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MIKE DOWNEY

Riley Has It Under Control in Miami

December 17, 1995|Mike Downey

I went to a Miami Heat game the other night, to see Pat Riley's new team. But it wasn't there. Few of his new players played. Alonzo Mourning didn't play. Kevin Willis didn't play. Billy Owens didn't play. Even Predrag Danilovic didn't play. Man, I hate to miss a Predrag Danilovic game. I wear Air Predrag shoes.

Riley was stuck with a starting lineup of Bimbo Coles, Keith Askins, Kurt Thomas, LeRon Ellis and Kevin Gamble. The man who once coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper now had to make do with a bunch of guys who couldn't beat Bill Walton and Marv Albert, five on two. These guys weren't the Miami Heat. They were the Miami Warmth.

Poor Riley, I thought. From Showtime to this.

Then I watched the first half.

The Clippers, supported by their usual roaring crowd well into the hundreds, were down by eight points at halftime. They scored 36 points against Miami's second string. They failed to attack the basket, even with Mourning and Willis not under it. They shot poorly from the perimeter, even with Owens not in their faces. Predrag, I don't know where he was. Probably filming a commercial with Bugs Bunny.

Well, there was good news for the Clippers in the end. Even without forward Rodney Rogers, who was suffering from an injury, and center Stanley Roberts, who was suffering from multi-nutrition, the Clippers came back to beat Riley's B team, ending a nine-game losing streak and improving the franchise's all-time record to 757-1,315.

After the game, Riley took defeat in stride, even defeat to the Clippers.

"This is a trial by fire for us," Riley said. "As recently as Dec. 3, we had the second-best record in the league. But that was before the body count began to grow."

The first thing Riley did after taking the Miami job--well, maybe the second thing, after moving next door to Sylvester Stallone--was persuade Miami's management to approve a deal to acquire Mourning from the Charlotte Hornets, a deal that immediately made Miami a contender and immediately made Charlotte a city in North Carolina.

Riley realized that without someone like Mourning in the middle, Miami was no better than a run-of-the-mill NBA team. And Riley doesn't coach run-of-the-mill NBA teams. He was on the verge of coaching one in New York. That's why he left. The minute anything happens to Patrick Ewing, the Knicks will turn into the Vancouver Grizzlies.

I have always wondered what Riley would do with the Clippers. As coach, as part-owner, as director of overweight center personnel, what would his first step be? (After having his head examined.)

Would he have swung the big draft-day trade the Clippers made, killing three positions with one stone? Would he change their style, their practice habits, their hair mousse, what?

My old pal Scotty Robertson, who is Riley's assistant now and has coached in the league for as long as I can remember, told me the other night, "Pat's the most organized man I've ever met. There's not a detail he doesn't oversee, personally.

"One night, he had us change the lighting in the locker room."

The lighting?

"The bulbs."

They were burnt out?

"No, they were too bright," Robertson said. "He wanted something softer."

When a coach's preparation for a team includes the proper mood lighting, you know that man takes his work seriously. Riley gives his assistants blue forms with checklists that must be filled out meticulously after every game. He reads every report, every word. If Miami can't beat out Orlando or Chicago in the conference this season, it won't be because the team didn't do its homework.

Riley has always been a detail freak. With the Lakers, he once tried to assign designated seating on airplanes. Magic Johnson later said, "He's like that. He wants to control everything."

I once had a five-minute conversation with Riley at the Forum strictly about the music that was played there, about how, with a little imagination, it could be more of a factor in the excitement of the home crowd. (The Forum changes its song list like clockwork, every 25 years or so.)

How much he will improve Miami, I don't know. But with Riley coaching there, Miami's chances, unlike its lighting, seem considerably more bright.

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