For a time, the talk of that bright Thursday afternoon at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was the swollen galleries that followed one of the three-man groups at the 1995 U.S. Open.
They were there to have a respectful glance at defending champ Ernie Els, and to politely cheer Nick Price, who shot a crisp 66 to take the first-round lead.
Mostly, they were intrigued by a 19-year-old junior member of the group. Tiger Woods, playing his first Open, shot 74 that day, but he made four birdies, and with each one, the grounds shook.
Later, Price happily spoke of the craziness (“This guy is incredible,” he said) when another bolt of thunder sounded a few feet from where Price was talking. The commotion was summed up in two words by one fellow in green slacks and a yellow Izod shirt who had a flip-phone pressed to his ears: “Holy s–t!”
It was at that hour that much of sporting New York learned the news on June 15, 1995, that Pat Riley had faxed in his resignation to the Knicks.
After four remarkable seasons, in which he’d guided them to 223 wins and within a whisker of the NBA championship, Riley was quitting the Knicks.
Much was afoot that day. There was the Open, played at one of the country’s most beloved courses. The Devils were about to play the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals. Out in California, O.J. Simpson had famously agreed to put on the infamous bloody glove, and just as famously, it seemed a bit tight on his hand.
But the resignation was the story that shook the city because the Knicks had been shaking the city for four years and Riley was the epicenter of that.
He’d arrived in 1991 with a promise to return the Knicks to prominence, and he’d done that. Riley was the epicenter of that earthquake. Now he was gone.
“GUTLESS!” screamed the back page of this newspaper.
“QUITTER!” shouted the front page.
And that was before it became apparent that Riley wasn’t leaving to find himself on a beach somewhere, or to spend more time with his family. Soon enough, we learned each of the 14 demands the Miami Heat had already agreed to, and the fury only multiplied. The Knicks called the Heat on this obvious tampering and wound up settling two months later for $4 million and Miami’s first-round draft pick in 1996.
“No team can realize its potential when its head coach, the person most intimately involved with the players, cannot make final, critical decisions on matters bearing directly and intensely on the team, its performance and its future,” Riley had written in the most famous fax in NBA history.
“I consistently and repeatedly expressed my desire and need to be charged with the ultimate responsibility for all significant aspects of the ball club. I tried my best to reach an agreement on these issues. Unhappily, the gap between us could not be bridged.”
And that was that.
But a few lingering questions remain in the hearts and minds of Knicks fans who lived through that era, who either came to the team or came back to the team when Riley turned the Knicks into the hottest ticket in town, hotter than any other team, hotter than “City of Angels” or any of the other must-see Broadway shows of the time:
What if that gap had been bridged?
What if there could have been an agreement?
What if the 95th U.S. Open had been interrupted because Peter Vecsey had just reported that the Knicks had given Riley much of what the Heat soon gave him: a 10-year deal at $5 million per, unassailable control of the basketball operation, and a piece of the team (the Heat gave him 10 percent; the Garden’s complicated corporate structure would’ve had to make the number smaller, though the back-end payout would’ve been preposterously prosperous)?
What if Riley had never left?
I talked to a few people who knew Riley well then, who know him well still. And it is a question that fascinates them just as much as everyone else, a sliding-doors mystery that is equal parts fascinating and depressing.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” one said, “that there would be at least three or four more banners in the rafters. None. It is impossible to believe otherwise.”
Said another: “Imagine how different a league the NBA is if the Knicks had been the Heat the last 28 years.”
There are some fundamental problems with just trading in the Knicks’ recent history for the Heat’s, and one foundational one. A reason Riley had grown restless was because the Knicks had changed hands between three different corporate owners in the previous seven years: Gulf+Western, then Paramount, and then, late in 1994, to a partnership of ITT and Cablevision.
Not long after Riley left the Knicks, James L. Dolan was installed by his father to oversee his Garden interests. And in 1997, Cablevision bought out ITT, meaning Dolan now ran the entire operation. And at first glance, the marriage between Riley and Dolan seems more doomed than any nuptial involving a Kardashian.
“Let’s be brutally honest: Dolan is a star-f–ker,” one of Riley’s old associates said. “Look at how long he let Isiah Thomas run the show. Look at how long he put up with Glen Sather. And those guys won s–t for him. If Pat kept the Knicks where they were supposed to be?”
Added another: “And the one thing nobody has ever said about Dolan is that he’s cheap. He’d have paid Pat every nickel he wanted, given him a fleet of private planes if he kept winning and they kept making a fortune together.”
One of the reasons Paramount dumped the Garden was because in 1994 — even with both the Knicks and Rangers going to Game 7 of their respective championship rounds — the whole operation made just $12 million profit. In 2022 — even as the Knicks completed a playoff-free season for the 16th time since 2001 — that number was $84 million.
So if we go on the assumption that a better basketball product would’ve meant a fatter bottom line these past 28 years — and that Riley, as a minority owner, would’ve shared in the bounty … maybe that really could have worked out.
And if it did?
Look, one of the assumptions when Riley left was that he was going to emulate Larry Brown and Rick Pitino by leading an itinerant, pied-piper existence of staying somewhere until his message grew stale and offers from other suitors poured in. But that hasn’t been the case at all. He has been with the Heat for 28 years. He’s a South Florida staple. The Heat made it worth his while to stay, and he won three championships.
If the Knicks wanted to meet Riley’s demands, he could’ve had the same security here, assuming he’d delivered the same success. And as for that?
“You don’t think Pat Riley could’ve convinced LeBron James to be a Knick the way he talked him into playing for the Heat?” one of the associates said. “And even now, maybe you think he’s older, a little detached, but who else can tell a Kevin Durant or a Joel Embiid: ‘You want references? Start with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.’”
Riley’s old mates all believe he would’ve coached at least 10 more years, then handed the reins over to someone he’d groomed (and he tends to groom them well: see Jeff Van Gundy, see Erik Spoelstra) and focused on assembling title-worthy teams all year. That’s maybe the most important thing to realize.
Remember, Dolan handed the keys to the castle to Phil Jackson, maybe the best coach who’d never spent a minute in an NBA front office. It’s not a sure thing you can do both things well. Riley has done both things well. He has won four titles as a coach, one as a coach and president, and two more as strictly a president.
And if that had happened in New York instead of Miami, at one of the league’s charter franchises and not with an expansion team?
“It makes you want to cry, doesn’t it?” one of Riley’s friends said.
So might this quote, one Riley gave to former Post columnist Mark Kriegel a few years after he defected, in a story Kriegel wrote for Esquire: “I could have seen myself ending my career in New York, even though I don’t know if any coach could ever last that long there. I had great respect for Red Holzman, and admired the job he did. He’s the only coach up there in the [Garden’s] rafters. I used to envision my name next to his one day.”
He’s not the only one.
Leave a Reply