If Miami claims the NBA championship this season, the movie version might be called, "Win One for Armani." Armani, as in the favored couture of the Heat's GQ-smooth coach, Pat Riley.
During the 1980s, Riley, then the architect of the Los Angeles Lakers' "showtime" style of play, snapped up victories and championships the way Gordon Gekko gobbled up Wall Street riches.
Now he's back for what could be his final title run. He resumed coaching duties last December after an absence of more than two years from the sidelines. He has been with the Heat for 11 years, serving as team president and head coach through 2002 before a 57-loss season convinced him to focus only on personnel matters.
Throughout this postseason, Heat stars Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, and others have stressed the importance of winning a title for Riley. The talk is striking because the NBA is known as a players' league, where coaches are largely an afterthought.
Not so Riley. His teams have long embraced his demanding tactics, an ambience more suited to college programs.
"Riley has so much leverage with the organization and with players," says John Thompson, a TNT analyst who played under the legendary Red Auerbach with the Boston Celtics. "He's earned [players'] respect by winning."
During his 25-year coaching career, Riley has won four NBA championships, all with the Lakers during the 1980s.
He also revived a moribund New York Knicks franchise with star center Patrick Ewing, taking them to the finals in 1994. But that was when Michael Jordan was on his baseball hiatus. After Jordan returned to the hardwood, the Chicago Bulls continued their dominance, winning three more NBA championships and launching Bulls coach Phil Jackson into the rarefied air that Riley once occupied. Riley ranks third in all-time regular season wins and trails only Jackson in playoff victories.
Riley is still looking for a title with a team that doesn't include legends Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy.
Thompson says that could happen this year. The combination of O'Neal's powerful inside game with Wade's outside scoring and a stable of veterans (Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, and Jason Williams, whom Riley brought in during the off-season) makes the Heat tough to defend. Riley may be a bit mellower than the intense younger version of himself, as he admitted in a recent Sports Illustrated profile, but he still flashes trademark determination when it comes to motivating his players.
"They were just a bunch of guys in the locker room, talking about the game, and there's a lot of levity," Riley told the Associated Press this week, describing Miami's satisfaction after taking a 2-1 series lead against Detroit. "I walked in and said, 'I know you're happy. You were happy after Game 1, too. Are you hungry?' That's going to be the thing."
The Heat currently lead Detroit 3-2, with Game 6 Friday night in Miami. The winner faces either Dallas or Phoenix for the title.
If Riley wins it all this year, experts wonder whether he'll call it a career. Already routinely ranked as one of the 10 greatest coaches in NBA history, a championship would vindicate him in the wake of harsh media criticism following the departure of Stan Van Gundy in December. Although Van Gundy cited personal reasons for stepping down, many observers suspected that Riley pushed him out. Whenever the Heat struggled this season, critics cited the folly of his return.
"He's accomplished so much, but I wouldn't be surprised either way [if he retired or stayed]," Thompson says. "Whatever happens, without a doubt he's one of the greats."