Having coached the most purely enjoyable team in the history of the sport, Magic Johnson running the break and feeding James Worthy dunks off touch passes, Pat Riley went to New York in 1991 and immediately got miserable. Just: basketball can go straight to hell. Anthony Mason clotheslines, Charles Oakley elbows that landed right between your ribs. The cumbersome offense was never better than alright and the defense felt like a dirty trick. There was a justification for this: the Bad Boy Pistons had only one season earlier finished off a back-to-back title run as Larry Bird’s Celtics receded and Michael Jordan’s Bulls weren’t quite yet what they would become. The Knicks didn’t have the talent to outscore the Bulls, but they had the muscle to replicate the Pistons’ confrontational style. Maybe, the thinking went, they could successfully maim Jordan like Chuck Daly’s squads had.
This tracks, but there is a sense that it’s what Riley wanted to do anyway. In Los Angeles, Magic Johnson was a beam of light, and Riley wasn’t going to mess with that, but in New York he more fully embraced his anhedonia. If his Lakers made greatness seem as easy as a smile—”some observers suggested that he simply rolled out the ball,” Hank Hersch wrote of Riley’s four championships in nine years—his Knicks, who were never really great, were about showing the work. They also degraded the game, stripping away as much of the superfluous skills-y stuff as they could and turning the exercise into something more atavistic. They were nasty and Riley luxuriated in their nastiness. He was so enamored of his creation, and so competitive, that he went to Miami to see if he could destroy it.
Okay, that is not totally true. Riley left the Knicks because he wanted more control and they wouldn’t give it to him. Reports about his 1995 contract negotiations disagreed about what was demanded and what was offered. Newsday said Riley asked for five years, $50 million, a 25 percent ownership stake, and final say on personnel decisions. The Knicks allegedly countered with five years, $25 million, and nothing else. Those estimates might be ridiculous. There was definitely a five-year, $15 million offer on the table at one point, which was then comfortably the richest coaching salary in the league. Whatever was being discussed, Riley saw the Knicks weren’t going to let him build his own roster and broke off negotiations abruptly. He faxed a letter of no thanks to management and released a statement to the press in which he lamented the breakdown of a relationship that simply didn’t function anymore.
The Heat made him team president. They would have appointed him to the state supreme court if he’d asked. The franchise had nothing to lose in giving away so much power because they hadn’t ever been anything in the first place. It often takes a while for expansion teams to find an identity—the Heat played their first season in 1988—and becoming the Kingdom of Riley was certainly a bold idea.
Things have obviously gone swell over Riley’s extended tenure in Miami—18 winning seasons, three titles, Zo, Wade, LeBron, etc.—but in the beginning, it didn’t appear that Riles cared where he was or what he was building toward in the future. He just wanted to beat the Knicks, both physically and on the scoreboard. In an Esquire piece by Mark Kriegel, a fine portrait of Riley as he’s invigorated by his new venture but the wounds from New York aren’t anywhere close to healed, he loses his composure at one point and starts enumerating his grievances: two-faced reporters, Knicks players leaking complaints to the media, bosses who feared him and undercut his authority, attacks on his character from within the organization and without. “Damn right I care. S---, I was coaching in a city where tabloid and mainstream have come together, where perception is reality. You want a good quote, well, I’ll tell you what, gimme the name of the guy who said it, and I’ll give you a helluva quote.” The rage that drives Riley isn’t a secret, but it’s usually contained like a flame within a lamp. The acrimony of his New York exit transformed him into a man on fire.
So it’s not an accident, all the ugliness that happened between the Heat and Knicks: P.J. Brown flipping Charlie Ward into the baseline cameras in the 1997 Eastern Semis, Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson throwing hands in the opening round the following year. Riley had programmed the Knicks to scrap—Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau reinforced that training—and then he endeavored to make his Heat even tougher and ornerier. If you scream fight at your team enough times, they’re eventually going to take you literally. In a mellow interview with Dan Le Batard last year, Riley elucidated his simple theory of competition: “you will do anything within the rules to get the win.” Of course you’re not allowed to punch or suplex your opponent in basketball, but it’s possible Riley is referring to a set of regulations that runs parallel to the ones the NBA has drawn up. In his mind, roadhouse justice is probably legal.
The three consecutive playoff battles between Riley’s Heat and the ghost ship he’d left behind were more about Riley than anything else. He got one over on the Knicks once, then the Heat were immediately dusted by the Bulls. The Knicks lost to the Pacers in 1997 and were annihilated by the Spurs in the ‘98 Finals. This was more like a grand personal conflict than a national concern. It’s possible, if you were a Kings or Lakers fan at the time, that you didn’t care much about the bullfrog-ugly basketball they were playing over in the East, all that remonstrating Riley was doing on the sidelines of 79-to-77 contests with no broader implications.
Championships are kind of impersonal. They are like pop songs. You are on top of a world that you don’t know, one that doesn’t know you. They feel amazing, but they illuminate very little, except that You Are The Best. It’s the in-between years that describe you more intimately, and Riley’s in-between years were hideous and brutal.
That is not a criticism. He grew up broke, his dad a mean drunk whom he nonetheless admired, in certain respects, for being so firmly set in his own red-assed discomfort. The clichéd angle on Riley is that his slicked back hair and Armani suits are so puzzlingly at odds with his bared teeth, blood and broken bones coaching style. If you look at his first few years in Miami, you can resolve those contradictions pretty easily. The luxury is the ideal and the crushing work is the method. But it is always more fun, in retrospect, to get where you’re going than to arrive and realize you have nothing better to do anymore. You are never more alive than when you are struggling, when you are stressed and unhappy. New York gave Riley something to hate and Miami gave him the opportunity to apply it. He loved doing that. He loved the conflict, the tetchy and dismal basketball his teams played. That might sound paradoxical, if you don’t know how people are. But Pat Riley understands people. It’s why he can get them to do so much for him. The anguished, rancorous labor is the point of it all, and if it doesn’t represent your finest hour, then it most clearly tells you who you are.