The long walk down the corridor for Pat Riley began with a handshake and a hand around the neck of a former player, Byron Scott. Then Riley, out of the playoffs and done with the interview room, was suddenly in front of Larry Brown.
He had walked into the Indiana Pacers’ locker room and it was like one of those old E.F. Hutton commercials, where all conversation comes to a screeching halt. Brown, his eyes filled with the look of euphoria, of unexpected good fortune, suddenly changed his expression to sheepish, then reached out to grab Riley’s hand.
There was an awkward moment of silence between these two worthy adversaries, these two very different men, as they tried to decide who should speak first.
Riley did, because that is the loser’s obligation. “Congratulations, Larry,” he finally said. He started to say more, but Brown cut him off.
“You are the best, Pat,” Brown said. “You really are.”
“Go get ‘em,” Riley said, referring to Orlando in the Eastern Conference final. “I’ll be rooting.”
Eye contact was brief, and only Brown managed to smile. Now Riley walked around the still-silent room, shaking hands with Brown’s Pacers. When he got to Dale Davis, the forward with the dislocated shoulder, Riley said: “I don’t want to shake your hand too hard and hurt your shoulder.” There was laughter, then another awkward moment and then Riley was back out in the hall.
By now, it was a good 45 minutes after Patrick Ewing bounced what was supposed to be a game-tying layup off the back of the rim.
“He just didn’t get it to fall,” Riley said, out in the hall. “But when you’re always trying to create miracles with five seconds to go, it’s not always going to happen for you.”
Then Riley shrugged. “It’s over,” he said.
Riley looked neat, composed. He looked and sounded better, in fact, than he has after many a regularseason defeat. He said that he has had, in the past, a tendency to beat himself up after such failure, carry it around with him all summer long.
“I guarantee you I won’t do that this time,” he said.
Did he mean that he was at peace with himself, that he knew this valiant Knicks team had gone as far as it could go? He wasn’t about to say that. He said all the things you would expect about it not being over for Ewing’s aging band. He said he would be talking to Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts soon about the future. There was predictable double-talking about whether he would finish his five-year contract.
“It’s not about next year, it’s about five years,” he said.
We could interpret that any which way we wanted to, as Riley’s way of saying it’s all a matter of the years and dollars suiting him or as Riley implying that he doesn’t want to commit to a team that, objectively, appears to be navigating a road against the flow of traffic.
Of course it wasn’t the time or place for Riley to be dropping serious hints, though the odds of him resigning seem greater than him re-signing. Riley is not the type to settle into also-ran status, and Orlando is going to keep getting better.
Maybe Riley returns just to close the deal. Maybe he takes a year off. Or maybe he asks out and goes off to a Western Conference that has no dominant teams. Where? This is just a hunch, but watching Paul Westphal stumble on Saturday got me to thinking what a good fit Riley would be in the Phoenix, where people whistle while they work.
For Brown’s money, the Knicks ought to do anything within reason, and maybe a few things beyond, to make sure Riley doesn’t leave. Not 10 minutes before Riley had walked in to shake his hand, Brown had offered his opinion that Riley was the only man for the Knicks.
“When I was growing up, my hero coached here,” Brown said, referring to Red Holzman. “He handled it better than anyone.”
This is a job that Brown, the product of a Long Island Jewish home, once aspired to, and maybe still fancies. But he also fears it because, as he said, “I know I’m sensitive.”
What he was saying was that Riley, raised in an upstate New York home, youngest son of a father who knew only how to give “tough love,” has the tough exterior one must have to survive the expectations of New York. Maybe that is just the way it looks to Brown because that is what Riley wants his opponents to think. But there are also moments when it is difficult to hide the truth.
One of those came after Reggie Miller had finished up in the interview room, and walked off into the hall. To the side, he noticed a figure sitting in the dark, alone. Miller walked in, flicked on the light. There was Pat Riley, bent over, staring at the floor, hands on his cheeks.
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