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N.Y. Tunes In to a Current Despair : With the Tabloids at Their Heels, Riley and the Knicks Try to Shake a Slump

March 02, 1994|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — The Animal That Has to Be Fed Every Single Day, which is what Pat Riley calls the media, has dialed room service.

Riley's Knicks have fallen to No. 3 in the NBA East. They are averaging 86 points since the All-Star break and in a recent loss shot 29%. In Sunday's 92-78 loss to the Suns, Charles Smith messed up a dunk with his team trailing, 73-69, by traveling on a two-on-none fast break.

Whatever happened to Smith?

He left the Clippers with an 18-point career average but in New York is best known for messing up in the clutch, like last spring's Eastern finals when three different Bulls blocked four of his layups in the closing seconds of a one-point game.

Smith never runs away, never makes excuses, but it's tough to be a disappointment on the team in a tabloid town.

"When we win," he said in the thick gloom of the Knick locker room, "we're on top. When we lose, we're on the bottom. There's no in-between."

Riley, a master at the care and feeding of the fourth estate, has all he can handle. Two of New York's three tabloid newspapers, the Post and Daily News, have faced extinction in his 2 1/2 seasons, leading to a go-for-it style of sports journalism unknown elsewhere in America.

When two unidentified Knicks criticized Riley's reliance on Patrick Ewing this season, the Daily News gave it the big treatment, a back-page headline that read: "TEAM TURMOIL," in letters 2 1/4 inches high.

Riley called a team meeting the next day and, according to the Post's Peter Vecsey, asked every player one by one if they had been the source.

Not to miss out on all the fun, the Post ran a headline that read: "KNICKS: WE'LL FIND LOCKER ROOM RAT."

Last season, the Knicks' slogan was, "Tough Team, Tough Town."

Underneath, it should have said: "May the best man win."

*

. . . Those headlines are about unexpected losses and players who finally believe their coach makes mistakes. . . . The emperor has no Armani tie. Riley can be wrong, finally, in his third season in New York. The arrow no longer points up all the time."

--FILIP BONDY,

New York Daily News

Jan. 26, 1994

For all its sophistication, New York is like any burg, dying to worship at a winner's feet, differing only in the toll it collects if disappointed.

Riley tip-toed a high wire with Knick leftovers in his first season, blowing first place in the Atlantic Division to the Celtics before rallying his players for a postseason run that ended in a dramatic seven-game loss to the Bulls.

After that, Gotham was his. In Los Angeles, he was a star amid stars. In New York, with the publicity-shy Ewing and a cast of role players, Riley became the star.

He became more than that, transcendent. He was profiled by Vanity Fair, which sent Daily News political writer Ken Auletta, and by Esquire, which sent Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam and ran the piece in a series between stories on architect I.M. Pei and actor Al Pacino. NBC sent Tom Brokaw for a one-on-one interview; PBS' Charlie Rose did an hour with him; Jay Leno had him on.

The Knicks won 60 games last season and home-court advantage through the East finals butwere upended by the Bulls anyway.

But as they were despairing of getting around Michael Jordan, he retired. The Knicks claimed this changed nothing because their goal already was staked out, but on WFAN, deejay Don Imus gave his version of Riley's reaction:

"YESSSSS!"

Riley opened camp in Charleston, S.C., at 12:01 a.m. while the rest of the NBA slept, vowing to field the first team on the floor this season and the last off.

The Knicks started 7-0, as expected, then slumped, a surprise. Since Riley's arrival, they've been bears on defense but have struggled to reach 100 points. In their heyday, the 1992 playoffs, Xavier McDaniel averaged 19, but McDaniel fled when Smith was acquired and it's been a struggle since.

Every time Riley looked up this season, a new losing streak was breaking out. If his players thought he was making mistakes, they kept it to themselves and fought back.

They won six in a row after the TEAM TURMOIL crisis, slumped at the All-Star break, then rallied to hold the Bulls to 68 points on national TV. When it looked as though Riley had put Humpty Dumpty back together, they shot 29% in losing to the SuperSonics in Madison Square Garden.

Said an exasperated Riley: "We win a sorry game on national television and everyone says, 'The Knicks are back.' . . . We think championship thoughts and we're nowhere even close to that." He yelled at his players during practice the next day, loud enough to be heard outside the closed gym.

Challenged anew at an inopportune moment in the schedule, the Knicks went on the road and lost at Houston and Denver.

Against the Nuggets, John Starks threw a no-look pass into press row and Riley yanked him 1:24 into the game.

"This is the first time it's happened in 2 1/2 years," Riley said a day later in Phoenix. "This is the first experience they've had with not being able to pull themselves up.

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