The controversy has intensified since New Jersey Nets star Kenny Anderson suffered a season-ending injury against the Knicks on Feb. 28.
Riley, whose Atlantic Division-leading Knicks (40-18) play the last-place Washington Bullets (16-42) at the Capital Centre tonight, was analyzing NBA games for NBC two years ago when the Knicks were manhandled in the playoffs by the championship-bound Chicago Bulls.
"Everyone back then referred to the Knicks as a gutless team that would allow people to drive the lane, have lunch, get a car wash and cash a check before anyone would step up and defend," he said. "So now we're playing hard, and we're hearing complaints from the same people who called the Knicks heartless. But we'll never play soft again, not as long as I'm here."
Knicks president Dave Checketts added: "The reality is we're holding teams to an all-time defensive low (95.8 ppg). I'm not trying to create a conspiracy theory, but I believe other teams resent us, and the NBA is buying into this."
The criticism, which Riley labels, "fashionable, thus lacking substance," began early this season when Bulls coach Phil Jackson accused New York of playing "bully-ball" with intent to hurt his star players, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
This brutish image of the Knicks intensified last month when guard John Starks decked Anderson at the Meadowlands. Anderson fell heavily on his left wrist and is out for the rest of the season.
Starks, who was fined $5,000 but not suspended, has since apologized to Anderson.
"You never want to see another player get hurt," he said, "but I'm not going to change how I play. I've studied that play over and over, and to me it was a common foul. Kenny hurt himself by the way he landed."
Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice president of operation who doles out fines and suspensions, viewed the situation the same way, reading no malicious intent by Stark's flagrant foul.
Asked if he believed the Knicks have legitimately earned the nickhave legitimately earned the nickname "Broadway Bullies," Thorn said, "It is not my position to categorize the style of teams. But I've reminded people that the (4-54) Dallas Mavericks have been charged with more flagrant fouls this season than the Knicks. Read whatever you want into that."
There is a difference of opinion among rival players concerning whether Knicks' strongmen Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason play hard or go beyond the bounds of propriety in flexing their muscles.
Jordan says the Knicks are overly aggressive in protecting the lane. "Their whole game is intimidation," said Jordan, who was repeatedly knocked to the floor in last season's seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Knicks.
Charles Barkley, the Phoenix Suns' physical forward, said: "They're not dirty. They're just big and ugly."
All-Star guard Joe Dumars, who was the most mild-mannered of the Detroit Pistons' "Bad Boys" in the 1989 and 1990 championship seasons, said: "New York is rough, tough and physical. If they knock me down, I don't think that's dirty. It's what you have to do to win. I understand that."
The Knicks' powerful front line of Patrick Ewing, Oakley and Mason poses problems for the Bullets, who have been out-muscled all season, particularly since losing starting center Pervis Ellison to a knee injury.
In recent games, rookie forward Tom Gugliotta has been forced to go against bigger, more physical centers, but Bullets coach Wes Unseld has few options left.