NEW YORK — Don’t look now (you’re too late, anyway, the preseason is over), but the Grizzlies were the NBA’s most improved Canadian outcast during the exhibition schedule, their sole setback to the champion Spurs.
Pau Gasol’s even better than last season. Jason Williams has gotten himself under more control. James Posey, Earl Watson and Bo Outlaw actually listen to Hubie Brown’s lectures and learn from them.
Mike Miller is making plays. Jake Tsakalidis held Chicago’s Eddy Curry scoreless from the field (0-8) the other night. And a lot of GMs already are conceiving excuses for permitting Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones to seep past them into the second round.
Don’t say you haven’t been alerted: Walkovers in Memphis are no longer permissible; the suddenly adult Grizzlies are primed to shake, rattle and shell shock a lot of teams by virtue of their improved defense and passing.
So how come their legendary architect sounded more downcast than usual shortly after Miami president Pat Riley faxed himself his resignation as Heat coach?
“This is a low day for me,” Jerry West groaned over the phone. “Pat’s leaving really bothers me. We don’t have enough great coaches in this league and he’s one of the few.”
West has no idea if Riley’s burned out or if his fake franchise players — Brian Grant and Eddie Jones — have become anesthetized to his demands and commands.
“I know I got burned out in L.A., I know that. As much as Pat’s given to the game, as much effort and dedication he’s invested, it’s sad for him and it’s sad for me to see him walk away.”
West’s radiant rating of Riley caught me off balance. I expected overcooked disdain and instead got served raw reverence. Surely I was being purposely led astray.
Didn’t the former Laker GM resent his ex-coach for supposedly taking more credit than deserved for L.A.’s four titles during their nine seasons together?
Didn’t Riley finger West as co-signing his 1990 eviction notice along with Magic Johnson and his band on the run?
Haven’t there been hard feelings since?
“I say what I say genuinely,” West stressed, responding to my wariness. “I’ve observed Pat from up close and from a distance and I have a great admiration for the jobs he’s done.
“As often happens, success breeds jealously and denigration. It’s so easy to be critical, but he deserves none of it; he’s a Hall Of Fame coach.”
West admits Riley probably thought he was responsible for his demise, but says he was shocked by the decision of Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
“The players can deny it until they die, and talk about how much they admire Pat with their last breath, but they were killing him,” West smoldered. “They had great access to our owner. I was forever telling Jerry he shouldn’t listen to the players all the time.
“At the same time, I know Pat was wearing them out; the good thing about Jerry is, he was never afraid to make changes.”
Most people either never knew or forgot somewhere along the way that West and Riley were directed to share the head coaching duties when Paul Westhead’s fleeting regime unraveled 11 games into the 1981-82 season.
Yet, when it was West’s turn to speak at a press conference about the coaching situation, without warning, he turned the team over to Riley whose experience comprised two years as an assistant.
“I had coached three years and it was probably one of the most troubled times of my life,” West recalled. “I was going through an ugly divorce and was being called everything but a human being by my ex. The whole thing was very hurtful to my kids and myself. The last thing I wanted to do was coach again.
“I told Pat I thought he could handle the team, but I would sit alongside him for a month and help if he wanted. My owner about died when I said it. I thought it was the right thing to do and almost immediately I knew I was right.
“As a bench player he was tough-minded, inquisitive about the game, had fierce pride and really, really worked at it. I remember him telling me, ‘We’re going to have one of the hardest working teams in the league.’
“Well, you know what, in order to have that, you must have one of the hardest working coaches.”
West did not find Riley’s Miami exit the least surprising, only that it came later than sooner.
“I thought he was to leave last year. I called him a number of times to offer my support and encouragement.
“His team plays hard but has no size. He probably sees himself as getting beat up again. His pride probably can’t take it any more.
“I refer back to when I coached. I know what it’s like to have a flawed team; you’re going to lose close games, someone’s not going to do the right thing. When that happened I looked in the mirror and blamed myself. I don’t know if Pat thinks that.
“My best guess is that the fun had gone out of the game and the handwriting was on the wall. This will be a relief for him.”
West asked if I ever read Riley’s book, The Winner Within?
“I often wonder why people don’t write about the losing part of sports, that’s the most hurtful.
“I think Pat now has a greater appreciation of how difficult it is to win in this league, and how great his Laker team was, and how fortunate he was to have truly great players.
“He had pretty good ones in New York and Miami because they bought into what he was selling. When that happens they make those around them better.”
Last year West told Riley there’s more gratification to building a team as opposed to coaching a great team.
“I’m sad because I thought he had done some nice things with the Heat. Had he stayed and added that one crucial big man, I think he would’ve had an unbelievable appreciation for what he had done.
“Now someone else will be coaching his team. It’s painful for me to see him leave behind something so close to being so good.”
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