The New York Knicks had allowed a 20-point lead to turn into overtime last Friday at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., and Knick coach Pat Riley stood near midcourt, hands on hips, beige blazer swept behind his monogrammed blue cuffs, barking like a madman. "Post, post!" Riley ordered, and center Patrick Ewing stationed himself to the left of the basket against the Washington Bullets' Pervis Ellison. New York point guard Mark Jackson dribbled at the top of the three-point arc, waiting for Ewing to gain position—and for Riley to tell him when to deliver the ball. "Wait, wait, wait," Riley said. "Now!"
With that, Jackson passed to Ewing, who spun to the baseline and nailed a fadeaway jumper. New York took a 119-112 lead and shortly thereafter won its fifth straight game, 125-114.
To say the Knicks are an extension of Riley is to fire a metaphorical air ball. They are—to use his pop-motivational vernacular—all about him. Since coming to New York last spring after a one-season stint as a commentator with NBC, Riley has instilled a hungry outlook in a team that once was prone to pointing fingers and thumbing noses. Despite a 120-113 loss to the Golden State Warriors at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, the Knicks led the Atlantic Division by 1½ games and, with a 28-16 record, were nine games ahead of last season's pace. Riley's ways, and his words, have taken root. "Pat is all about the team and all about winning," says Ernie Grunfeld, New York's vice-president for player personnel, adopting a Rileyesque elocution. "And I think, by osmosis, that's what the players are all about now."
When Riley coached the talent-laden Los Angeles Lakers, who won nearly three fourths of their games and racked up four NBA championships during his nine seasons with them, some observers suggested that he simply rolled out the ball. Then when he left L.A. in 1990, it was suggested that he had become a control freak. The first approach wouldn't have worked with the pre-Riley Knicks; there weren't enough balls in a 14th Street pool hall to keep them happy. As for the second approach, no amount of control could be deemed excessive for a selfish team that had been rocked by waves of change. In the last six years New York has had six different coaches and three different general managers and had not advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs.
"Pat came in with all the credentials," says Indiana Pacer coach Bob Hill, who was one of those six Knick coaches. "When he spoke, the players not only listened, they carried out his ideas. They bought it."
Then again, if Riley were selling stock in Macy's, the Knicks would be buying. "There is no running over a Riley, like with a young coach, where you have a natural tendency not to respect him until he proves something to you," says Gerald Wilkins, a New York swingman for the last seven seasons. "He's won championships. The bottom line with' him and the bottom line with the guys is that if he gives us something to do and we do it, nine times out of 10 we're going to win."
When it comes to discussing his role in rebuilding the Knicks, the 46-year-old Riley politely opts for No-Show Time. He says that he doesn't want or need the attention and that publicity might disrupt a team still finding its stride. Such self-effacement is not out of character for Riley. On the other hand, few coaches have the temerity to stiff-arm the New York press and not get gang-tackled for it. Knick practices are closed, and team flights, which arc chartered, are off-limits to the media. Riley, however, does do televised state-of-the-Knicks addresses, in which he's cryptic and doesn't say a lot. He recently put a positive spin on a lackluster victory, noting, "It's all about blue skies."
For the record, this is the mantra Riley recites about his mission: "The only thing we've emphasized is to become the hardest-working, best-conditioned, most professional, most unselfish team in the league." The Knicks have not become that, but they may be on their way. After a three-hour practice, more than half the players will often lift weights or run sprints on their own.
Riley's fanatical preparation sets the tone. Says New York president Dave Checketts, "I've called him at 8:30 in the morning after a night game, and he's already looked at film—twice."
The Knicks now flex a muscle game, relying upon consistent board work and a no-frills defense. With four of them pulling down more than six boards a game, they had outrebounded the opposition 28 times through Sunday. The Knick D was giving up 100.3 points a game, three fewer than last season's average. Unlike the Lakers' offense, which relied on a glitzy fast break under Riley, New York's Ewing-centered offense will never win on style points.