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A Show Stopper by Riley

The leader of the 1980s Lakers resigns as Heat's coach, stunning Johnson and others. But he's still team president, and some think he'll coach again.

October 25, 2003|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

Pat Riley, who turned NBA coaches into millionaires and celebrities before he met his Waterloo in South Florida, resigned Friday in a stunning announcement, ending his tenure on the sideline for the Miami Heat after eight seasons.

Riley, a 10% owner of the team with two more seasons on his contract, will remain as team president. He'll be replaced as coach by his assistant, Stan Van Gundy, the brother of another former Riley assistant, Jeff, who now coaches Houston.

Riley, 58, the most demanding of NBA coaches, had complained of feeling tired in recent seasons, which he also described as "humiliating" as the Heat fell from an East finalist in 1997 to 25-57 and 13th place in the conference last spring.

Now, with the Heat optimistic about rebuilding around former Clipper Lamar Odom, Riley said this was a good time to give Van Gundy a shot, and a good enough team to give him a chance.

"I just believe deep down in my heart, and I think you have to listen to your heart, you have to listen to your instincts and I've always sort of gone along with those instincts," Riley said at a news conference in Miami.

That's his story, anyway.

"I just can't believe he's not coaching," said Magic Johnson, Riley's star and cornerstone with the Showtime Lakers, who won five titles in the 1980s, four with Riley as coach, one with Riley assisting Paul Westhead.

"I hope he's happy with his decision, even though I know he won't be. He's a coach. When you look at it, in our time he and Phil Jackson have been the biggest two coaches. He needs to be a coach. I'm still shocked."

Riley sat out one season after leaving the Lakers in 1989, working for NBC. He took the New York Knicks' job in '91 and became the first coach with a million-dollar salary.

Now, every coach in the league makes at least $1 million and Riley is up to $5 million a year. If he stays the last two years of his contract, he'll receive another 10% of the franchise.

Nevertheless, recent seasons have been torture for him, as his star, Alonzo Mourning, left with a kidney disease in the 2000-01 season and returned in 2001-02 before leaving again last season and finally signing with the Nets.

Riley coached for 12 seasons (nine with the Lakers, three with the Knicks) before failing to finish first in his division, and had never been lower than second. In his last two seasons in Miami, the Heat finished sixth and seventh in the Atlantic Division.

As Riley drew closer to the end of his contract, there was increasing speculation that he might leave when it was over. This will become a drumbeat now, with Riley mentioned for every plum job that comes open. Some could open up just because he's available, like, say, the Knicks'. He left New York on bad terms but all his old bosses have since left.

If his star began to set in the '90s as Jackson's rose, no one could match Riley's star presence. He was a matinee idol in his Laker days. Having done color commentary for Chick Hearn, he was so polished on camera that filmmaker Robert Towne offered him the lead in the movie "Tequila Sunrise."

When Riley turned him down, Towne made do with Kurt Russell, who combed his hair back like Riley and borrowed some of Riley's clothes.

A players' coach when he took over in 1981 as a junior executive trying not to displease his stars, including Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Riley grew into a hard-driving, defense-oriented force who booted the Lakers to titles in 1987 and 1988, after Abdul-Jabbar had turned 40 and people thought Showtime was over. The 1988 title was a special achievement, with the Lakers winning Game 7s in the last three rounds.

"The 1987-88 team, I call that Pat's championship," says his former assistant, Bill Bertka, who is still a Laker consultant. "His personal intensity when we went seven, seven, seven -- he would not let them lose."

The '87 and '88 titles separated the Lakers from the Celtics, who won three titles in the decade, and suggested Riley was more than a pretty, lucky boy, as skeptics contended.

Riley would prove his worth in New York and Miami, although he never lived up to his old title-or-nothing standard. Nevertheless, he took the Knicks, who were 39-43 when he got there, to the NBA Finals and the Heat, which was 32-50, to the East finals.

The luck ran out in Miami. Without Mourning, Riley, who hadn't missed the playoffs in his first 19 seasons, had to rebuild, which he had never tried and hated when he did.

He gambled on Odom this summer, giving the Clipper phenom, who had flamed out, a six-year, $65-million deal. With Eddie Jones and Caron Butler, the organization was talking playoffs when Riley shocked their world, four days before the season's start.

Of course, Riley's friends are sure this isn't the end of the story.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Life of Riley

Pat Riley's regular-season records:

*--* Year Team W L Pct. Fin 1981-82 Lakers 50 21 704 1 1982-83 Lakers 58 24 707 1 1983-84 Lakers 54 28 659 1 1984-85 Lakers 62 20 756 1 1985-86 Lakers 62 20 756 1 1986-87 Lakers 65 17 793 1 1987-88 Lakers 62 20 756 1 1988-89 Lakers 57 25 695 1 1989-90 Lakers 63 19 768 1 1991-92 New York 51 31 622 t1 1992-93 New York 60 22 732 1 1993-94 New York 57 25 695 1 1994-95 New York 55 27 671 2 1995-96 Miami 42 40 512 3 1996-97 Miami 61 21 744 1 1997-98 Miami 55 27 671 1 1998-99 Miami 33 17 660 t1 1999-00 Miami 52 30 634 1 2000-01 Miami 50 32 610 2 2001-02 Miami 36 46 439 6 2002-03 Miami 25 57 305 7 Totals 1,110 569 661

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Shade denotes NBA championship teams

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