Kragthorpe: Riley deserving of another title

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Pat Riley looks old, all of a sudden.

Well, he should.

His trademark slicked-back hair is thinning and graying. That's only natural. He's 61.

It has been 40 years since he played for Kentucky in the famous Final Four that involved Texas Western and Utah, 25 years since he took over the Los Angeles Lakers after Magic Johnson basically fired Paul Westhead with his postgame comments in the Salt Palace visitors' locker room, 18 years since the underdog Jazz took the Lakers to seven games in a playoff series and Frank Layden kidded Riley by pulling out a giant comb on the sideline, 15 years since Dave Checketts hired him in New York and six months since Riley returned to the Miami Heat bench.

Yes, even that last part has aged him.

Maybe it came off as a power play. Maybe you think Riley is undeserving of winning another NBA title after swooping in and replacing Stan Van Gundy, just when Shaquille O'Neal was getting healthy in December. Maybe Riley's observation last summer that he would take more "active participation" in the franchise he runs and co-owns already was unfair to the former coach.

Regardless, Riley has brought Miami this far. And if the Heat can beat the Dallas Mavericks in the series that starts tonight, Riley will be the reason.

"He's immaculate in the way he organizes and prepares for an opponent," said Checketts, now Real Salt Lake's owner.

Checketts could resent Riley, who suddenly left the Knicks after four successful seasons in the early 1990s, including a trip to the NBA Finals. Instead, he said Wednesday, "I haven't ever changed my opinion of him: He's clearly one of the best coaches ever."

Checketts was on the other side in 1988 as the Jazz's president when they were threatening to upset the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. Riley survived on the way to his fourth and last championship.

Layden remembers everything about that series, especially how he tried every method to take the pressure off the Jazz - including the dramatic use of the huge comb, right in the middle of a game. Riley just laughed.

Layden has remarkable insight into Riley, who was a Lakers broadcaster before Westhead was fired. For starters, he knows Riley was smart enough to realize he needed a genuine basketball coach to help him, grabbing veteran Jazz assistant Bill Bertka.

Later, when Riley launched a lucrative second career as a motivational speaker, Layden recognized how much effort he was using to improve. He hardly was winging it, Layden says, detailing how Riley directed an aide to locate "the 100 most important books ever written."

That's preparation. "When he puts his mind on something, he does it," Layden said.

And on the court, Checketts observed that motivational ability in New York. "He was very good at getting inside players' heads," Checketts said. "He had unique methods for each one of them . . . He might be the best motivator in the coaching world, ever."

It helps to have Magic and Kareem and Patrick Ewing and Shaq. But as with Phil Jackson, Joe Torre and other great coaches or managers, that shouldn't be held against Riley, in Layden's view.

"The definition of a good coach is one who wins when he has good players," Layden said. "Nobody wins with bad players. [Miami's talent] is not his fault."

In fact, it's the team Riley created. Critics say he put together a last-chance sort of veteran roster, knowing he would become the coach and take a shot at another title. In any case, it will take some high-level coaching to beat the hot, flexible, confident Mavs.

Is Riley worthy? Absolutely, because he will have to earn this championship. As Checketts said, "He deserves another title - if he wins it."