Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Salvation for Pat Riley: become coach at UCLA

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

The NBA sends its All-Stars back to regular-season business Tuesday night, and not a single one will look better in his shorts than Pat Riley will look in his threads. Perpetually tan and trim, greased and creased, Riley can still freeze a camera with a Showtime sex appeal making viewers forget, if only for a moment, that first-class clothes can't cover a last-place cause.

Riley has style and money and a secure spot among the league's all-time great coaches. But his aura? That's long gone with a cool Miami breeze. Surrounded by vacant seats and a work force he wouldn't even wish on Phil Jackson, Riley has been reduced to a sad, barely relevant figure, a losing coach with a nowhere team and a nowhere plan.

Pat Riley, the great Pat Riley, has become Tim Floyd in a $1,500 suit.

So when the former Heat dancer now known as Trista from "The Bachelorette" makes her grand return Tuesday night inside AmericanAirlines Arena - the team's Web site is treating her appearance at the New Orleans Hornets game like it would the signing of Tim Duncan - there will be no rose handed to the coach who's already lost the bloom off his.

Riley has spent most of the winter blaming referees for the sorry state of his 17-32 team. Last time anyone checked, refs Steve Javie and Derrick Stafford weren't found to have threatened Riley with ejection from his waterfront estate if he didn't fork over $178 million to Brian Grant and Eddie Jones.

Riley first accused Stafford of laughing at all the jokes the Portland Trail Blazers told from the foul line, this after he accused Javie and fellow whistle-blowers of reveling in the Heat's demise. A tragedy, Riley cried last week. A conspiracy, he charged in December.

The only tragedy is the damage the players have inflicted upon the man who picked them. The only conspiracy is the one cooked up by Pat Riley, team president, and Pat Riley, minority owner, at the expense of Pat Riley, head coach.

Yes, Alonzo Mourning's kidney disease represents a violent storm no franchise could weather. With a healthy Mourning, the Heat might be the sixth seed in the East. But given their three straight early-round losses to the New York Knicks, their devastating three-game loss to Charlotte in 2001, and their failure to make the playoffs last year, the Heat clearly wouldn't be a legitimate contender today with Mourning manning the paint.

They started 5-17 this year after starting 5-23 last year, when they finished sixth in the Atlantic Division. They're going to finish seventh this time, and when they do, Riley should surrender to the obvious. He isn't getting Duncan or Jason Kidd or Jermaine O'Neal, and he likely won't get LeBron James, either. If he gets Brad Miller of Michael Olowokandi with the cash freed up by Mourning's release or retirement, Riley will remain a million miles removed from his last NBA title.

He won his fourth and final ring 15 years ago, and there's no end to the drought in sight. Remember, Riley made Juwan Howard a $100 million player before David Stern saved him from that wreck. His personnel decisions haven't been much better since, leaving him with Jones and Grant - stars in wage only - and a faceless procession of Malik Allens and Vladimir Stepanias.

Coming out of the All-Star break, Riley is 17 games behind New Jersey Nets coach Byron Scott, a Los Angeles Laker who helped him win championships. Enough is enough. I don't know why a coach who made 19 consecutive playoff appearances isn't getting through anymore; I only know that he isn't. Riley needs a change. He needs to shut off the Springsteen CD he keeps blaring, "The Rising," and find a realistic path to redemption.

He can't keep digging in, can't keep playing the martyr, which brings us to the instructional part of our program: Riley should go save UCLA. Nobody could accuse him of quitting on the Heat, not after he gambled his legacy on that wretched operation in a way Jackson never would. UCLA would do for Riley what Louisville is doing for Rick Pitino: restore his shine.

No salary cap, no luxury tax, no problem. Every 18-year-old kid without a Hummer would kill to play for Riley, who could drive the worshipping teens into a Final Four frenzy. You think Carmelo Anthony would pick a winter with Jim Boeheim over a Pacific sunset with Coach Riles?

So there's the escape route. There's the chance to get back with the best players. There's Pat Riley's shot to remind everyone that he didn't buy those four championship rings in the same place he bought his $1,500 suits.

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