Riley Stepping In Was Inevitable

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005; 1:21 PM

He spoke of the misery and drudgery of being an NBA coach, of the constant wear and tear on both mind and body. "When you're down there in the trenches as a coach, the grind is very difficult. It's in only the two hours a night that you play that you are in a joyful experience. Only the games, I think, for guys who like to compete, are the fun," he said. "In between games, and the road trips, and the preparation, and the practices, and the fact that everything is rushed, you get fatigued. Planes. Buses. That's joyless. Absolutely joyless. That's something I don't have to endure anymore."

No, this wasn't Stan Van Gundy Monday morning in Miami when he announced that he was resigning as head coach of the Heat to spend more time with his family. This was Pat Riley during a lenghty phone conversation in September in which the future Hall of Fame coach expressed his optimism for upcoming season, the players he surrounded around Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade and tried to shoot down rumors that he intended to push aside his apprentice, step down from his role as team president and assume the role of Heat coach.

Riley was adamant that Van Gundy's job wasn't in danger -- despite comments shortly after the Eastern Conference Finals that he would more actively participate in the direction of them team -- but added that watching the Heat's run last season triggered thoughts about returning to the profession that made him a household name.

"Why not? If you wrote for 22 years and decided to leave and went on to another profession and had a whimsical thought about writing again, you would have that. Anybody would have that. That's normal," Riley said. "I probably would continue to have that. I'm not going to ever admit that [returning to coaching] doesn't float around in that mind."

No longer just a whimsical thought, Riley is back, set to make his return to coaching tonight in Chicago.

At the press conference on Monday, Riley, 60, swore that this was not his intention ("I'm proud of what Stan has done," he said). But while it's difficult to question the sincerity of Van Gundy, an honest man who never hid his love for both coaching and family, this move was inevitable.

After Riley practically blew up a team that came within a few minutes of the NBA Finals, he seemed like the only person -- with the exception of maybe Phil Jackson and Larry Brown -- who could handle the responsibility of guiding this talented but combustible roster of O'Neal, Wade, Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Jason Williams and James Posey. Van Gundy's lost desire for coaching, which he expressed to Riley throughout this season, merely created a convenient excuse for the takeover. With O'Neal back after missing 18 games with an ankle injury, the Heat was forced to start over. Why not start over with Riley?

"I think, right now, at this moment, I'm the best person for the job," Riley said.

Had the Heat been 16-5 and the players were responsive to Van Gundy, maybe he would've found more pleasure in his job. Since the Heat was just 11-10 and every player with the exception of Wade and Alonzo Mourning underachieved and appeared less than receptive to Van Gundy, family time with his wife, Kim, and four young children probably looked like a better alternative.

Ever since Riley opened his mouth this summer, and didn't immediately refute his comments, Van Gundy was placed under more pressure than any coach in the league. Van Gundy's boss -- a coaching legend with four championship rings and the face of the franchise for the past 10 years -- was openly campaigning for his job. They met at Riley's home in Coconut Grove in August to seemingly settle their differences. "I don't think our relationship since that meeting has ever been stronger," Van Gundy said Monday. But the players, perhaps, sensed that Van Gundy had little authority and were just waiting for Riley to come to the rescue.

In little more than two seasons, Van Gundy had led the Heat to as many playoff series (three) victories as Riley won in eight years as head coach with the team. But the fact remains that once the Heat acquired O'Neal, the expectations for the franchise changed dramatically.

O'Neal had no trouble loafing through his first three seasons in Los Angeles under the likes of Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, but once Phil Jackson and his six championship rings arrived, O'Neal found a coach that he could truly respect and bust his tail for. While O'Neal may not have forced out Van Gundy, he never hid his high esteem for Riley, who ranks third on the NBA's all-time victory list among coaches at 1,110, behind only retired coaches Lenny Wilkens (1,332) and Don Nelson (1,190). Although Riley led the Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1994, he never went beyond the Eastern Conference Finals in Miami and hadn't won an NBA championship since 1988, when he coached Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.

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