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You know you're getting old when you can remember when Pat Riley
used to coach basketball and not these two-hour episodes of E.R.
he now produces. His teams used to be sleek, tuned Ferraris--all
whir and hum--instead of what they are now, which is a kind of
prison fight in shorts. I miss the old Riley. He had style
before he decided the true way to teach the game is by opening
another branch office of Assault, Mayhem and Thuggery. He used
to be as classy as his $1,500 Armani suits. Now he is nothing
more than a discount finger-breaker dressed up for the
Bootlegger's Ball.

After he was on the job for about three games with the Miami
Heat, you could see that his four black-and-blue years with the
New York Knicks were not just Riley trying to make do with the
collection of bouncers and bodyguards he had been handed. He
took the Knicks over the Welt Line (2,000 personal fouls for the
season) his last three years in New York, which put them among
the league leaders in battery. It was Riley's Knicks who were
largely responsible for giving us the popular flagrant-foul
point system as well as the wildly thrilling hand-check rule. It
was Riley's Knicks who helped turn an NBA game into a three-hour
Free Throw Derby. But we figured he was matching strategy to

Now we know different. What we know is that Riley's coaching
encourages thuggishness, and somebody ought to make him stop it.

In the recently completed exhibition season, Riley's first with
the Heat, Miami led the league in fouls, with an appalling 280
in eight games. If the Heat can keep that up, they will be the
bloodiest team in NBA history. They got off to a good start last
Saturday night when guard Sasha Danilovic scuffled with
Cleveland Cavalier forward Chris Mills and needed stitches
afterward. In an exhibition game, another of Riley's
cementheads, center Matt Geiger (since traded to the Charlotte
Hornets), put a chop on Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal
that looked more like an intent to maim than an attempt to block
a shot. The NBA fined Geiger $10,000, a drop in an ocean
compared with the loss of the league's second-biggest name for
six to eight weeks with a broken thumb.

But what was scarier than Heat players' using their hands as
axes was what Geiger said after the incident: "I didn't lose any
sleep over it. That was our game plan. If Shaq got it down too
low, put a good foul on him." And then Stacey King of the Heat
said, "We are not going to allow any easy baskets.

We will put it in the backs of our opponents' minds: 'When I go
to the hole, somebody will hammer me.' It's not dirty play, it's
hard defense."

No, it's dirty play.

Magic Johnson used to hint that Riley's Los Angeles Lakers had
an unwritten rule: Any player who doesn't give a hard foul on a
layup gets fined. There is also word out of Miami that any Riley
player who helps an opponent up from the floor incurs a $1,500

Don't blame a lummox like Geiger, who was only being Riley's
Oddjob. Riley appears to be teaching his Miami Beat to do
whatever it takes, short of using weaponry, to keep a player
from putting the ball into the basket. Apparently, Riley's
thinking with the Heat is the same as it was with the
brass-knuckle Knicks: If my guys can't play this game, then
nobody else's should be able to, either.

O'Neal has said he's not going to take it anymore. "Rod Thorn
can start pulling out his fine book," Shaq said of the NBA
senior vice president of basketball operations, "because when I
come back, the first person that tries something like that,
we're just going to have to get down. We're going to be fighting
all day." Riley says he is teaching the Heat to be "aggressive,"
but this is the start of something ugly. Members of the Magic
are already talking about "the challenge" that is coming this
Saturday when the Armani Assassin hits town with his Heat.

Riley is taking the league down to the sewer with this stuff.
And what Thorn should do is get out his fine book and fine
Riley. There is not a player in the NBA who can just go out and
start turning guys into steak tartare without his coach's tacit
approval. The NBA can fine coaches if, as Thorn says, "there is
a pattern on any team of reckless disregard for safety. If there
is, we will hold the coach and management responsible."

See any pattern out there, Rod?

"It's close."

Do you know who we mean, Rod?

"I can guess," he says.

To fine the league's most famous coach would take titanium
intestines, and it would also be the right thing to do. And if
the NBA office doesn't stop him from turning basketball into
something only Don King could love, than maybe Shaq should.

Next time Shaq gets Riled, he should put down whichever Heat
player he is throttling, walk over to the Miami bench and have a
little discussion with Mr. Riley, man-to-throat. What's wrong,
Coach? You've never seen a hard foul before?

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of Pat Riley explaining strategy to two players using drawing of opponent's body]