Originally created 05/03/98

Tough play big part of Rileyball



Pat Riley's slicked-back hair was perfectly in place. His white shirt looked laundry-fresh. The black sport jacket and gray slacks were still creased and crisp. He had just walked away from another street fight on a basketball court, again emerging unscathed.

The Miami Heat and the New York Knicks meet in Game 5 of their NBA playoff series today (12:30 p.m., NBC-Channel 26), both shorthanded after another brawl, the kind of hand-to-hand combat that seems to follow Riley around these days.

Larry Johnson of the Knicks and Alonzo Mourning of the Heat were suspended for two games each for throwing punches at the end of Game 4. Chris Mills of the Knicks also was suspended for one game for leaving the bench area.

Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was in the middle of it, tugging on Mourning's leg, a pint-sized civilian trying to stop two big bruisers going at one another.

Van Gundy had raced into the scrum. Riley walked toward it more deliberately, looking slightly bemused and, of course, entirely innocent.

He always is.

IT COULD HAVE BEEN a snapshot of last year, when Riley's Heat and the Knicks brawled under a basket and five New York players -- including Johnson -- wound up being suspended over the last two games of the series.

Or a snapshot of 1994 when Riley was coaching the Knicks and New York's Derek Harper and Jo Jo English of the Chicago Bulls got into a playoff brawl, nearly landing in the lap of commissioner David Stern, who was seated at courtside. That embarrassment led to the rule that automatically suspends players for a game if they leave the bench area during a fight.

Or maybe a snapshot of 1993 when New York's Greg Anthony, in street clothes, raced on the court to punch Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns after Johnson decked Doc Rivers, now an NBA commentator for TNT but then a guard with Riley's Knicks.

"Teams take on a coach's personality," Rivers said. "We were the Knicks of Riley, a rough team. He never said to go out and hit somebody. He said bump people, fight for territory. He never told us to be violent, to go out and hurt somebody."

Anthony, now with Seattle, said Riley's style is "all about creating an attitude of winning."

"I think what Pat does is coach to meet his personnel," he said. "I think if you look at the team we had in New York we were physical and a half-court-oriented basketball team. I think if you look at the team he has in Miami, it's very similar to that. I think what he's learned is that really is the most effective way to play today."

RILEY'S KNICKS were dedicated to aggressive defense, and the team still has that approach under Van Gundy, a longtime Riley assistant.

"People don't like being bumped, having other guys in their face," Rivers said. "When you get in people's faces, tempers flare. When we got into altercations, it was more others trying to stand up to us than us starting it."

The common denominator is Riley, whose teams appear to have a propensity for getting into trouble. When he was asked why games he's around sometimes deteriorate into street fights, the coach's eyes narrowed.

"You don't understand the level of intensity," he said. "I don't think anybody really understands the level of intensity in which these games are being played."

But are these games any more intense than those of other teams like, say, the Bulls, who usually manage to avoid guerrilla warfare when they play?

"Don't compare us or the Knicks to the Bulls," Riley said with an edge in his voice.

The message was clear. Chicago wins because it has the best player in the game -- Michael Jordan. Riley's teams win because they do what needs to be done.

RILEY CULTIVATES a chip-on-the-shoulder approach to the game. His teams have rules: Allow no layups. Contest everything. Never help a fallen opponent to his feet after a hard foul.

Rileyball is basketball with an attitude, such as the tradeoff hand-across-the-throat gestures of New York's Chris Childs and Miami's Eric Murdock.

"I asked the league what they thought, their impressions of the series thus far," Riley said after the suspensions. "They thought it was nothing out of the norm. There was a lot of talk, a couple of slit throats, but nothing out of the ordinary."

When he coached in Los Angeles, Riley's teams won four championships in nine seasons, courtesy of stars such as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The style of the Lakers was Showtime, glitz and glamour, appropriate in the Hollywood environment.

But Rivers remembers that Riley's philosophy changed while he was coaching the Lakers.

"There was a playoff against Boston," he said. "Larry Bird called the Celtics soft after they lost a game and the next game they knocked guys down. After that, Riley said that would never happen again. He'd never be the retaliator. He felt he couldn't allow his team to take the punch."

WHEN HE CAME to the Knicks in 1991, Riley's approach evolved to fit the team and the times. There was an edge to the Knicks, characterized by ex-CBA players like John Starks and Anthony Mason. There were constant scrapes on the court such as Starks' $5,000 head-butt of Indiana's Reggie Miller in the 1993 playoffs and a bench-clearing brawl against the Pacers the next season that resulted in eight New York players being fined.

The perception about the Knicks was that Riley would take players with gentlemanly reputations like Harper and Rivers and turn them into tough guys. When he left New York in 1995 to take over Miami, he remade the Heat's roster almost top to bottom. Three years later, only Keith Askins remains from the team Riley inherited.

His new team remains a game away from eliminating his old one for the second straight year, although both squads will be missing important parts.

"We will line up five and they will line up five," Riley said. "We are going to expect to win. We expect to play better with a lot of energy and get it done, you know, anyway that we have to get it done."

That, though, has been Riley's style for a long time now.