Commentary

Riley's past suggests he's not really the retiring type

Originally Published: April 28, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Does he mean it this time?

Pat Riley certainly appeared sincere, and certainly sounded sincere, when he stood at the podium in Miami on Monday afternoon and declared himself "officially retired" and handed over the Heat's head coaching reins to Erik Spoelstra.

Problem is, the 63-year-old Riley sounded equally sincere last summer when he said he planned to serve out the final three years of his coaching contract.

[+] EnlargeRiley-Spoelstra
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyPat Riley hands over the Heat bench duties to his anointed successor, Erik Spoelstra.

He often says one thing about his intentions but ends up going in a different direction, so we can't help but take the finality of his farewell address with a grain of salt.

"I'm officially retired. Is that good enough?" Riley replied when asked if he was totally, completely shutting the door on a possible return to coaching, sometime or somewhere down the road.

Then Riley let out one of those nervous chuckles that were a constant throughout his 30-minute news conference, a chuckle that Riley had to let out because even he knows the inherent absurdity of taking anything he says as an absolute.

Riley let out a similar laugh back in early October when I spent a couple days in Miami covering the Heat's training camp. I asked him why he had made the public three-year commitment to continuing as coach, and he explained it was his way of keeping the question of his future from arising at different times over the course of the season.

Times change and minds change in the NBA, and there's no telling where Riley's body or mind will be two years from now when his contract as team president expires.

If Heat owner Micky Arison were to decide to sell the team, would Riley want to continue as president?

And if he left the franchise for whatever reason two or three years from now, would he still feel the same as he does today about never again being a head coach?

"You get to the point as a man where you just don't want to do something anymore," Riley said in explaining his decision. "My very best wasn't there like it was before."

So the job now goes to Spoelstra, a 37-year-old Heat and Riley loyalist who spent 13 years in the organization beginning as a video coordinator. Riley indicated nearly two years ago that he was grooming Spoelstra to be his successor after watching him spend more than a decade doing the coaching dirty work of breaking down film, conducting walkthroughs, writing up game plans on grease boards and devoting countless hours to player development.

"I am a product of the Miami Heat culture," Spoelstra said.

That culture is one that reveres and rewards loyalty, although there have been times when one person's loyalty has been trumped by another man's ego and ambition.

Stan Van Gundy was in a situation similar to Spoelstra's five years ago when Riley unexpectedly announced his retirement from coaching four days before the start of the 2003-04 season. Riley handed the job to Van Gundy, the older brother of another longtime Riley loyalist, Jeff, who was so enamored of his one-time boss that he bestowed the middle name "Riley" on one of his daughters.

Jeff Van Gundy and Riley eventually had a falling out, and it was Stan Van Gundy who was in Riley's way when he decided late in 2005 that he wanted to get back on the bench. Stan Van Gundy got $1 million tacked on to his contract to ease his sudden ouster.

Now, we're not saying Spoelstra is going to be similarly moved aside a couple of years down the road when Riley has finished rebuilding the roster and suddenly decides at age 65 or 66 that maybe he shouldn't have been quite so definitive back in the spring of '08.

But you still have to wonder where the road will lead for Riley from here, because you can never fully believe the guy when he says he's really, truly finished. His own track record won't allow it.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.