This was at the very moment the throne was being vacated. Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, who once was king and wants nothing more than to be king again, sat behind the desk in his second-story office, remote control in hand. Basketballs thump-thump-thumped in the gym below, providing the omnipresent sound track to Riley's life as he scanned those television channels, searching for press conference proof that Michael Jordan was really going away. Miami's noon sun was breathing hot outside, but Riley's office shades were drawn, leaving this room dark. The good news coming from that television? It delivered light into Riley's working world.
"We're going to miss his majesty, but we're not going to miss the pain," Riley said. "Most great leaders leave a successor, but Michael was the antithesis of that. He just left carnage."
A few minutes into Jordan's retirement press conference, Riley's secretary patched in a conference call on the speakerphone-all of the league's coaches were gathering for a meeting scheduled months earlier to discuss league issues. In the middle of this call, hearing all the too-loud TVs in the background, deputy commissioner Russ Granik asked, "Could somebody please turn Michael Jordan off? We've got important business here." So Riley picked up his remote control again. And, just like that, Michael Jordan was gone.
And Pat Riley started mattering again.
Last time Jordan retired, Riley willed his Knicks to withinthisdistance of a championship, so he is wrong about Jordan leaving only carnage. What Jordan has left are hope and opportunity and life for the rest of the league's teams, and Riley reacted to this like a famished predator drooling at the possibility of a fresh kill. He tried to acquire chemistry killers Latrell Sprewell and Dennis Rodman this off-season, consequences be damned, because, well, all that great Heat chemistry didn't get him beyond the first round of last year's playoffs.
Riley The Personnel Man tried to do something seismic, but all he acquired for Riley The Coach was an overweight Clarence Weatherspoon, an old Terry Porter and a handful of questions that could crack his team's core. Why, for example, anger underpaid Heat star Tim Hardaway ($3.4 million this season) by forcing Sprewell into his backcourt when Hardaway says of their days together in Golden State, "We had a lot of verbal wars, but we didn't get to fisticuffs- yet. It was going there, though. It was definitely going there"? And why in God's name consider poisoning the NBA's most disciplined work environment with circus freak Rodman, who misses practices and games and is loathed by Miami's other star, Alonzo Mourning? Doesn't it all smell too much like something between desperation and panic for a team that has averaged 58 victories the last two seasons?
Riley, so confident he once walked right up to Miss Ohio and asked her out (she said yes) and once told the Dallas Cowboys who drafted him at cornerback, he wanted to replace Roger Staubach instead (they said no), smiles at these questions, and says, "I'll make it work. I'll get the players to make it work... I don't think the guys in Chicago liked Dennis Rodman. They tolerated him. They used him. They were mature enough to make this arrangement: You rebound for us and you can be an asshole. They loved winning more than they loved each other or any of the other bullshit that gets in the way of it. My job is to remove all the other bullshit." And here Riley, a man who searches for meaning in dictionaries and Bibles and Chinese military books, a man who searches for it through history and poetry and philosophy, a man who can quote everyone from Socrates to Jerry Garcia and has so much swimming in his head that sometimes it seems to spill out all at once like a faucet turned up too high, begins a simple story he borrowed from a book.
"There was this high school football team that kept practicing hard and practicing hard and practicing hard but kept losing and losing and losing," Riley says. "Across the pond, smoking a pipe, there was an old retired coach who watched them practice for hours every day. Finally, tired of losing, the team captain walks over to the coach for advice. The coach gets up out of his chair and says, 'Let's walk down to the pond.' So they do, and then the coach says, 'Kneel down with me.' Then the coach dunks the kid's head under the water for a very long time. The kid finally comes up gasping and, before walking away, the coach says to him, 'You will win when winning is just as important as that next breath.' "
Rest assured, this is what Riley's players will get this year.
A life without Air.
It is a formidable vehicle Riley is pushing, heavy on the acceleration, light on the brakes, equally capable of driving players to the mountaintop or right off the edge of a cliff. Riley's style is more demanding than the one that got Golden State's coach choked, and it has at once won and worn thin in Los Angeles and New York-and that was before the birth of the $100 million ego, the rebounder as movie star and the real Antoine Walker being able to make the virtual Antoine Walker flex and dance after a dunk in his own video game.
And this is a flawed Heat team, to be sure, especially with Jamal Mashburn out for the season's first half because of a knee injury. Shooting guard? Used to be Voshon Lenard, who tried unsuccessfully to make it through the preseason with a break in his leg. Next up was Dan Majerle, whose back pain is so terrible he can't practice at all. So, in mid-February, the starter was someone named Rex Walters. Why? Because the desperate acquisition of Blue Edwards had been made even though Edwards' broken hand had yet to heal. Riley may have bothered his two best players with his off-season attempts, but now he needs Hardaway and Mourning more than ever. And as the injury list grows, so does Riley's pushing.
You want to know where he stands with his Heat in Year 4? You'll find this team's pulse only by going to the Heat's heart-Hardaway, who at the moment is at a Coconut Grove hair salon, getting his nails done. "Be gentle," Hardaway tells the manicurist through a smile, giving her his right hand while selling his Mercedes convertible for $70,000 over the cellular phone in his left. Gentle? The blunt Hardaway, from Chicago's scarred streets, can be described as many things, but gentle would not be one of them. He will give you honesty, whether you like how it sounds or not.
Ask Hardaway about the Knicks and he says, "I hate their guts. Hate them with all the hate you can hate. Can you hate more than that? If you can, then I hate them more than that." Ask him for three NBA players who don't do enough with their talent, and he not only answers but names a teammate- Jamal Mashburn-to go with Derrick Coleman and Penny Hardaway. Within a half-hour, Hardaway calls New York's Larry Johnson an "asshole," says Riley blew it by trading Ike Austin last year and adds that if Jeff Van Gundy had grabbed his leg during last year's playoff melee, he "would have stomped Van Gundy right in the face." So, yes, Hardaway is where you must go if you wish to know if Riley's incessant, suffocating pushing is growing tiresome in Miami.
"He gets under your skin," Hardaway says. "It's good, don't get me wrong, because it keeps us in line. But I don't want to hear that shit all the time. It gets old ... There's not a whole lot he can do to motivate us anymore."
Hardaway was asked before last year's playoffs to name the coach who motivated him best.
"My high school coach," he said. "Then my grammar school coach."
Riley? "What Riley is saying," Hardaway said, "I done already heard."
Riley admits to an "ongoing tension" with his players, and there is good reason for this. Last year, after the Heat had just won their 19th game in 23, Riley began the practice by providing videotape proof that his players weren't taking enough charges. The coach had no problem with the first and second efforts of his players but loudly questioned the third and fourth. Heat players say no team member has so much as been late to a practice under Riley, ever, but Riley complained last season that players weren't arriving early enough or taking the practice court with enough passion, calling it "the normal behavior of players who don't know how to win at all." This coming from a man whose four-hour practices are so intense that players routinely pass out and vomit during them. Last season during sprints, Todd Day fell on the floor as if dead, eyes open but unseeing, even though, according to Hardaway, "practice hadn't really gotten going." Day was gone before the week was done.
This intense a fire can go two ways: It can be used as energy, or it can burn down everything around it. Asked how often angry players have gotten in Riley's face, forward P.J. Brown says, "He and 'Zo have gotten into it. He and Timmy too. Other guys also scream-not at him, but in general. It's not personal or out of bounds. Coach isn't going to demean you or break you down. He treats you like a man. But he demands a lot from his men. He said he has a disease-a disease that makes him always want more."
Winning is a drug, and Riley is a junkie, always searching for ways to get higher. He has finished first in his division an absurd 14 times in 16 seasons (with a second- and a third-place finish), and he has done this by demanding that his players care every bit as much as he does, even if they can't. Former HBO chairman Michael Fuchs once said of Riley, "If we could motivate and get results out of American business that Pat Riley gets from his teams, U.S. business would look like the old Yankees to the rest of the world." That's why Riley gets paid $45,000 to make one-hour motivational speeches to business groups, speeches that inevitably turn into religious revivals, as people in the audience throw their hands up in the air and yell that, yes, they believe.
Riley can be a little darker when trying to move his team. He has punched a hole in a blackboard and thrown chairs and broken a toe kicking a wastebasket he didn't know had a brick in it. He didn't show his players pain, though. No, no, no. He remembered the childhood friend who would let kids punch him in the stomach as hard as they could for money, then quietly go to the bathroom and throw up, wiping his chin with the fistful of quarters. So Riley waited to get outside the locker room before he screamed, purging himself. Riley, always demanding more, demanding more, demanding more, asks no more from his players than he does from himself, which is why he says, "I tell them they have to listen to me, but they don't have to pay attention. What I mean by that is I want what I tell them to have an impact, but I don't want to put them in a state of depression. I'm not the enjoy-the-process captain."
As for the idea that he might lose this Heat team soon because players can't handle the intensity and begin to tune him out ...
"That's a fashionable myth," Riley interrupts, and here his voice rises defiantly. "It's bullshit. That ain't going to happen here. I'll get tired of them before they get tired of me, I'll tell you that. If they're tired of doing it right, then they can go somewhere else. Yeah, I wear on my guys but only because they say they want to win a championship. Look at the ultimate perception of Dan [Marino] and Jimmy [Johnson] across town. When Jimmy was about to retire, who was the first guy at his office door in the morning? That's because Dan knows Jimmy can help him win. Jimmy has won already. Dan hasn't. There are going to be guys who bitch and moan about being pushed here. Grow up, for chrissakes."
Riley doesn't need this, right? The rings he keeps in his wife's jewelry box already say he is a champion, and he turns down 9 out of 10 of those $45,000 speeches, and he has a $6 million mansion so luxurious that his pool comes complete with a bridge. Riley wonders aloud about the relevance of what he does for a living and how a sane man can possibly make more time for a bouncing ball than he does for his two young kids. For a decade now, Riley's teams have resided in basketball purgatory-very good but not good enough-and then Mourning goes and does something stupid like throw away all of last season's good work with one punch at Larry Johnson-a punch still being felt by the Heat 10 months later? No, Riley doesn't need this. He doesn't need this at all, right?
Well, wrong. See, Riley needs this every bit as much as that football team captain needed oxygen after coming up from that pond. Sure, the end of last season was awful, what with the Heat becoming the first No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference and Riley walking off the court with Mourning after that Game 4 playoff melee and spitting at him in a wounded moment, "You know, you just cost us the f-ing season!" And, yes, even today, Riley is still raw, saying, "I don't even want to revisit that shit. ... I was angry as hell. Too angry to be just pissed off. I was beyond that. That was our absolutely worst moment. His worst moment. I've never been more angry after a loss. Of all the promises that were made and all the covenants that were agreed upon, we wiped it out with an emotional outburst. He has to live with it. We have to live with it."
But you know what? When you squeeze all the bad out of last year's ending, squeeze it and squeeze it and squeeze it, what you have left in your hands is this year's fuel. Riley has described life as two sets of being- winning and misery-and, fact is, whether winning or miserable, nothing in the world makes him feel more alive than the thump-thump-thump of that ball. Oh, he'll get out there in his moments of wandering depth, like when he speaks of his 13-year-old son, James, who likes computers and pianos, saying, "He doesn't want to hit anything, bounce anything, chase anything, and that's okay. Maybe it's subconscious, but the way my life has gone has been too demanding, and I wouldn't wish that on him. It's so oppressively addictive, what I do. I see things going by so much quicker than I like. What the hell happened to the last five years?" Or when he says, "I work in the toy department of human affairs, and therein lies the greatest contradiction in my life. You put so much fire and effort into this, it's an insanity. I didn't feel anything different or special when I turned 50, probably because I'm in sort of a perpetual midlife crisis."
But when he gets "away from center," as he says, he always gravitates, like a magnet to metal, back toward that championship ring. Because the ring is what makes it all matter, makes him matter. You know what Riley talked about for the entire hour of some of those $45,000 speeches last off-season? He described, detail by detail, the last 17 seconds of Jordan's career. Making the last steal. Taking the last shot. Striking the last pose. Winning the last championship of his time. He described it in such detail that sometimes he spilled over his allotted time. Because that's what the disease does-makes Riley want to go out just like that this year ... and next year ... and the 10 after that. Riley didn't cry after Mourning threw away last season, didn't cry one tear. No, the only time he has cried about basketball is when he has felt "like a parent does at a recital" upon winning the NBA season's final game.
"A man's or woman's greatest fear is fear of extinction, and what they should fear more than that is to become extinct with insignificance," Riley says, and this is exactly the kind of talk that makes him sound, depending on your perspective, like a sports messiah or the world's most self-important salesman. "The way you put all this insanity in perspective is by making it more important than it is. Even a comedian, cracking jokes for a living, has to feel he's doing something important. You have to create significance. You have to feel like you matter. The only measure of significance in the NBA is getting a ring-becoming something bigger than yourself. I can list the contributions and successes and attributes of Tim Hardaway, but then I turn the page-no ring."
Riley tilts his head toward the thump-thump-thumping of basketballs just beyond his drawn shades. "Nobody down there has one," he says. Riley switches gears quickly here, as he so often does when emptying his head, and now he is talking about music lyrics that move him. Jazz. Best of Motown. The sound track to The Bridges of Madison County. He puts it on in his office when he wants to think because, he says, "One of the great things about being a coach-I really mean this-is that it forces you to think. Forces you to get absorbed in thought. There are days I'll just come in here with my music, and sit here all day to get clarity. People walk in and are concerned about me. But you have to think before devising a dream."
He puts music to the highlight tapes he shows his players, going to forward Keith Askins to find out what kind of rap the kids are listening to these days. At the moment, he is using the words to "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" to accompany a video he is making relating to the lockout.
"They were fighting for what they thought was important-money and power and leverage," Riley says. "But the real thing is the nobility of the game. All the other stuff we tolerate. The real thing is winning, and there ain't nothing like the real thing."
You can hear it, right?
Michael Jordan is gone.
And Pat Riley is singing.