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The Scorpion Is King

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

One of Pat Riley's favorite pregame parables concerns the scorpion who needs to get across the creek and the frog whom he asks for a ride.

"I can't trust you," the frog says.

"Sure you can," the scorpion says, hopping on the frog's back.

Midway across, the scorpion stings the frog.

"Why would you do that?" the frog asks, sinking toward the bottom. "Now we're both gonna die."

Scorpion: "I can't help it. I'm a scorpion. It's my nature."

The scorpion is back on the Miami Heat bench today, feeding his own ego as much as he's chasing a championship and Phil Jackson.

Pat Riley cannot help himself. It's his nature.

It's premature to suggest he took Stan Van Gundy down with him. Van Gundy went out of his way to clear Riley of any conniving and conspiracy yesterday. He resigned as the Heat's head coach after just two seasons and 21 games, 18 of which were played without an injured Shaquille O'Neal.

Riley even got weepy, welling up as Van Gundy gave his primary reason for stepping down: family. Van Gundy checked the Heat's schedule and realized he would be home with his children just 49 out of the season's 170 days. That was too much to give up for coaching one of the most theatrical and talented teams in pro basketball.

"He said family, he meant family," Bill Van Gundy said in a phone interview. The coaching lifer and the father of Stan and Jeff, the Houston Rockets' coach added, "I'll just say one thing about this: My sons have had a good history of making good decisions for themselves."

Jeff Van Gundy got out of New York three years ago almost to the day. He got out as the poorly run Knicks were about to plummet into the abyss. Jeff got them before they got him. Stan Van Gundy orchestrated his own exit, too, before his boss upstairs made his job untenable. Because, as sincere and moving as the entire news conference was yesterday in South Beach, that day was eventually coming.

Van Gundy came within two minutes of knocking off the defending champion Detroit Pistons in June and taking the Heat to its first NBA Finals. Soon after, Riley said he was thinking about stepping up his role in the team's day-to-day operations. That's a harmless declaration coming from any other executive.

Coming from Gordon Gekko -- Michael Douglas's oily "Wall Street" character to whom Riley was compared in New York -- that's a passive-aggressive palace coup, a warning shot fired at his own.

Riley backed down from his implied desire to coach again, but it was never the same for Van Gundy. He must have wondered what his mentor was doing, toying with his career. Riley kept him out of the loop until a torrent of media backlash finally drove Riley back upstairs. Riley and Van Gundy were genuine yesterday, but it wasn't that black and white, either. Part of Van Gundy's decision was driven by the environment surrounding the Heat the last few months.

This is not an easy one. Riley is on anyone's short list to coach their team. He has won 1,110 games and four NBA titles. Riley has had to lay awake at night, thinking what it would be like to guide the game's most dominant big man, O'Neal, and the game's most complete young player, Dwyane Wade, to a championship 18 years after he last won a title in Los Angeles.

Riles and the modern-day Magic and Kareem, champions again. It's pure Pat drama, the kind that most likely seeps into his consciousness and doesn't easily fade away. For all those determined teams led by Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning that he coached throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, this would be Riley's best chance since Showtime.

When he came to Miami, he did not say he wanted to win. He said, "I want to be the winner." That's a clear distinction. In Riley's mind, it's championship or bust. He set the standard.

Yet Van Gundy is the one who brought the organization closer to the stated goal than Riley. The 2003-04 season, he took an 0-7 team and somehow got it to 42-40, winning 17 of his last 21 games his first year and advancing to the second round of the playoffs. Van Gundy increased the value of players like Lamar Odom, who was a significant piece in the deal to bring Shaq to Miami. He went 59-23 last season, coming within a couple of botched offensive possessions of competing against the Spurs.

You know how many playoff series Pat Riley has won in eight years? Three. You know how many Stan Van Gundy has won in two years? Three. Correct us if we're wrong; that doesn't seem like much of a drop-off from the Armani-clad king.

If Riley cannot get the Heat past the Pistons and into the NBA Finals, then this was not a progressive move for the organization. This was a move for Pat Riley to scratch the itch again, prove his worth in the modern game.

Van Gundy may have been unintentionally right. The reason was family: the Heat family. Riley views the teams he runs as virtual brotherhoods. To join the brethren, you need to be a crusader in his cause. He talks about loyalty and trust to his players like they're part of La Cosa Nostra rather than the NBA.

In return for gaining Riley's trust, you receive a tremendous amount of benefit working for a coaching icon, the great motivator who has won more games than anyone in NBA history except Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson.

But that loyalty goes one way: Pat's way. Loyalty to Riley is essentially what you can do for him. It's not a criticism or a knock; that's just who the man is.

Welcome Pat Riley back, wish him well. But remember what this is really about -- the id-driven winner within who needs to coach, the scorpion who can't help but sting.

It's just his nature.

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