Riley the Reason For Heat's Success

BOCA RATON, Florida -- Pat Riley watches the Miami Heat walk off the practice court, his back to the wall and chin thrust forward, braced for whatever punch the National Basketball Association playoffs may be about to deliver.

The Heat's first-round series against the Orlando Magic begins Thursday. The New York Knicks could be next, followed by the Chicago Bulls.

Those who would argue that such an achievement is beyond Riley's reach haven't been paying attention. The Heat, long one of the league's most faceless teams, rose from mediocrity to win its first division title and 61 games, a franchise record by 19 victories.

The Heat won despite a wave of injuries -- they won because of Riley.

"A monumental coaching job,'' said Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsey, a Heat broadcaster. "To have a contending team with this caliber of personnel -- it's good, but their record is much better than what the talent would seem to suggest. And he's the reason.''

The roster includes All-Stars Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, each performing at his peak this season. But Riley also coaxed key contributions from P.J. Brown, Voshon Lenard, Issac Austin, Keith Askins and John Crotty. None was a first-round draft choice.

The Heat somehow beat Chicago twice, Houston twice and Detroit three times.

"Pat Riley is the best coach in the history of team sports,'' New York coach Jeff Van Gundy said.

Riley won four NBA titles in the 1980s with the Los Angeles Lakers. He came from New York to a team that was 32-50, but said he dreamed of a championship parade down Biscayne Boulevard.

And like a brass band marching toward a shower of confetti, the Heat began moving steadily forward.

In November 1995, the day before Riley's first game, he traded for Mourning. Another deal brought Hardaway to Miami in February 1996. Howard signed as a free agent last summer, but when the NBA voided the contract, Riley settled instead for Dan Majerle. Jamal Mashburn came in a trade two months ago. Only three players remain from last season.

The high turnover was necessary for Riley to find players with his work ethic. "You guys bought into all that Showtime,'' Pistons coach Doug Collins said. "The guy is from Schenectady. He's more blue-collar than any coach in the NBA. His team has taken on his personality -- tough.''