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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

How Long Will Riley Be Able to Take Heat?

April 08, 2002|Mark Heisler

MIAMI — Welcome to Riles' nightmare.

Back in his Showtime days, when Pat Riley fell out of Chick Hearn's broadcast booth, practically onto the back of a championship Laker team, people used to say he was the luckiest man in basketball history.

These days, basketball is evening up the score.

Two weeks ago, Riley's Heat fell out of the playoff race. Last week, it clinched his first losing season in 17 years. Sunday Riles' guys racked up another loss, falling, 96-88, to the Lakers in a yawner before what was listed as a sellout of 19,600, but, in fact, had half-empty sections in the upper deck and a lot of unoccupied seats in the lower bowl too.

You think Riley, who once said NBA life was divided into winning and misery--in the days when he was winning all the time--isn't embarrassed to the point of wanting to disappear? Since the Heat fell by the wayside, he had been refusing to respond to routine questions about whether he planned to stay. He tried to duck it again before Sunday's game ("It's old news. Let's not get into this stuff right now, OK?"), until finally he sputtered:

"From my vantage point, the president's not going to fire the coach and the coach is not going to stick a damn knife in the president's back. So, that's it....

"Now, if [Heat owner] Mickey Arison wants to do something about it, that's up to him."

Riley, of course, is coach and president, not to mention 10% owner, with another 10% coming if he lasts three more seasons as coach, or works in the front office, or just consults.

So it's probably not his own financial considerations that are upsetting him.

On the other hand, there's the question of what he has built and where it's going.

In his seventh season here, the Heat is 33-43, with no starter under 30. Arison, the Carnival Cruise Lines magnate who once gave Riley a blank check, has now put him on an allowance. Nor would you say they're a big crowd-pleaser, with the No. 29 offense, running No. 19 in attendance, in a 3-year-old arena.

They won 50 games last season, with Alonzo Mourning there for only the last 13, but then unloaded bodies and salary over the summer, because Arison didn't want to pay the luxury tax.

There went Anthony Mason and Bruce Bowen. Promising Ricky Davis went to Cleveland for old Chris Gatling, whereupon Davis announced that Riley couldn't coach young players.

Now, according to the latest projections, the luxury tax won't kick in this season.

Get the idea that things weren't exactly going their way?

Then Mourning, who has ongoing kidney problems, had trouble getting his medication adjusted at the start of the season and the next thing you knew, they were 5-23.

Zo, the ultra-warrior, never made it all the way back and neither did the Heat.

"This is a playoff team," Riley said. "I think our team is good enough to make the playoffs, and should have made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. It's not Zo. It's not anybody else. It's not injuries, because we were healthy. We had a 24-10 run and then we died. We hit the wall."

So here they are, splattered all over the wall, wondering where they go from here.

Not that Riley has to worry about being fired. Arison has said whatever happens is up to Riles.

"If it's my choice?" Riley said. "Then you just heard my quote. I like my job. I like this job, OK?

"Now, if there's a groundswell of fans hanging me in effigy and all of that, well, I'll consider it [leaving]."

OK, but what then?

Just how do you fix this, with no young players of note, no cap room and Mourning due to become a free agent after next season? Riley will have to start looking for a taker for the 32-year-old Mourning, who will have to start looking for places he might like to go.

In the meantime, Mourning tries, but he just isn't quite Zo.

Sunday, Riley kept him on the bench for the first 5:33 of the fourth quarter, while the Heat, which had been behind by 15, came as close as 73-71, and didn't put him back in until the Lakers had gone back up by 11.

Riley was asked Sunday evening what he'd do. Patch? Break them up?

"I'll talk to you after the season about it," he said. "I can't fix it today."

The question is if he can ever fix it.

He still has his health and his wealth, quite a bit of it, in fact. But right at the moment, if you're looking for something to be thankful for, be thankful you're not him.

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