Hall of Famer Pat Riley is one of the best coaches in NBA history. He was so good, in fact, that he coined the now-ubiquitous term “three-peat” after his Lakers tried to win three straight championships in the ’80s. He left the Lakers in the early ’90s to head east and become the head coach of the New York Knicks.
Riley had a successful, if short, tenure in the Big Apple but despite the success he had with the team, his split from the Knicks was less-than-cordial. A quarter-century later, Knicks fans still have not forgiven Riley for the way he left the team.
Pat Riley’s tenure as Knicks coach
Riley led the Knicks for four seasons, starting in 1991-92, when he led them to a 51-31 record just a season after they went 39-43. They made it to the playoffs but lose in the conference semifinals.
The Knicks improved to 60-22 — their best mark under Riley — the following season and got one step further in the postseason, losing in the conference finals.
A 57-25 mark in 1993-94 got the Knicks into the playoffs again, and this time they made it to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Rockets in seven games.
The 1994-95 season saw the Knicks go 55-27, but they ended up losing in the conference semifinals once again. So the Knicks made the playoffs all four seasons Riley was on the sideline at MSG, but they failed to win a title.
Pat Riley leaves the Knicks
NJ.com recalls how the Star-Ledger newspaper covered Riley’s departure from the Knicks in 1995. The Internet was in its infancy at the time and there was no social media, so he couldn’t use those means to let people know about his departure.
Instead, Riley let the world know he was leaving the Knights by releasing a statement via fax. Minutes later, he boarded a plane and took off to Greece, intending to avoid questions from the media. Why the sudden break-up?
Riley wrote in his statement that he had a “desire and need to be charged with ultimate responsibility for all significant aspects of the ballclub,” as well as reportedly wanting an ownership stake in the franchise.
He claimed he “tried [his] best to reach an agreement with management on these issues … the gap between us could not be bridged.” So Riley bailed on the team and ultimately headed south, becoming the head coach of the Heat for the 1995-96 season; the Heat gave Riley a 10% stake in the team and the title of president of baseball operations.
The reaction wasn’t positive
As you can expect, the New York-area media and Knicks fans roasted Riley for leaving the team — especially in the manner that he did. The New York Post called Riley “gutless” in a headline, while Mike Weber, the Star-Ledger’s NBA correspondent at the time, wrote that Riley “didn’t get it” because even a city the size of New York “wasn’t big enough for his ego.”
Weber recalled that when he first joined the Lakers Riley said he felt uncomfortable being called coach, but when he left the Knicks he apparently seemed “to find ‘Legend’ beneath him.”
Knicks fans still haven’t forgiven Pat Riley
Even though it’s been 25 years since Riley left the Knicks, many of the team’s fans have not forgiven him after all this time. And who can blame him? They had one of the best coaches in league history leading the team, and then he just left, seemingly out of nowhere, after just four seasons with the team.
The Knicks enjoyed a good run with Jeff Van Gundy after Riley went to Miami, but Knicks fans will always wonder “what if?” Could they have won a championship if Riley stayed instead of bolting for a conference rival?
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference