Over his quarter of a century-long tenure with Miami, Heat’s President Pat Riley did what he promised to do back when he took over the team’s helm in September of 1995. He delivered a championship for Miami.
The Heat is, along with the Toronto Raptors, the only late 20th century NBA expansion team that won the NBA championship. Miami did it three times – in 2006, 2012, and 2013. However, Riley could have achieved much more than that, if not for one player, who many today consider the GOAT – Michael Jordan.
Across the 1980s, Riley’s name became the synonym for the coaching success in the NBA. While coaching the Showtime Lakers, a majestic team led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to four NBA championship titles in the 1980s (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988), it seemed that Riley is the ultimate man for the rugged path to championship glory. If not for the 1989-90 postseason exit of the aging L.A. Lakers by the rising Phoenix Suns, Riley’s coaching success in L.A. would be nothing less than perfect.
It was 1990. For one year, Riley decided to take a break from the league, not from the game, and to make himself invisible on the radar. Wanting to know how the future NBA game will look like while working in broadcasting, Riles scanned and scouted basketball trends worldwide.
Then, in the late spring of the 1990s, he accepted the New York Knicks call and began working on assembling an instant championship-caliber team around superstar center Pat Ewing. Riley quickly implemented a new defensive style of game, making all of his players play to the max of their abilities. There was one problem, though. This was the 1990s. This was the era of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
In Riley’s perfect world, his 1990s teams, the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat, could have reached more than one final (1994). If not for one ‘villain’ by the name of Michael Jordan. The player who many consider the GOAT bullied the 1990s Knicks even more than his Bulls teammates.
It was the Jordan’s Bulls who eliminated the Knicks in the 1991 NBA playoffs (First round; just before Riley’s arrival), 1992 (Eastern Conference Semifinals by 4-3), 1993 (Eastern Conference Finals by 4-2).
Riley’s most significant 1990s success with the 1993-94 Knicks came at the time of Jordan’s retirement. The 1993-94 Knicks were able to eliminate the Bulls in the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals by 4-3. They went all the way down to the game seven of the 1994 NBA finals with the Houston Rockets. There, just a step away from the promised land, the Knicks shooting guard John Starks had the worst shooting night of his career, hitting only 2-18 shots and missing all of his 11 tries from beyond the three-point arc!
After one more season with the Knicks in which the team was humiliated by Jordan’s 55 points in his epic comeback on Broadway, Riley made a secret pact with the Miami Heat and went down to Florida.
But even though he rejuvenated the Heat and put together a great group of players, including Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Dan Majerle, Jamaal Mashburn, it was Jordan’s shadow which followed Riley down to Miami. On their way to the 1996 and 1997 NBA championship, the raging Chicago Bulls were the ones who run over Riley’s Heat and their championship dreams.
The bitterness of the 1990s for Riley continued even after. Riley’s former team, the New York Knicks, eventually eliminated the Atlantic Division champion, Miami Heat, in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Now, in the post-Last dance era, Riley’s Heat has another opportunity to win their fourth NBA championship and make-up for their Team’s President postseason exits in the 1990s.