Riley to return as coach of defending champ Heat

Updated: August 26, 2006, 1:40 PM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- Pat Riley decided against quitting on top.

He'd rather try to stay there another year.

Riley said Wednesday he'll return as coach of the NBA champion Miami Heat, ending speculation he might retire at age 61. He'll be on the sideline when the title banner is raised at the season opener Oct. 31 against the Chicago Bulls.

"After winning the championship, I realized there's always something meaningful that happens in your life that becomes the primary point of your destiny," Riley said in a statement. "Winning the championship showed me that I am definitely in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. I can't wait to get started."

Riley won his seventh league title last season as a player or coach, returning to the bench in December to lead the Heat to their first championship. There have been no defections this summer from his team's eight-man rotation, although free-agent guard Gary Payton remains unsigned.

"We've got most of our core guys back, and now we have the coach," said center Alonzo Mourning, who re-signed last week. "I think it's only fitting that he comes back so we can all defend the title together."

Riley left Miami on Wednesday to fly to Japan for the FIBA World Championship and was unavailable to the media, the Heat said. He last talked to reporters June 23, the day of the team's championship parade.

"I'me very excited," NBA finals MVP Dwyane Wade said from Japan. "I couldn't see anyone else being the leader of our team coming into next season, especially after winning the championship. So it just fits, the idea that right now our whole team is pretty much coming back. We're excited about that."

As recently as Monday, center Shaquille O'Neal expressed concern about Riley's status.

"Yeah, it's an issue," O'Neal told at a charity golf event in the New York area sponsored by Mourning.

Riley, who is also Heat president, returned as coach Dec. 12 when Stan Van Gundy resigned for personal reasons. Miami went 41-20 under Riley during the regular season, then beat Chicago, New Jersey, Detroit and Dallas in the playoffs.

The title provided vindication for Riley, widely questioned after shaking up the roster a year ago and then replacing Van Gundy.

"Coach made this championship happen. He built it and made us all believe," forward James Posey said this summer. "You could tell how much he wanted this one."

Riley found the season draining physically and emotionally. He postponed hip-replacement surgery to resume coaching and limped at times in the ensuing months. Early in the playoffs, his 96-year-old mother, Mary, died near his hometown of Schenectady, N.Y.

It was Riley's fifth NBA title as a head coach but his first since taking the "Showtime"-era Los Angeles Lakers to the 1988 title. He won one title as a player and another as an assistant coach.

"I'd give up six championships," a champagne-soaked Riley said in the din of the victory celebration in Dallas, "to get this one."

Riley is second to Lenny Wilkens with 1,322 coaching victories, including 171 in the postseason. He stepped down as Heat coach shortly before the 2003-04 season and was replaced by Van Gundy, who remains under contract with the organization.

Almost from the moment Riley returned as coach, there was a question of whether he'd keep the job in 2006-07. He signed an extension announced Jan. 1, but the team never clarified whether it was related to his role as president, coach or a combination of the two.

Soon after the extension was announced, Riley said he "probably would not" be back as coach, only to issue a terse statement in mid-April vowing to return, quashing a rumor that he had already chosen Jim O'Brien as his successor.

When the title was won, Riley changed the answer again, saying only that he couldn't decide whether to continue.

"Don't ask me that," Riley said. "Please. ... I can't answer that right now."

The answer came Wednesday, less than six weeks before practice begins Oct. 3.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press