Riley counts only six games this season in which New York's effort was unacceptable. He squeezes out the sweat in a variety of ways. There are the prepared pregame speeches, which are always pointed and often quite personal. There are the printouts covering everything from the players' hustle to their field goal percentage from various spots on the floor to how well they stack up against others in the league. There are the sober atmospherics of the locker room, where only music piped through headphones is permitted. There are the pop quizzes asking, say, which team the Boston Celtics, the Knicks' chief Atlantic Division rivals, are playing that night. There are the bulletin board slogans, like the one that appeared in the locker room recently encouraging thoughts of title contention: GET IT IN YOUR MIND!
Mostly, though, there is direct, daily communication, which has each player believing in his role. Take starting power forward Charles Oakley, who has watched his playing time and his production drop precipitously. "I'm not thinking about doing a lot of moaning," Oakley says. "It's about getting the most out of players."
And take Jackson, who has shed 15 pounds as well as his annoying finger-wagging celebrating. His confidence and career, both of which had suffered since he was named Rookie of the Year in 1987-88, have been resurrected. "It's great to have him, because he believes in us," says Jackson of Riley.
But the Riley who calmly instructs his players during timeouts, the Riley who coolly walks the sideline chewing gum and a referee's ear, the Riley who can passionately lead the Garden in a pregame prayer for Magic Johnson—that's not the same Riley who can rip into a player for a bad pass during one of the Knicks' clandestine practices. "He's not afraid to get in your face, no matter who you are," says Wilkins. "He gets on me about growing every night. If I slip, he lets me know it the next day. I can come in feeling like I had a good one, and the next thing you know he's down my throat. I'm like, Oh no. My chest just sinks in. But if the starters aren't playing the way they should and the coach gets on them, that says a lot. You can always get on the 12th man, but are you willing to get on your superstars? He is, so everyone is equal. That's how you build chemistry and how you build trust."
Riley's attention to detail can be seen in practice schedules worked out to the last minute: "12:30 bye-bye." Moreover, unlike in recent years, the Knicks' front office conveys a sense of intelligent direction. Much of the credit belongs to Checketts, a former Utah Jazz honcho. A few months before he was hired in March, he had lunch with Riley in New York to discuss coaching-clinics abroad. Checketts, 35, was working for the league as a vice-president of development, and Riley was still with NBC. "All we ended up talking about was the league," says Checketts. "Walking back I thought about how I had missed the adrenaline of being part of a team and a season, of putting everything on the line. Then it hit me that Pat felt the same way." Three months after Checketts joined the Knicks, he signed Riley to a five-year, $6 million deal.
Since then, to the pleasure of Garden courtsider Spike Lee, Checketts has done the right things. Over the summer, he downplayed Ewing's attempt to invoke an escape clause in his contract and test free agency, never allowing the dispute to become personal. When an arbitrator ruled in New York's favor, the Knicks suffered no disruptive repercussions. Checketts also alleviated one cause of Ewing's frustration by getting him help on the floor. He sent Jerrod Mustaf, Trent Tucker and two second-round draft picks to the Phoenix Suns for rugged forward Xavier McDaniel, who was averaging 15.7 points through Sunday and has won several games so far with his jump shooting. And Checketts invited a couple of obscure but equally fearless warriors to compete on the Knicks' entry in the Los Angeles summer league: 6'5" journeyman guard John Starks and 6'7" forward Anthony Mason.
Starks, 26, is an elastic leaper with ever-expanding range on his shot. At week's end, he had a team-high 42 threes and was scoring 14.9 points a game. Unflappable in all situations, he plays the closing minutes of a tight game as if he were bagging groceries at a Tulsa Safeway—which he was doing full-time for $3.35 an hour 5½ years ago. In the defeat of the Bullets, for instance, Starks made two buckets and a steal-in overtime, despite having been lifted by Riley for throwing away a behind-the-back pass in the first half and being blasted by him for jawing at guard A.J. English too much in the second.
Mason, 25, is a hybrid—upper body by Michelin, legs by the Rockettes. At 250 pounds, he has the deltoid muscles of a javelin thrower and the most efficient running style on the team. When needed, Mason can even break the press. Four years ago, he was a lithe forward at Tennessee State. The year after that, he was a three-point marksman in Turkey. Like Starks, Mason has benefited greatly from Riley's willingness to spot him with the starters. "He showed a lot of confidence in me," says Mason, who was averaging 6.1 points through Sunday. "He's a great motivator. He gets you fired up."
Riley also knows how to keep the proud Ewing (23.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocks a game) motivated. Not long ago, for instance, he benched Ewing for the fourth quarter of a 119-109 loss to the 76ers, noting afterward that Ewing's production was down 20% in the Knicks' last 14 games. Ewing responded with a 35-point, 21-rebound effort in a 114-109 victory at Golden State two days later.
Though the Knicks have progressed greatly, they have little hope of winning the league championship this season. They have only one dependable scorer (Ewing), a horrendous touch from the free throw line (71.8%, next to the last in the league, at week's end) and three callow players (rookie guard Greg Anthony, Mason and Starks) in their eight-man rotation. "With most teams you get to the point where you can intuitively predict the outcome of its next game," says Checketts. "I haven't gotten there with this one."