Riley leaves with coaching legacy intact

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Dwyane Wade and Gary Payton had gotten into it during an early round playoff game; someone taking the other's shot. All of a sudden Pat Riley could see the 2006 postseason going the way of all his others since he had left the Showtime Lakers.

No matter how good, tough and disciplined he made the New York Knicks or these Miami Heat, they always fell short. What once seemed almost easy had become all but impossible.

He had fired his protégé in midseason and installed himself as coach again to make sure this opportunity, his last best chance at a title, wasn't wasted. He couldn't have petty stuff ruin it.

For all the fancy suits and slicked-back hair that he used to glamorize the coaching profession, Riley was still an old-school basketball soul out of working-class Schenectady, N.Y., and the University of Kentucky, the son of a minor-league baseball coach and a believer in every motivational ploy he could muster.

So right in the middle of the playoffs, he decided to have a big container built in the Heat locker room. The next game he pushed a wheel barrow full of little cards with pictures of the players' families on one side and the motto "15 Strong" (as in 15 teammates) on the other. Each game, home and away, he'd bring out more cards to remind each player just what they were really playing for.

It was more than a bit trite, more than a bit hackneyed and it more than a bit worked. It worked so well, in fact, that here was Riley, standing over his pen in the final minutes before Game 6 of the NBA Finals against Dallas, his Heat just one game from a title.

All eyes on him in a silent locker room, he pulled out a set of rosary beads with five NBA championship rings hanging from it. Four were from his days coaching Magic Johnson's Lakers. One was as a reserve player on Wilt Chamberlain's.

With Shaq and D-Wade and Alonzo and the rest watching, Riley held the beads and rings up high and then threw them into the pen.

"I will give all five of those up to win this one," he said.

The players, all those millionaires, went charging out the door like a high school team. Forty-eight minutes later, they returned as champions.

Pat Riley, 63, retired from coaching Monday, almost assuredly for the last time. He'll still run the Heat from the president's chair, but after a painful 15-win season of trades, turmoil and injuries, he seems to have had more than enough.

"I'm tired," he said. "No regrets."

He had come to fame as a stylish, ultra-cool 36-year-old, pacing the sideline in Los Angeles in Armani suits that seemed to redefine the job of NBA coach. He was no glorified gym teacher or curmudgeonly old disciplinarian. He was as much "Showtime" as Magic and Kareem; the Laker girls and Jack Nicholson. Soon nearly every coach in the league was working the coaching box like it was a fashion week runway.

The NBA's youngest coach won a world championship his first season, 1981-82, by relating to his players. The Lakers would go on to win three more titles under him in the 1980s, playing with a passion and flair that drove the NBA to unthinkable popularity.

Then he went on to stints with the Knicks and the Heat where he changed everything. He preached physical defense and ball-control offense, demanded intense effort and focus, and was so unrelenting in practice that even into his 60s he wasn't afraid to challenge his players to a fight if necessary.

He revitalized the Knicks in the early 1990s, making the Garden rock once again and taking them to the 1994 Finals before falling short. Then he left for the Heat and did the same thing. When his two creations – the two toughest, meanest and most fearsome teams in the NBA – met in four consecutive playoffs at the end of the decade, the competition was legendary.

There were often wild fights, overtime games in the 70s and so much rough play commissioner David Stern had to rework the rule book to save the NBA's entertainment value.

Riley never cared. Whether it was a fast-break offense on the West Coast or break-neck defense on the East Coast, he was simply about winning and nothing else.

That the two divergent styles both wound up defining their eras speaks to his genius.

For all the regular-season victories (more than 1,200 in all, third-most in league history), divisional titles and awe-inspiring defensive performances, his second coaching life had never delivered the ultimate glory.

No one wanted to play the Knicks or Heat in the regular season. But in the postseason, they always fell a little short. Maybe he couldn't win without Magic, people said. Maybe his style was all wrong. Maybe he was too intense and demanding.

Few players, after all, could handle Riley; although the toughest of them – Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Wade – consistently thrived.

Still, without that last title, what was it worth? Riley was always demanding everything, so anything less than it seemed empty.

Which brought him to that Dallas locker room, standing over this motivational ploy of a pen, waving around beads and rings and wondering if it would connect with a team that was a combo of old and new; committed warriors (Wade, Zo, James Posey) and desperate aging stars (Shaq, Payton, Antoine Walker).

He needed one more victory, one more ring, one last justification for history.

I will give all five of those up to win this one.

Pat Riley is retired now, destined for the Hall of Fame, his impact on history complete. The lasting images will be from those carefree Lakers, not the will-bending intensity of the Knicks and Heat.

But after all the victories, all the changes, all the consuming work, Riley knew what was on the line that humid night in Dallas.

Motivational speech or not, he wasn't lying.

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