Whether you loved him or hated him, Michael Jordan was simply a force of nature. During his legendary NBA career, His Airness became a larger-than-life figure; no matter the task, he seemed capable of accomplishing anything he set his mind to. That star status, of course, also brought plenty of power off the court. In the early 1990s, Pat Riley experienced that reality firsthand.
After losing to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA playoffs, the New York Knicks coach headed to Hawaii for a bit of rest and relaxation. Even there, however, he couldn’t escape Michael Jordan’s presence.
Michael Jordan’s legendary NBA career
Even if you think that The Last Dance turned out to be a puff piece rather than a documentary, the series illuminated on inescapable truth: during the 1990s, there was simply no one like Michael Jordan.
After famously failing to make his high school varsity basketball team on the first attempt, Jordan blossomed into a star. He went on to become a McDonald’s All-American, earning a scholarship to the University of North Carolina; there, he would win an NCAA title as a freshman, knocking down the championship-winning shot.
MJ left Chapel Hill after his junior season, entering into the 1984 NBA draft. While he went third-overall—behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie—the guard would make an immediate impact with the Bulls. He cruised to the Rookie of the Year title, averaging 28.2 points per game in his first professional campaign.
While Jordan and his Bulls had some initial issues with the Detroit Pistons, they eventually broke through. Once they won an NBA championship, the floodgates were open; Chicago would win six titles in an eight-year stretch, pulling off two separate three-peats, and Michael Jordan grew into a global star.
Pulling a power move on Pat Riley
During his time with the New York Knicks, Pat Riley had plenty of firsthand experience facing Michael Jordan. The coach, however, couldn’t even escape His Airness on vacation.
“After [the Bulls beat the Knicks] in ’93, Pat Riley is in Hawaii,” Jason Hehir, the director of The Last Dance, explained on the Pushin’ Thru podcast. “It was after ’92 or ’93, and they’re in Hawaii. Riley is staying in the presidential suite at this gorgeous resort in Hawaii, and the manager calls him up and says, ‘Mr. Riley, you have to clear your things out of the presidential suite, we had an unexpected guest, and we have to move you out.”
Understandably, Riley wasn’t thrilled, but the resort gave him three other rooms in the resort. He then headed down to the pool as the staff took care of the details and started moving his bags. Once there, though, he realized who that unexpected guest was.
“He’s hanging out at the pool,” Hehir continued, “and he looks up at the balcony and Michael’s on the balcony—his balcony—waving to him from [Riley’s] original room.”
As Pat Riley knew firsthand, there was no beating Michael Jordan
While that anecdote is incredible in retrospect, it also confirms a simple truth of basketball during the 1990s: no matter who you were, you were nobody compared to Michael Jordan.
During his time in the Big Apple, Pat Riley did a masterful job. He guided the Knicks to a 223-105 record, took home a Coach of the Year title, and never won fewer than 50 games in a season, but it wasn’t enough to overcome His Airness. Even when Jordan retired, Riley wasn’t able to win a ring in 1994, thanks to the Houston Rockets.
In a way, Riley’s roadblock was emblematic of NBA life in the 1990s. Whether you were chasing an individual accomplishment, trying to win an NBA championship, or simply going on vacation, you were stuck in a losing race with Michael Jordan.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference