What goes around ...

Posted: Friday, December 20, 2002

Pat Riley was fined $50,000 for saying a few NBA refs hold grudges against him.

I'm not sure what's funnier: How long Riley needed to figure it out or that he actually believes it's only a few refs.

Every official who's worked his games since 1991 holds at least one of Riley's markers. He's made their lives miserable dozens of times. Riley is the single biggest reason so many NBA games have become pushing, shoving, clutching, grabbing, hacking, slapping, groping, slow-dance affairs that are almost impossible to officiate.

Soon after leaving Los Angeles behind for New York, Riley decided his future as a coach would depend as much on terror as talent. The artist inside Riley longed for something like his ''Showtime'' Lakers -- a team that included Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and played with brilliance on both ends of the court.

But the pragmatist knew the talent to do that was in very short supply.

And so what Riley did, first in New York and then in Miami, was overpay the meager talent on hand and fill out his roster with whatever bruisers, hulks, bouncers and punks he could find on the cheap. Then he told all of them, over and over, that every opposing player who drives the lane threatens their manhood and messes with their chances of putting food on the family table.

Instead of playing defense with their feet, Riley's teams played with threats, curses, cheap shots and if need be, fists. In one notable stretch --his last two seasons coaching the Knicks and his first two with the Heat -- Riley's teams were involved in no less than 10 brawls.

Three of the whoppers were intramural bouts between his current team and his old one. Coincidence? Not likely.

But it might be coincidence that Riley's past caught up to him just as the Heat settled into last place in the Atlantic Division. The deal Riley negotiated before departing New York snared him the titles of coach, president and part-owner in Miami. But the only leadership he's provided is finding somebody else to blame.

To do otherwise would kill Riley's lucrative side business giving motivational speeches to corporate chieftains.

To be fair, there might be some validity to some of Riley's complaints. NBA officials have been covered in debris more often than glory this season and referee Steve Javie -- whom Riley singled out as his chief tormentor -- can be something of a hothead.

But Miami is 7-5 in games that Javie worked during the last four seasons and everybody but Riley seems to know the Heat need more help than even the most sympathetic refs could deliver.

Riley knew exactly what he was doing by taking his paranoia public, including the $50,000 fine. It's no surprise the Heat won their last two heading into Toronto on Friday night and it won't be a surprise, either, when they go back into a death spiral. Like all Riley's motivational ploys, this one will wear down his team's nerves soon enough.

Remember the end of Game 4 in the first round of the 1998 playoffs between the Knicks and Heat? As Miami's Alonzo Mourning tried to slap New York's Larry Johnson silly, the camera showed Riley walking along the sideline in the opposite direction. He was adjusting the collar on his exquisitely tailored shirt, looking for all the world like a man who happened on a car crash and decided the best thing was to keep on walking.

It was like a scene from a wrestling show, where a guy pulls a cord out of his trunks and chokes his opponent while the ref is distracted. Then the guy puts the cord away, throws up his arms and defies the ref to prove him guilty.

But longtime Riley observers know better. And that includes the refs.

The other night, one of them overheard Riley talking to his team during a time-out in Miami's game with Seattle. Soon afterward, that same ref wandered over to Sonics coach Nate McMillan and said, ''Tell your guys to keep their heads, but protect themselves.''

Moments later, Miami's Travis Best committed a flagrant foul on Seattle's Rashard Lewis, who had just scored a pair of easy baskets. Lewis retaliated, anyway, and was slapped with a one-game suspension.

Afterward, McMillan revealed the official's in-game warning and his opinion on who to blame for the combative nature of the game. He fingered Riley, for ''telling his crew to be physical and aggressive in their hard fouls.''

Riley was asked by reporters what he said in the huddle just before the confrontation between Best and Lewis. He declined comment.

And why not?

By then, he'd had plenty of time to stash the cord in his trunks.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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