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Monday, June 24, 2013
Losing Riley doomed Knickerbockers

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

The courtship started at a 1991 reunion of distinguished Kentucky lettermen. Pat Riley was in Lexington to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his team's run to the NCAA final, where Adolph Rupp's small but resilient Wildcats -- Rupp's Runts they were called -- lost to Texas Western and its historic all-black starting five.

Rick Pitino, then the Kentucky coach, approached Riley, then an NBC analyst, and asked the four-time champ with the Showtime Lakers if he planned a return to the NBA. Riley said he wanted to coach again, and soon enough Pitino was on the phone with his friend and former neighbor in Bedford, N.Y., Stanley Jaffe, to tell him about an exciting free agent about to hit the open market.

Pat Riley
Pat Riley points to fans during the Miami Heat's championship parade on Monday.
The same Stanley Jaffe about to be named president and CEO of Paramount, owner of Madison Square Garden.

As the producer of blockbusters such as "Fatal Attraction" and "Kramer vs. Kramer," Jaffe understood the value of star power. Without revealing his inside knowledge of a potential rise to the top of MSG, Jaffe once pleaded with Pitino to reject Kentucky's overtures and remain with the Knicks.

The movie man wasn't about to let Riley play the lead in someone else's script, and his top basketball executives in New York -- team president Dave Checketts and vice president for player personnel Ernie Grunfeld -- weren't about to offer up a better alternative. This was Pat Riley, after all, the best available bet to win the franchise's first title since 1973. He was hired to great fanfare on May 31, 1991.

Four years later, after Checketts had been promoted to Garden president and Grunfeld to Knicks general manager, a choice was made that ultimately led to yet another parade staged Monday in Miami, where Riley rode atop a double-decker bus while waving to the adoring masses a million miles removed from the triumphant celebration he once envisioned for Broadway.

"My favorite subject," Checketts sighed over the phone after the latest Riley parade was mentioned.

The former Garden executive was rushing to catch a flight when asked to relive Riley's own version of The Decision, before there ever was The Decision. As it turns out, with the benefit of hindsight, the day Riley decided to take his talents to South Beach looks like the worst day the Knicks ever had.

Checketts had offered his coach five years and $15 million to stay on, a rich reward for the man who had molded the Knicks into a serious contender, leading them to a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, two division titles, and four consecutive seasons of more than 50 victories.

Only Riley wanted more money and, of greater significance, more power, the kind being offered by the new owner of the Heat, a starstruck cruise-ship guy named Micky Arison. Riley sought control over the Knicks' roster, the title of team president above Grunfeld, and Checketts reportedly didn't want to give it to him.

Pat Riley, Patrick Ewing
Riley and Patrick Ewing chat during Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals.
Grunfeld was threatening to leave the Knicks in the event Riley was promoted, Checketts, now the chairman and CEO of Legends, a fan hospitality company owned by the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, wrote in an email from his flight Monday. A nasty he-said, he-said would play out over time, with Riley claiming he was promised a release from his original Knicks deal if he kept his unhappiness quiet while the Garden was being sold to ITT-Cablevision, and with Checketts claiming no such pledge was ever made.

Riley secretly negotiated a $40 million deal with Miami that included 10 percent ownership, Checketts won $1 million and a first-round pick in the ensuing tampering case, and the coach would become the kind of villain in New York that his future recruit, LeBron James, would become in Cleveland.

Riley was ripped by many columnists (this one included) as a hypocrite who demanded one-for-all, all-for-one commitment from his players before showing loyalty only to his bottom line. Checketts was willing to give Riley a killer contract while protecting his friend, Grunfeld, who had proved to be a capable executive, certainly a reasonable stance at the time.

But all big league sports moves or nonmoves are judged by the scoreboard, and in the 18 seasons since he left for the Heat, Riley has won three more championships than the Knicks have won over the past 40 years, or one more than the Knicks have won over their entire 67-year history.

"You have to give [Riley] his due," Checketts wrote. "He is one of the most successful coaches and executives in the history of the game. ... He has a lot of Red Auerbach in him. He has always pushed the envelope, stretched the rules, stepped over the line enough to get things done, and has won big. He is in the Hall of Fame."

But no, it hasn't been all wine and roses for Riles with the Heat. He lost three consecutive playoff series to his former assistant in New York, Jeff Van Gundy, and he came across as opportunistic, at best, when he unseated his former head coach in Miami, Stan Van Gundy, before winning it all in 2006.

Riley suffered through a 25-57 season and a 15-67 season -- 15-67! -- and the botched $100 million signing of Juwan Howard. In the end, the payoff was worth the pain. Riley won his one for the thumb as a coach (without Magic Johnson's help to boot), and established a separate legacy as an executive by fielding a team that's now in position to do what his Showtime Lakers could not -- make good on his three-peat patent.

Riley also built a slam-dunk case that he would've ended the Knicks' biblical title drought by now had Checketts made him team president and had Jim Dolan given him the same grand pooh-bah leeway he's granted Glen Sather. He was smart enough to draft Dwyane Wade, shrewd enough to execute the Shaquille O'Neal trade, and accomplished enough in the summer of 2010 to drop his bagful of championship rings on a conference room table with his blue-chipper, James, sitting on the other side.

So yeah, Riley would've done something, somehow, to get the Knicks home. Maybe he would've made the Patrick Ewing-for-Shaq trade that his temporary successor, Don Nelson, didn't have the juice to make. More likely, Riley would've persuaded LeBron that he could be to the Knicks what Mark Messier was to the Rangers, times five.

It's awfully difficult to argue Riley wouldn't have pulled it off.

"And I can tell you that Pat's intention and desire was to stay in New York," said Dick Butera, the longtime Riley friend and Aspen entrepreneur who negotiated the Miami contract with Arison. "Pat's a very honorable, religious guy who keeps his word, and he was a big shot in the big city. Pat really likes the spotlight, and the spotlight doesn't get any brighter than New York.

"So it was bone-crushing for him to leave. Miami was a bad team, a bit of a joke, and if the Knicks wanted Pat badly enough he would've stayed. But I just think Checketts wanted him out."

Checketts denies that claim, and rejects the theory that Riley had any intention of staying in New York, enhanced job description or no enhanced job description. He does believe that Riley tired of the constant corporate turnover, from Paramount to Viacom to ITT-Cablevision, and that the coach yearned for "the Jerry Buss model, one guy with lots of money who he had a relationship with."

Otherwise known as the Micky Arison model.

"I was ready to make [Riley] president if he would agree to the money," Checketts maintained in his e-mail. "But Arison was already negotiating to get him. And I will never forget that they were exchanging offers during the 1995 playoffs against Indiana. [Riley] lost his focus and we lost the series."

The Knicks lost their coach, too. As he spoke over the phone Monday, Butera laughed about the memory of negotiating Riley's deal with Miami by fax from a Malibu motel ("Those faxes became evidence in the tampering trial," he said), and about how much that deal altered the pay scale for coaches everywhere. Butera said that the ownership stake "was more my idea than Pat's," and that he and movie mogul Peter Guber convinced Riley leaving New York for Miami was the right play to make.

Pat Riley, LeBron James
If the Knicks had retained Riley, perhaps LeBron James would be in New York?
"When Pat started to balk at the Miami thing a little bit, Peter and I sat him down and read him the riot act," Butera said. "We asked him, 'What other man in history ever got a spectacular offer like this?' Peter made a beautiful speech about capitalism, and Pat listened. And the Knicks lost a great coach. All these years later, the proof is in the pudding."

Butera didn't want any compensation for cutting the monster deal; Riley gave him a Miami Heat track suit as a gift (the track suit didn't fit). The Knicks took a million bucks off Arison, used Miami's first-round pick on Kentucky's Walter McCarty (who would be dealt to Boston for Chris Mills, a player later sent to Golden State for Latrell Sprewell), and reached the Finals in 1999 after Jeff Van Gundy beat Riley in the playoffs. Checketts had fired the GM he once protected, Grunfeld, before that postseason run, and two years later lost his own job in a power struggle with Dolan.

So it's clear Riley was the big winner here. He ended up in another champagne bath in Miami's locker room after the Heat beat the Spurs in Game 7, and Monday he ended up dancing to Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" on his way to touching the championship trophy on stage.

Meanwhile in New York, the Knicks aren't any closer to a parade than they were the day Pat Riley left. If it didn't seem like such a bad idea letting him go in 1995, it sure does now.