Retirement is no longer a distant notion to Heat coach Pat Riley
Heat coach pat Riley is content knowing that he will never match the success he had in Los Angeles, where he won four championships in nine seasons with the Lakers. Over the past decade he has become the NBA's version of Paul McCartney dealing with life after the Beatles. "Those were the best of times for me, a great jump start to my career," Riley says, "but I don't think about it anymore. As I get closer to the end—and I really am getting closer—my thing is that I want to finish well."
For the first time since 1981-82, when he began to establish himself as the dominant coach of the NBA's golden age—mentor of Magic, nemesis of Larry and Michael—Riley insists that he finally has his priorities straight. He understands the price he has paid for his .693 winning percentage over 19 years. "My primary problem my whole career has been guilt," he says. "Maybe it's my Catholic upbringing. If I wasn't focusing on my job while I was with my children at the beach, then I was shortchanging [the team]. But I've got rid of all that angst."
Riley, who will turn 56 on March 20, has already begun looking at retirement properties. He won't say where they are or when he plans to retire to them. "I'm going to honor my contract," he says of the five-year deal that runs through the 2004-05 season and is worth at least $25 million, "but I don't have to coach through that term. I can stay on as a consultant or team president. I've never thought of being a consultant, but it sounds pretty good. I could be in Nairobi and tell people, 'I'm consulting for the Miami Heat. I've got my cell phone.' "
It's a reasonable guess that he will walk away after 2002-03, when the only current players still under contract could be forward Brian Grant and shooting-guard Eddie Jones. Riley acquired both of them last summer, along with forward Anthony Mason, in a bold attempt to make a run at a title over the next three years. Those plans were put on hold when doctors examining center Alonzo Mourning before training camp diagnosed focal glomerulosclerosis, a life-threatening kidney disorder.
It's as if Riley, after having so much success during the first half of his career, has been doomed to an odyssey of frustration ever since. His previous employers, the Knicks, took great pleasure in destroying Riley's title hopes in each of the last three postseasons. In the latest blow to the Heat, on March 5 Jones suffered a gruesomely dislocated left shoulder that will sideline him for at least a month.
Last Friday, however, Riley was showing why Larry Bird idolized him as a coach capable of adapting to all situations: The Heat ran the Timberwolves off the court, 86-79, by playing an up-tempo, frenetic style. "That's the best defense anyone has played against us this year" said Minnesota coach Flip Saunders
Despite the absence of Mourning and now Jones, Miami had the third best record in the East at week's end (38-26) That's not good enough for Riley. "This team has to prove it can be competitive really competitive in the Eastern Conference with a chance to win & championship" he says
Never mind the excuses: If this team doesn't show signs of prosperity in April and May, Riley says he may wave goodbye this summer to free agents Mason, Tim Hardaway, Bruce Bowen, Dan Majerle and Anthony Carter. (On Monday he went so far as to send Mason and center Duane Causwell home when they were late for a team meeting in Minnesota.) Miami's $73.4 million payroll is the league's third-highest, behind the Trail Blazers and the Knicks, and Riley says he doesn't want to ask owner Mickey Arison to Pay the luxury tax next season unless the current group proves it can contend, with or without Mourning. "Nobody should think he's entitled to long-term security when we've been bounced from the playoffs in the last three years," Riley says. We may have to build all over again this summer.
Still, Riley insists that winning another title isn't the consuming goal it used to be, not after what Mourning has endured. "Watching 'Zo beat this has inspired me more than anything has inspired me ever," Riley says. When Riley told SI last week that he would reserve a spot on the playoff roster for Mourning he was not predicting: that the center would return by then. Though Mourning is back up to his playing weight of 260 pounds and has been practicing with Miami's second unit, he hasn't recovered his strength, and he has reportedly told teammates he is unlikely to play this season. Riley's decision was the equivalent of lighting a candle in the window-letting his center know in no uncertain terms of the coach's faith that he will recover.