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COMMENTARY : Here's Hoping Pat Riley Stays Put

October 21, 1994|MIKE LUPICA | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — Since Pat Riley came to the New York Knicks, there has been no better coach or manager in professional sports, even if he came up one game short last season. Everything began to change for the Knicks, and at Madison Square Garden, when Riley took the job as Knick coach. Dave Checketts, president of the Knicks and also interim president of the Garden now, is the one who finally got Riley to say yes in the spring of 1991. Now Checketts very much wants to sign Riley to a new contract, for more money than anyone with a job like Riley's has ever thought about.

Except that the new contract, which has been on the table for a while, never seems to get signed by Riley.

Riley has one season left after this one on the contract he signed in 1991. Checketts wouldn't come close to talking about money this week and neither would Riley. I believe the new offer has to be worth twice what Riley is making now. That would mean $3 million per season. But the longer that money stays on the table at the Garden, the more you must at least wonder if Riley believes his coaching future is somewhere other than New York. You wonder if he might take one more shot at the title with this group of players and then look to leave.

Maybe Riley will sign this week. But if he does not have a new deal by the end of this season, I'm not convinced there will be a next season for him with the Knicks.

A lot of the preseason talk has been about other contracts. The Knicks have 14 guaranteed contracts, and only 12 roster spots. Charles Oakley is working on a new contract of his own, looking for some $10-million balloon payment down the road. There is not so much talk about Riley's contract, even though he sometimes feels like the biggest star of the team.

"It's been going on for over a year, actually," Riley said. "It's been over a year, with three different owners (Paramount Communications, Viacom, now ITT / Cablevision). I believe that's where the problem is. But I really don't believe it's an issue right now. I tell the players who are in negotiations all the time, there's a business side of things, and a basketball side, and you should never mix the two. And that the business side should always be conducted quietly."

Riley paused and said, "But there always comes a time on the business side where you reach an impasse. It hasn't come to that point with me yet. If it does, then I'll have to make a decision. Right now, you've got one set of owners (Viacom) wanting to close a sale and another set of owners (ITT / Cablevision) looking to close a purchase. It's a difficult setting in which to get anything done."

I said, "But the new guys have made you a big offer."

"It's not just the contract," Riley said. "It's other things."

"What other things?"

"I really don't want to get into the details," he said. "The business side will take care of itself. While it does, I'm only interested in coaching my team. People have to remind me every so often to find out how the negotiations are going." Riley laughed. "My wife is one of those people. My feeling is that this will all get sorted out, one way or the other. I'm in no hurry, even though I'll eventually reach the point where I'll have to make a decision."

Riley paused again. "I'll have to look at everything, decide if it's good for me or not."

Said Checketts: "All I'm going to say about this is that I think Pat Riley is a great coach. So do my bosses. We will do everything in our power to keep him here for a long time."

This is not Neil Smith of the New York Rangers vs. Mike Keenan. There is no animosity between Riley and Checketts, Riley and Ernie Grunfeld, the Knick vice president and general manager. There is no intrigue. ITT / Cablevision has authorized Checketts to pay Riley a ton of money. Riley just seems to be in no hurry to pick up the money. If there is no impasse, it sounds as if the possibility for one sure exists.

When Riley talks about "other things," he has to be talking about more power. Maybe if he can't get that kind of CEO power with the Knicks, he will ask to go elsewhere when this season is over. Maybe without the accusations and lies--and without a championship--maybe he will go off to be king the way Mike Keenan did in St. Louis.

Riley said, "All this has nothing to do with what we're trying to accomplish with this team this season. The players know I won't let anything get in the way of our goal to win a championship. All that matters are the next nine months. We have to make a nine-month commitment to each other."

Whatever happens, whether Riley stays or goes, it will be interesting to see if he can have the Knicks playing in nine months for the championship. He has been a fascinating character since he arrived in New York, at times the biggest sports star in New York, not just with the Knicks. No one has celebrated Riley's work more than I have. I hope he stays at the Garden until the end of the century.

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