An Impactful Bond
There was a time when, yes, the New York Knicks were perennial title contenders.
It was the mid-1990s, and they were the Knicks of Ewing, Starks, Oakley, and Mason.
They were the 'Go New York, Go New York, Go!' Knicks, the rough and tumble Knicks.
"They'd knock you into the stands and not think twice about it," said Pat Riley. "They weren't dirty, but they were physical. I had a team like that."
And that's because the Knicks of that period were very much a reflection of their head coach.
"Camp Riley," the moniker the Hall of Famer's training camps assumed back then, became a thing of particular legend.
There were two-a-days, playbook study hours, intense weightlifting sessions. There was even the occasional midnight run.
"Players leave the gym…tired and sometimes sore" reads a New York Times account of "Camp Riley" that was published Oct. 13, 1993.
For Riley, these comprehensive and exhaustive practices were all part of the madness behind the method. He had the results to show for it.
The Knicks improved by 12 wins his first season at the helm, 1991-92, before clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference with 60 wins the following year, in 1992-93. The year after that, the Knicks came within a victory of winning the NBA title.
If there were one player who not only thrived in but relished the conditions of "Camp Riley," it was a hard-nosed, no-nonsense point guard from suburban Chicago, Doc Rivers.
"I'll never forget this," Riley said in a recent interview. "There's so much written about how tough our training camps were and the conditioning tests and all of these things. I remember Doc's very first day of training camp when we did the conditioning test, which I thought was not as hard as everybody made it out to be, and he ended up having the best time. Then after his first practice, I remember him walking up to me and saying, 'Now I can tell everybody I made it through a Riley practice.'"
And that was essentially all it took.
From that moment on, Rivers, now in his first season as the 76ers' head coach, and Riley, who for over a decade has served as president of the Miami HEAT, were simpatico.
More than that, they forged a pivotal partnership, each man finding familiarity, comfort, and respect born from like-minded competitiveness and leadership.
"He and I, we basically gravitated to one another from that standpoint," said Riley, "because he was a great player, great leader, tough as nails, and wanted to win as badly as I did."
When Doc Rivers was traded from the LA Clippers to New York in Sept. 1992, just days before the start of training camp, the Knicks were fresh off a breakout season, their first with Pat Riley as coach.
They made it back to the second round of the playoffs on the heels of a down year, and took the eventual champion Chicago Bulls to seven games.
The Knicks were getting used to winning again.
Rivers' arrival, however, didn't come without some controversy.
"We ended up trading a very very good player in Marc Jackson to be able to get Doc," Riley said. "I remember talking to [former Knicks president] Dave Checketts about it. I said, 'Look, if we're going to trade Jack, then I want Doc back with Charles Smith,' and we were able to get that done."
Why did Riley want Rivers so badly?
In 1992, Rivers was heading into his 10th NBA season. A former second-round pick from Marquette, he had spent the first eight years of his career in Atlanta alongside Dominique Wilkins, averaging 13.0 points, 6.8 assists, and 2.1 steals per game while earning one All-Star selection.
From afar, Riley liked what he saw.
"When I coached the Lakers back in that time in the 80s I was real good friends with [Atlanta head coach] Mike Fratello, and when Doc came into the league, he was about as pro-ready as anybody. He just had the combination of skills, toughness, and a very, very high basketball IQ, very competitive guy. You could tell he was going to have a successful career."
While fans might have had initial reservations about the Knicks parting ways with the homegrown Jackson in favor of Rivers, by the midway point of the 1992-93 season, there was no doubting the move brought merits.
After a solid first half of the year, New York shifted into high-gear around the All-Star break. Charles Smith was a productive fit, while Rivers led the Knicks to a 19-3 record down the stretch as the team's starting point guard.
"We had built a team that Doc was perfect for from the standpoint of having a lot of defensive guys, and guys who were tough-minded, very, very competitive," said Riley, who had brought Rivers off the bench during the middle stages of the 1992-93 campaign. "When Doc came to our team and started, he made a huge difference from a leadership standpoint - having him, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks, Anthony Mason, Herb Williams, Rolando Blackman. We had a championship contending team, and he was a big part of that."
As much as Riley had an affinity for Rivers' hustle and heart - the charges Rivers took, the loose balls he dove for, his defensive tenacity - Riley cherished the leadership values he and Rivers shared. It formed the bedrock of their relationship.
"He was not just a talented player - he had massive hands, he had pretty good hops, he could dunk on you, shoot a medium-range jumper - but he was a winner," Riley said. "He was a winner. He was just a winner."
And winning is what Riley is all about. He won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers as a player in 1972, then again as an assistant in 1980, before leading the Purple and Gold to championships as a head coach in 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988.
Riley also lifted the Larry O'Brien Trophy as Miami's head coach in 2006, and twice more as the HEAT's president in 2012 and 2013.
So yeah, winning. Riley's really good at that.
"It's the only thing I coached for," he said. "That's all I preached as a coach, coached as a coach, tried to inspire and motivate players to see the big picture.
"In New York, we had a championship contender, no doubt. We were one of the best teams in the league over those four years."
Some might say that in 1993-94, when the Knicks won the Atlantic Division and finished with 57 wins, they should have gone down as the best when it was all said and done.
Despite losing the then-32 year old Rivers to an ACL tear in his left knee in December after just 19 games, New York kept on rolling. The Knicks' combination of talent and grit got them past Derrick Coleman and the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (3-1); the Chicago Bulls in the Conference Semifinals (4-3); and Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the Conference Finals (4-3).
It was in the 1994 Finals, versus that year's MVP Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets, that Riley believes one of his biggest coaching regrets caught up to him.
"What happened was when Doc got hurt, at that time it's all about rehabilitation, so you move on. Once he started to get better and better, he started traveling with the team, especially in the playoffs. Back then, prior to the playoffs, you had to put in your final playoff roster, and because I didn't know if Doc was going to be 100 percent healthy, I kept him off the roster."
The Knicks still had Derrick Harper and Greg Anthony to fill out the point guard rotation. But against a Rockets roster that boasted Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, and Sam Cassell in the backcourt, Rivers' absence ended up being a margin for error the Knicks couldn't afford.
"To this day, it's probably one of the worst decisions I ever made," said Riley about leaving Rivers off the Knicks' postseason roster. "We didn't have a big roster back then - I think we [were allowed] just 12 players. Taking the risk of having a guy maybe on your roster but he wasn't going to be available during the playoffs - I thought we needed to have everyone available."
The series went back to Houston with New York up, 3-2, but the Rockets won Games 6 and 7 to clinch the championship. The scoring differential in those two games was a combined eight points.
"When we got to the Finals against Houston, Doc was healthy enough to play. I always look back at that now…," Riley said, his voice trailing off with a somewhat remorseful chuckle.
A few months later, Rivers signed with San Antonio the day after Christmas. He finished his career with the Spurs, retiring after the 1995-96 season.
"Over the years when I see Doc, every time I see him or he sees me, he just shakes his head and I just shake my head," said Riley. "We go back to that seminal moment. I know he wanted to win a title as a player, and the Finals in 1994 was going to be his opportunity."
Ironically enough, a few weeks ago, it was again the day after Christmas, and the Philadelphia 76ers were pulling into Madison Square Garden.
Long gone were the days of 'Go New York, Go New York, Go!,' and the World's Most Famous Arena was unsettlingly sterile, empty due to necessary protocols brought on by a global pandemic.
On this night, Doc Rivers, who eventually won that elusive ring in 2008 as head coach of the Boston Celtics, was readying for his second regular season game with the Sixers, and his old mentor was on his mind.
"I never really wanted to coach until late in my career and I had a coach named Pat Riley who I fell in love with, the way he coached and his style," Rivers shared in somewhat impromptu fashion during a pregame Zoom video conference with reporters. "That inspired me to want to be that."
A few hours later, after the Sixers dispatched the Knicks with ease, Rivers would find himself alone in 10th-place on the NBA's all-time coaching wins list, with the Sixers' victory that evening moving him past Bill Fitch.
For someone (Rivers) who at one point never entertained the idea of doing something (coaching), his decision turned out ok. Riley's teachings have become part of Rivers' tactics.
"Pat had this ability to get every player to buy into his role, to get every player to understand there's something bigger than himself and for you to play for the team," Rivers said this past week, before the Sixers hosted Riley's HEAT on Jan. 12. "He did it every year. He'd get you to buy in. There's no team that's ever won a title that everyone didn't buy in. You just have to. You have to give up yourself, you have to give up some of the things that you want to do to become a better team. I thought Riles was the best leader I've ever seen in that regard."
"I think we have a little bit of the same DNA from the standpoint of how we look at the game, how we approach the game, what we expect from our players, and how to talk to players," said Riley. "I've always felt as a coach you better have something to say to them every day, and it better be the truth about something. While you can have levity in your style, there's a lot of ups and downs in this game, and it's the coach's responsibility to have a plan and something to say to these guys every day and not just let them go about their business. So you have to think about how you're going to inspire people."
Rivers clearly checks that box. You don't have to go back any farther than his press conferences from the past week and a half for evidence.
He provided poignant thoughts about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States' Capitol building, and spoke frankly about the realistic challenges the spread of COVID-19 is presenting the NBA.
"In just watching Doc and listening to him, he's an absolute great coach," Riley said. "He's got a great mind, he knows exactly what to say, how to relate to teams and players, [but] he can handle the media. He's got everything that I think a coach in this era in this league needs."
Think back through the years, from the Donald Sterling crisis that exploded during Rivers' first season coaching the LA Clippers, to this past summer, when Rivers made moving remarks about racial injustice following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by law enforcement in Wisconsin.
Leadership (and not necessarily by choice) is a quality that comes to Rivers naturally.
"There's nobody more capable in this league to speak on any kind of issue than Doc," said Riley. "I think what happened with the Donald Sterling situation, what happened after George Floyd and all the social unrest and discussions about injustice had an incredible impact on the NBA. Doc was very eloquent and emotional in how he went about it and what he had to say. I think what he had to say was heartfelt and sincere. It came right from his heart and had a great impact. He has become just an incredible spokesperson, a great salve and solace for a lot of the people who are hurting."
When the 76ers and Miami HEAT return to The Center on Thursday to wrap up a two-game series, Rivers and Riley will have opposing interests. The matchup between the teams is just another reminder of the more current layer to their relationship.
They've been rivals, and for a while now.
Rivers started coaching in 1999, when he landed the head job in Orlando. At the same time, Riley was still coaching Miami. The Magic and Heat share the same division.
A decade later, when Rivers was in Boston, the Celtics and HEAT clashed three times in the playoffs, including 2012. That was the year LeBron James led Miami to a dramatic comeback victory in an Eastern Conference Finals series that went seven games.
It's pretty cut and dry with Riley.
If ya ain't with him, you're against him - especially if you're associated with the group in green.
"Even though Doc and I, at one time I coached him and he was a player for me, and then we became part of the same coaching fraternity, if you wore Celtic green, I wouldn't say a word to you, and Doc knew it," Riley said with a laugh. "That's just the way it was. That has nothing to do with Doc. It has to do with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish and all those guys back in the 80s. You carry rivalries with you, and I was a very competitive coach. I didn't fraternize with many other coaches - maybe over the years half a dozen guys. It was just so competitive, and that's who I was. I might have been boorish about the way I went about it, but that's the way we all were. We weren't shaking hands at the end of games. Before games you might wave or nod to one another, but we were trying to compete and win. It wasn't being disrespectful or anything. Doc and I went up against each other a lot when I was coaching and it was another game. But we would definitely acknowledge one another."
These days, Riley says that he and Rivers don't talk much, but when they do see each other - typically at a game - the interactions are pure and pleasant. The underlying bond of respect, trust, and support forged so many years ago remains strong.
"There are residual rewards - recognition, fame, prestige, and money - that all sort of come with this profession, but when these residual rewards become academic, there's only one thing left standing and it's your integrity when it comes to being a competitor and wanting to win and do it the right way," said Riley. "I think Doc has embodied that. He supported me. I support him today in all the things that he does. I have tremendous respect for his career and what he's done. He's one of the great ones."
Author's Note: A huge thanks to Tim Donovan, Rob Wilson, and the Miami HEAT Sports Media Relations staff, and, of course, Pat Riley.