Coach Pat Riley: Satin Steel, 1995

[In late April 1995, the popular Long Island newspaper Newsday asked the provocative, but timely, question: Do the Knicks Really Need Pat Riley? That would be Coach Pat Riley. That would be the classy, Armani suit-wearing, former helmsman of 1980s Showtime Lakers. That would be the NBA’s brilliant master motivator who arrived in Manhattan in late 1991 with the greatest of fanfare and hellbent on helping Patrick Ewing and company find “the winner within” and bring Gotham its first NBA title in 20 years.

But Riley’s lessons in greatness had ended only in playoff heartbreak. Now, New Yorkers of all persuasions had formed their own deep-seated opinion about whether their Knicks really needed this slick motivational genius to get over the hump in the 1995 playoffs.

“His sort of harsh, tough coaching style has been very successful in building the Knicks,” chimed in Steve James, director of the highly acclaimed basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, “but from what I read and from watching them play, it seems the players have gotten to a point where it doesn’t work as well anymore, and that perhaps they want another style of coaching.”

“Yes, they do need Pat Riley,” counterpunched Susan Orlean, a staff writer at the highbrow New Yorker magazine. “Because the Knicks are a collection of ids and egos, and Pat Riley is sort of the superego who can bring some order and logic to the oversupply of egos and ids.”

Mr. Elliott Gould of Manhattan cut cryptically through the egos and ids to cast his vote for Riles. “Woody Allen needs his glasses, and the players need their bicycle supporters.”

Hmmm? More to the point was the cynical journalist Donald Dewey, “If Pat Riley is smart, he’ll make sure that the Knicks don’t get eliminated from the playoffs until the final minute of the seventh game of the NBA finals. Any sooner than that, and the inevitability of New York’s elimination will be matched only by the inevitability of WFAN airballers deciding that the Knicks might not really need the coach that much after all.”

Riley’s Knicks were indeed eliminated in the final minute of the seventh game. But death came in dramatic fashion in the final minute of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals and at the relatively inexperienced hands of the Indiana Pacers! The rest, dear reader, is Miami Heat history. 

The New York Daily News poignantly captured Riley’s final dark moments as a New York Knick. “He staggered off the court and down the runway, rocking back and forth, his legs stiff and his eyes hollow. The camera followed Pat Riley, even though his star player had just missed the big shot. It followed him until he turned the corner, off to the locker room, off to begin what might be an end, off to visit every corner of Madison Square Garden.”

But before this dark inevitability, writer Dan Dieffenbach captured the months of light that illuminated Riley and the Knicks on their quest for the 1994-95 NBA crown. Dieffenbach does a real nice job of tapping into the pride and pressure that Riley and his Knicks would carry into the playoffs. In hindsight, he also captures the quixotic sense of destiny that so many other NBA teams, past and present, know so well. This excellent article appeared in the June 1995 issue of  SPORT Magazine.]

Pat Riley

New York winters can be cold and unpredictable. But in this, the silver anniversary of the New York Knickerbockers’ last NBA title, the city, media, and management have turned up the heat on native son Pat Riley. At stake, his sharpened image, his core of Knicks, and his 12-year streak of coaching first-place teams. However, Riley is used to the pressure, used to keeping each hair in place better than Jimmy Johnson, used to winning.

On the heels of a stinging 90-84 seventh-game loss to the Houston Rockets in last year’s NBA Finals, New York came out of the gate this season 12-12, and Riley knew that Gotham was not a town to caretake mediocrity. For the Knicks’ fourth-year coach, this was what he lived for: championship comebacks through genius motivation tactics.

“It’s intelligent on the players’ part to listen to a guy who’s won so many championships,” says Knicks assistant coach Jeff Van Gundy. So, Riley spoke, motivated, and subsequently, the Knicks overachieved. “I still don’t believe this isn’t going to be our year,” Riley said prior to guiding his team to 23 wins in the next 29 games.

Knicks’ guard Derek Harper recently seconded the emotion: “I strongly feel that this is our year. The NBA goes in cycles, and we’ve paid our dues and gone through the full process, so after the experience last year, I feel it’s our year to win it all.”

After winning it all four times in the 1980s with the Los Angeles Lakers and building a family around a cast of Magic, Kareem, and Worthy, Riley was told to say goodbye to Hollywood, a salutation allegedly issued by the players.

Next stop: New York. “It’s been a whole different thing here from year one, when the Knicks just wanted to show well, to gain respect, to play hard,” Riley says of the 1991-92 season. “Then to take the world champs [Chicago] to seven games in the second-round kind of turned the whole concept and whole attitude about the Knicks around.”

Sure, he plays mind games with players, plotting and planning and planting words with a meticulous nature second only to a world-class chess player. Move Patrick Ewing this way, position Derek Harper here, and occasionally let John Starks freelance. But Riley has proven his methods work magic, not madness.

“This is his fourth year in New York, and every team has done better,” says Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld of Riley’s 168-78 mark in his first three seasons. “This is the second-most successful period this franchise has ever enjoyed, so I think Pat Riley is the right coach for this team.”


Charles Smith for two

Unlike Riley’s Hollywood, show-business Lakers, the Knicks are just plain business, more closely resembling the stock exchange and Wall Street. “You hear about pro basketball being very laid-back, but here it’s all business,” says New York guard Hubert Davis, born nine days after the Knicks won the 1970 title.

“The team we have is strictly business—our work ethic, the fact that every night we play hard, and Riley keeping our minds where they should be,” says forward Charles Oakley. “Sure, we have film sessions, discussions, and a lot more practice time than the rest of the league, but he can keep us for four or five hours because that’s our job.”

Staying healthy down the stretch is job one for New York. Herb Williams, John Starks, Anthony Bonner, and Oakley all have spent time on the injured list this season, helplessly watching the rest of the Knicks chase the Orlando Magic’s tail. But entering the second season, the Knicks are feeling good at the same time.

Getting Oakley back in the rotation was the key. “Just his spirit alone gets everybody revved up and ready to go, ready to bang and be physical, and that’s what this team needs,” Mason says.

The Knicks allowed just 91.5 points a game last season, and although that total is up a few points, defense remains Riley’s point of emphasis and the backbone of the club. He charts the Knicks’ rotations and opponents’ charging fouls and forced shots, relying on his bench for support.

If depth is key for any NBA team, it is gospel for the Knicks. A 10-man rotation is common on Madison Avenue, where New York lost just 13 games in the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons combined. Yet with a stacked backcourt that includes Harper, Starks, Davis, and Greg Anthony, will the shortage of minutes and basketballs cause a problem in the playoffs?

“I don’t think the minutes will be an issue with us,” says Anthony. “We’ve got a set rotation we’re comfortable with once we get to the playoffs.”

With an intimidating forward rotation of Oakley, Mason, Bonner, and Smith, the Knicks are up to their old, bruising tricks, and don’t think that doesn’t please Riley. Scoring, on the other hand, must come chiefly from captain Ewing.

“Right now, Patrick is probably as sharp and as strong as he’s been, and we’re going to ride him and ride him and ride him,” says Riley.

With a career scoring average of nearly 24 a game, Ewing still does his talking on the court and his leading behind the oft-closed Knicks doors. “I just don’t say it in the newspapers, I say it in the locker room,” Ewing says.

One player finding surprising success in the NBA is Mason, a more logical choice—at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds—for a bouncer than a pro basketball player. “You get to learn more and more about a player as he starts to expand his game,” says Riley. “I mean, his first year, [Mason] was just strictly energy and defense. We rarely went to him on offense—everything he got was off hustle.

“He’s really developed into one hell of a post-up player, a scorer, and he’s learned how to be a better rebounder.”

And the Knicks as a whole are learning about high expectations—namely, an anticipated return visit to the NBA Finals. “The team I coached in L.A., every year you went in knowing you had a legitimate shot at winning a championship,” Riley says.

With Oakley back from toe surgery and in the starting lineup, New York finds itself on a collision course with upstart Orlando and the rest of the Eastern Conference. “We don’t have to do anything differently to get another chance at the title; it’s what we have to do differently when we get there,” says Mason, who attended local Springfield Gardens High.


John Starks

The coach already has been there . . . and back. He has four rings, two authorized books, and one authorized biography, which Knicks rookie forward Monty Williams has glanced through: “Nothing has changed,” he says.

Yes, Riley is a spokesman for optimism and success, and dresses the part. But underneath the Armani threads, he hides many things, things seldom discussed by Knicks players or management. “He knows what buttons to push with different guys, because some guys you can say certain things to and some guys you can’t,” says 37-year-old backup center Herb Williams.

Following a February game against Miami, Riley made a move that put plenty of his players in check, uncharacteristically telling the media, “This is the most unprofessional team I’ve been around,” before relaying the message to his players.

Pushing buttons. “You know everybody’s trying to sell papers and everybody wants the best news, so guys conjure up things, but there ain’t nothing wrong with this team,” explains Oakley. “It’s New York, man; it’s gonna happen.”

One thing that doesn’t happen often is Riley speaking on Riley. He’d rather leave the accolades to the guys wearing the orange and blue (or discuss his theories on cassette). Whether or not the Knicks subscribe to the total package, the majority of players don’t dare bite the hand that feeds them.

“A lot of times when things are going well for you, you think you don’t need to practice and you don’t need to listen to the coach and you don’t need to be motivated, and that’s one of the reasons why he’s constantly pounding, pounding, pounding,” says Harper, one of the players toward whom the “unprofessional” comment was allegedly directed. “I think his motivation is perfect.”

“His basic motivational tactic is that he’s honest,” Van Gundy says. “I don’t think he tries to be motivational. He just tells the truth and expects the truth be told to him. I don’t think he sits there and plots how he’s going to falsely motivate someone.”

The former taciturn, yet tactful, Kentucky Wildcat, who holds the school record for fouls committed by a three-year player, has modernized into a motivational speaking monster—$40,000 per engagement—and an untouchable coaching phenom.


Losing is the hardest part.

As halftime comes to a close, all the Knicks players and the coaches are out on the floor. In the bowels of Madison Square Garden, Riley saunters alone down the corridor, past the photos the former Knicks greats Bill Bradley and Willis Reed and a celebration shot of the latest savior, Patrick Ewing. In New York, even the hallways boil with pressure.

The Big Apple will not rest until another banner waves, and Riley refuses to let the Knicks rest. Perhaps it’s time to escape from New York. “Pat still has two years left on this deal, so we’re going to do everything we can to keep him here,” Grunfeld says.

Some people say Riley lives by his own agenda, marches to a distant, future drum. He Is a street kid polished into the consummate businessman coach, a perfectionist seemingly falling short no matter how great the achievement.

“He doesn’t get along with that guy [Knicks owner Dave] Checketts,” offers a cab driver named Herb. Still others say the Knicks are tuning him out, finally catching on to his three-plus seasons playing Geppetto to their Pinocchio. “Somebody’s always got to be in control, just like your job—somebody told you to prepare yourself to come over here and interview me,” Oakley says.

But whether Riley is restless, tired of the media vultures, or anxious to find a new bench, there is one thing that is as certain as death and taxes: He is a winner.

“Just to be able to come and play for one of the greatest coaches ever, I think it’s just something a lot of young guys are missing out on,” says Davis.

Riley’s record speaks for itself: a suit-and-tie career mark of 701-272 going into the season, nearly a ring for every finger with the Lakers, and a dedication to continue to learn that’s second to none. 

“You don’t win as much as he’s won over the years without having a tremendous amount of basketball knowledge and a great feel for talent,” says Anthony. “He’s definitely been a credit not only to my game, but to everyone who plays here in New York.”

Yet time may be running out on Broadway, where an unsuccessful Knicks run in this year’s playoffs may not find an encore. Weary of the four-hour sessions of being drenched with basketball knowledge, the Knicks feel a sense of urgency. “I think it’s now or never for us, definitely,” says Harper. “It’s not going to be the same for us if we don’t win it this year.”

“The lack of a title is always in the back of your mind,” says Ewing. “But I think my day is going to come,”

Ewing is the pillar. 

“Patrick is a leader, he’s been on all-star teams and the Dream Team, and you’ve got to respect a guy like that; I know I do,” says Oakley. “He stands for something besides basketball. Not everyone can do the things he’s done in life, and each team’s always got to have that one special guy, that franchise player, like Scottie [Pippen] on Chicago and Alonzo [Mourning] in Charlotte, and Patrick’s the main one for us. You can’t get jealous of that.”

“I’m definitely a big part of this ballclub,” says Ewing, “but we also have a lot of guys who step up when I’m not in the ballgame. And yeah, this is a great opportunity for me, for us, to win a championship. This can be our year if we just stay focused.”

Oakley is the foundation.

“Oak is what we call big muscle,” says Riley with a corner-mouth smile. “He boards for Pat [Ewing], and they work well together because they’ve played together for so long. Pat always said, ‘I’ve got Oak watching my back.’”

Harper is the floor general. 

“I think last year I had to prove myself to him and the team, but then Coach Riley saw that the team accepted me as a leader,” Harper, 33, says. “He wants me to play with a lot of energy and keep things under control. And when we’re not getting good shots on offense, then he lays the blame on me. He holds me responsible for a lot of things out there on the floor, and I think the guys understand and respect that.”

Riley is the engineer.

“The guy can look into a crystal ball and tell you what’s going to happen next week,” Oakley says. “Riles hasn’t won championships just by rolling the ball out, but by watching film and ultimately preparing his teams to win.”

Says Anthony: “Coach instills a hunger inside of you. He’s there each and every night in the battle with us. He’s not just coaching you, he’s actually a part of it.”

“Aside from God, he’s done everything for me in the NBA,” Davis says. “I’ve had basically the same coaches, with [North Carolina’s Dean] Smith and Riley, who are both defensive-oriented, great motivators and teachers, really want to help you out, and both are great dressers. Riles looks a little better, though, I have to admit.”

His designer outfit would squint the eyes with a championship ring accompaniment, something New York has not sported for a quarter century. 

For Riley and the New York, it might just be in the Knick of time.

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