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The Heat's Mr. Cool

After five NBA championships, including last season in Miami, Pat Riley at 61 doesn't have to rant and rave to get his point across

October 28, 2006|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — It would have been enough to make the old Pat Riley scream.

And throw chairs. And smash clipboards. And pull heartstrings, question pride, challenge manhood.

It wasn't only that his Miami Heat, defending NBA champions, had been beaten by the Detroit Pistons in their exhibition opener in Puerto Rico. It was how they lost. The Heat came up 20 points short, 84-64. It was the fewest points Miami had ever scored in an exhibition game.

The veterans -- Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Gary Payton -- cruised. Rookie guards Chris Quinn and Vincent Grier struggled at times, as did third-year guard Antonio Burks. That was especially disheartening to Riley because he needs another dependable body in the backcourt at the beginning of the season with starter Jason Williams not expected back until at least mid-November after off-season knee surgery.

But on the day after the Pistons game, Riley, while critical, was calm. He told his players he was disappointed in them. He told reporters, "It was embarrassing. This has been a wasted week of practice."

And then he went back to work.

The older Riley, now 61, as he starts his 23rd season as a head coach, is different from the old Riley, an ex-player in his 30s trying to prove he belonged among the coaching ranks.

"I've changed," he conceded. "I'm older now. I don't like to scream. It's not my way or the highway anymore."

But some old habits are not so easy to break.

"The team still keeps me up late and wakes me up early, 4:30, 5 in the morning," he said. "I hate that."

His hair graying, the lines on his face a road map of the decades spent pacing the sidelines, his dedication unquestioned, his knowledge of the game universally acknowledged, his reputation secure with five NBA titles in hand, it's hard to recall a time when Riley was looked at as a pretty boy with questionable coaching credentials.

But after his playing days were over, Riley was viewed with so little respect that he was once turned away from the Forum press lounge after a game, told it was only for current players. When Riley returned to the Lakers fold as a broadcast analyst alongside Chick Hearn, Laker trainer Jack Curran, who doubled as the equipment manager, wouldn't even give Riley a team shirt or shorts, telling him they were only for players and coaches.

He soon earned his shorts by becoming a Lakers assistant coach under Paul Westhead, but, when Westhead was fired, owner Jerry Buss, in a bizarre news conference, announced that Jerry West would become "offensive coach," and Riley would be a "coach." Buss wasn't ready to the hand the reins of his Showtime franchise over to a novice assistant.

It was West, with no desire to return to coaching, who, in effect, made Riley the coach by removing himself from the sidelines as soon as he could.

Leaving Riley with a lot to prove.

And prove it he did, sometimes borrowing lessons learned from his father, Lee, a career minor league baseball manager. With a work ethic that often left those around him exhausted, Riley pushed, pulled, schemed and cajoled the Lakers through the '80s. He worked them hard in practices until, in several cases, their hamstrings popped. After losses, Riley was known to stay up all night, watching the tape of the game over and over until the rays of the rising sun crept into his room. He would come up with inspirational speeches, motivational tapes, ranting and raving halftime performances, whatever he felt would motivate his superstars and role players to act their parts.

And he got results. In his nine seasons with the Lakers, four with the New York Knicks and nine more with Miami, Riley has won 1,151 regular-season games, third in league history behind Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson, and with 171 postseason victories, he is second only to Phil Jackson.

Riley is also president of the Heat, and burned out, he gave up his coaching duties to Stan Van Gundy before the 2003-04 season, then took back control last December. Van Gundy insisted that he wanted to step down, but, nevertheless, Riley took a lot of heat for taking over the Heat, the perception being that he smelled another title with O'Neal and Wade and wanted it for himself.

But when Miami won the title, the controversy cooled.

"We all have a lot of respect for him," Wade said. "He's been around a long time. There are coaches who don't coach for the money. They coach more for the fun of it, and he's one of those guys."

Fellow guard Payton, who has been in the league 16 seasons and played for five teams, calls Riley "the most passionate guy I've ever played for. I know he's 61, but he doesn't seem like it. He could have just walked away after last season, but he's still got that hunger in him. And that helps make us hungry."

Wade can see the difference in Riley just from last season.

"He doesn't yell as much," Wade said

Which is a good thing, according to Payton. "We don't want his blood pressure going up," Payton said.

Of course, Riley hasn't lost a game that counts yet either. Should that happen too often, the older Riley just might revert back to the old Riley. So bolt down those chairs.

steve.springer@latimes.com

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