When Pat Riley left the broadcasting booth last fall to take control of the under-achieving New York Knicks, the move was viewed with the usual skepticism by frustrated fans who had watched the team change coaches five times in six years with minimal success.
Riley boasted an impressive resume from his nine years with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he won 533 games and four NBA championship rings. But cynics suggested that his job was made easy by superstars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
But Riley has won rave reviews from New Yorkers eager to rekindle the Knicks' glory years of the 1970s.
Center Patrick Ewing is having a monster season; point guard Mark Jackson has recaptured his Rookie of the Year form; and Charles Oakley remains a force on the boards.
But few question that Riley is the biggest difference in transforming a sub-.500 team into a division leader, as the Knicks face the Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre tonight.
"It's hard to put a percentage on how much Pat is responsible for the turnaround," said personnel director Ernie Grunfeld, a former Knicks player. "They said he never had to coach the Lakers, but they were always extremely well-prepared. And that has carried over to our team."
Perhaps no one has benefited more from the coaching change than Jackson, who was in and out of John MacLeod's doghouse last season and spent the previous year arguing that he should be starting.
Although the Knicks made Nevada-Las Vegas playmaker Greg Anthony their No. 1 draft pick, Riley has anointed Jackson as his floor leader, and the New York native is again playing with confidence.
"I'm not afraid to make a mistake anymore," Jackson said. "Pat is real cool and has made me feel comfortable. He knows how to communicate with people."
Some former Lakers say Riley underwent a personality transformation in Los Angeles, from a hang-loose guy to someone who ordered endless practices and became consumed with details.
But Riley says that operating in a "Showtime" setting, where the Lakers mingled with Hollywood stars, forced him to develop an inner toughness.
"I went along with the scenario because it was a perfect fit with the glamorous image that we were trying to market for the team," Riley told New York magazine. "But my personality was just the opposite."
Riley seems to have a clear vision of his new job.
"The role of the coach is to define the truth every single day," he said. "The X's and O's and the strategies are academic. The only way to get through to the players is telling them the truth about their performance, conditioning, work habits and attitudes. One of the main challenges of coaching is to get the players to do what they don't want in order to achieve what they do want."
Riley plays no favorites. When Ewing, a perennial All-Star, blamed a brief scoring slump on being double- and triple-teamed in the low post, Riley told him he had to work harder for his shots. Ewing responded by averaging 30 points during the next three games.
Before each game, Riley writes four or five thoughts on the blackboard to keep his team focused.
Monday in Utah, where the Jazz had won 17 straight, he scrawled the message, "Get It In Your Mind." Translated, "Think like winners."
"The stigma of being losers in the past has to be erased from their minds," Riley said. "When teams pressure you, you have to respond with force. Then, you find out if you have the talent and the emotional stability to handle it."
The Knicks went out and muted the Jazz, 97-80.