It's never been a secret that Heat boss Pat Riley has anger issues. So when he melted down after a tough loss to the Knicks on December 13, it wasn't that much of a surprise. What was surprising is what Riley said. Coach contended NBA officials were biased against his team because of "a dislike of me over the years." He continued: "It all started, I think, last year when [Steve] Javie [got] in my face after we were having a discussion and said, 'It's giving us absolute delight to watch you and your team die.' [Javie's alleged actual words were more obscene.] I think it's absolutely spread throughout the league."
According to one Eastern Conference GM who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Riley is "a desperate man reaching for any trick left up his desperate sleeve.... Everyone recognizes Pat can coach, that is not in doubt; the problem lies in his passion to control everything. He is a classic micromanager." I asked the GM if he felt Riley had any basis for his claimed bias against the Heat. He said, "You could make a case for Javie, but the entire league? That just is not possible. Think of the effort it would take to get every NBA official on board, and that is taking for granted that every one of those guys hate Pat ... [no], this is Pat trying to get his guys to go to the rack more often, to get them to be more aggressive ... [and] to his credit it worked!" After a miserable start, the Heat is winning more and shooting better from the foul line -- and since Riley made his feelings known, opponents have only gotten fouls two more times per game than Miami has, where previously, they'd been up nine times as often. Also since the meltdown, Heat offensive production is up, and you could of course make the argument that Riley got the attention of the league office and its officials, so his guys are getting more good calls. But another NBA official -- also speaking anonymously -- disagreed, saying, "They [Miami] are just not very aggressive at this point.... We are not going to put jump shooters on the line every time a guy breathes on [them]. Whatever happened to earning a trip to the line? Eddie [Jones] is the only one getting to the basket with regularity on that team. I'd bet he is one of their leading free-throw shooters."
When asked if Riley helped or hurt his players with his outburst, this guy would only say: "It's like running to the teacher at recess after the bully takes your ball away. Is the bully going to be your friend because the teacher told him to [be]?"
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Heat players seem to share their coach's attitude. Although the Heat will not officially speak to New Times due to past critical articles, one player told me that the team spoke about the incident in a "players-only" meeting the day after Riley's brownout. As a group, the guys said they would renew their efforts to be more aggressive on the offensive end in order to "validate what Pat is out there fighting for" and to "show Pat he's not in this alone. He's got to know we hear his call."
There is also the Javie side of the issue. He's not the most popular official in the NBA, Riley or no Riley. He's had run-ins with most every player and coach in the league. He's also made some astoundingly horrible calls on other teams, and he seems to be at the center of every controversy not centered on colleague Hugh Hollins. The interesting thing is the NBA League Office is well aware of the situation. All the Riley blip did was to put Javie under a stronger microscope. Officially the NBA declined to speak about Javie, but one source, asked what his peers really thought of the controversial ref, made it clear that not all officials were behind him: "We understand a guy has issues with this player or that coach, but we are supposed to be better than that. We are supposed to be able to take the abuse from a coach or the childish behavior of a player.... [But] Steve seems to relish [the hassles]. He loves to get under a guy's skin ... he wants to see what he can get from him." I asked if he felt Javie could actually have made those remarks about Riley and the Heat "dying." He said, "That would shock me. Even coming from Javie."
After looking at this issue pretty hard, I think it's clear there is truth to a couple of things here: Pat Riley is desperate to do whatever he can to get this Heat team playing better basketball. If that means deflecting attention away from an awfully young team, which lacks a big man and has no recourse to one -- thanks to poor cap management -- he'll do whatever is necessary to get the job done. But it's also clear that this incident put Steve Javie in the white-hot spotlight of the NBA, which prides itself on having the best officials in the world. When the integrity of any of them is called into question, it's no joke. One league source told me Riley may actually have some basis for his complaint: "After a while you have to wonder why the same guy is involved in so many conflicts.... If you look at our core of officials, you notice most are basically anonymous. The average fan could not pick them out of a lineup, even if they were [wearing numbers]. Steve is different. All the fans know him. The players and coaches watch out for him.... If it's determined Steve is changing the way the game is played simply by being on the floor, we will [adjust]."
So all in all, Riley got great bang for the $50K fine the NBA hit him with for his outburst. And there is only one other question to be answered: When is the spotlight going to be focused on Coach and GM Riley himself? When is it time to make a change? As Miami "Fight Doctor" and sports authority Dr. Ferdie Pacheco puts it: "Riley is like a wartime general, George Patton. But he only works in a war. His micromanagement gets worse as his team loses, or tries to rebuild, because he only works if he's got all his tanks and infantry in place, and sees the victory pattern coming. I don't think he sees it down here. And I don't think he can stand to lose any more ..."