Pat Riley contemplates yet another first-round playoff exit.

Riley's teams have always emulated his style and substance. But the Heat lacked both in the playoffs. Three weeks ago Riley was a Coach of the Year candidate, if not the front-runner. Then, the Charlotte Hornets swept the Heat in the first round. The Heat were embarrassed, not just defeated. They were blown out at home twice by 26 points, not just upset on their home court. Losing four first-round series in six years is not a coincidence; it's a bad habit.

So where does Riley go from here? Does he have enough energy to face a new challenge? After all, only Chuck Daly, at 59, has won an NBA title after age 56. But former NBA player Ed Pinckney, now a Heat broadcaster, said he believed Riley would return because he couldn't see Riley quitting.

Looking at his roster for next season, however, Riley will have three players who will be 35 or older -- Tim Hardaway, Anthony Mason and Dan Majerle. Alonzo Mourning has an uncertain future. You wonder if Riley's vocabulary would ever include the word "rebuilding." Maybe "reloading" would be the more polite term.

But is returning Riley's decision to make? Riley has welcomed the heat for the Heat, but he said the media has surprisingly withheld criticism of his coaching performance. They have given him a "free pass" -- and he's right. A resume for one of the NBA's all-time greatest coaches doesn't generally include four first-round losses in six years.

Riley has been the NBA's equivalent of Bill Parcells. Like Parcells, who got the New York Jets within one game of the Super Bowl, Riley was attempting the remarkable task of taking a third different team to the NBA Finals. He has changed over the years and implemented different styles. He went from the flashy "Showtime" Lakers to a physical, defensive, Greco-Roman style of basketball, first with the Knicks and now the Heat. From artistry to finger-painting, Riley has understood what it takes to win.

Entering this season, the Heat had the NBA's best starting five. They had a Dream Team lineup with a Dream Team coach. Name a better starting five than Hardaway, Jones, Alonzo Mourning, Eddie Jones and Brian Grant? But the so-called Dream Team was, well, full of dreams. The Heat lost Mourning at the outset. They had injuries throughout the season to both Hardaway and Jones.

In one season Riley did one of the best and worst coaching jobs of his career -- the best during the regular season and the worst during the postseason.

With an injury-depleted team and an undersized front line, Riley was lauded for squeezing 50 wins out of the Heat. It looked like Riley had accomplished the unexpected, as when he led the 1994 Knicks to the NBA Finals. With Mourning and Jones back in the lineup at end of the season, Riley seemed to have all the pieces he needed.

However, he couldn't make the pieces fit in time for the playoffs. The team that looked as if it could challenge Milwaukee and Philadelphia for Eastern Conference supremacy went from formidable to forgotten. In one season Riley did one of the best and worst coaching jobs of his career -- the best during the regular season and the worst during the postseason. He was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Riley.

And Monday, 56 in basketball years looked like 70 on Riley's face. No matter how hard he coaches and prepares, he found out it just doesn't matter. What he needs are healthy, capable players committed to an unselfish style of play. And the Heat were neither healthy, capable nor unselfish at the same time.

A check book could remedy some of the Heat's shortcomings next season. But the Blazers and the Heat, whose payrolls ranked first and third respectively this season, were the first two teams out of the playoffs. With the luxury tax in effect, how much more would the Heat be willing to spend?

More than anything, the aging Heat need an injection of youth rather than a face lift. The same goes for Riley.

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