NEW YORK -- After four seasons during which he led the New York Knicks from mediocrity to the brink of an NBA championship, Pat Riley resigned yesterday as the team's coach, citing philosophical differences with management over the scope of his power.
Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts said he was surprised by the reasons Riley gave, calling them "unfair" and "not factual."
It was a sudden, confusing conclusion to one of the most successful eras in Knicks history.
"While the decision was extremely difficult and was made with great soul-searching and sadness, I am convinced that this is in the best interest of both parties," Riley said in a statement released by a public relations firm. His resignation takes effect July 1.
Riley has one year remaining on his original five-year contract, and reportedly had been offered a five-year, $15 million extension in the middle of the 1994-95 season. There has been speculation that the numbers were even bigger.
A source familiar with the Garden's offers said Riley at one point asked for $50 million over five years, plus 25 percent ownership of the team, and the Knicks countered with a five-year, $25 million offer that did not include part ownership.
Checketts called the offers to Riley "unprecedented in any sport." In his statement, Riley said, "the decision to leave the Knicks had absolutely nothing to do with money" and called the contract offers "extremely generous."
Rather, Riley said, the key issue was authority within the organization. "I do not believe that any 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 said.
"For the last two years, I consistently and repeatedly expressed to Knicks management my desire and need to be charged with ultimate responsibility for all significant aspects of the ballclub. During this time, I tried my best to reach an agreement with management on these issues. Unhappily, the gap between us could not be bridged."
Checketts was informed by Riley's agent June 6 that his client intended to leave, and he spoke to Riley at Riley's home for nearly two hours last Friday, so when the fax arrived yesterday informing the Knicks of the resignation, Checketts was not surprised.
Checketts said that what Riley really wanted, as long as two years ago, was part ownership, something Checketts could not offer. ITT/Cablevision completed a purchase of the team three months ago. "He wanted a number of things we really couldn't give him," Checketts said.
Checketts and general manager Ernie Grunfeld said Riley had a say in every personnel move during his time with the team. "We didn't make any trades that Pat didn't want," Grunfeld said. "He was in favor of every player that's on this roster."
Said Checketts: "He had significant input into every phase of our operation and veto power over every player transaction. . . . Whether it was suspending Anthony Mason or cutting Doc Rivers, those were his decisions, with our input."
Another possible explanation for Riley's departure is his unwillingness to oversee an organization that may have peaked competitively, and some of whose players Riley has grown weary of managing. Checketts said he did not think that was the case.
Checketts said because Riley remains under contract to the Knicks, he may not coach elsewhere next season, but he did not rule out the possibility of trading the rights to Riley for a player or players. Riley took a year off from coaching to work as a TV analyst after leading the Lakers to four titles in nine years.
Checketts and Grunfeld declined to speculate about successors. Names sure to be bandied about by fans and journalists include Rick Pitino, Chuck Daly, Larry Brown, Phil Jackson, Mike Fratello and Don Nelson. Grunfeld will head the search, which already has begun. "I'm not going to beg anybody to coach this team," Checketts said.
Grunfeld said he hoped to contact all of the players by the end of the day. Several players were stunned by the announcement, including Patrick Ewing, who said, "I'm shocked and disappointed. Pat was a great coach, not just for me personally but for the the whole team. I'm sorry to see him leave."
Checketts said last month he did not want Riley back as a lame-duck coach, and would press him to make a decision on his future. The decision came soon after the Indiana Pacers ousted the Knicks in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was the first time since Riley's arrival that the Knicks failed to advance farther in the playoffs than the year before. In 1994, he led them to the NBA Finals, where they lost in seven games to the Houston Rockets.
It was a trying season, marked by turmoil, including a five-game suspension of Mason after a confrontation on the bench during a game. Riley's departure might make it more likely Mason, an unrestricted free agent, will return next season. "We want
Anthony Mason," said Checketts, who added that Riley wanted him also.
As the Knicks packed their bags after the season, Riley said, "We should have been on the upswing this year as a team that was totally together. For the majority of the season, we were pulling apart. And you can't put that stuff behind you." He said the Knicks "broke down" internally. "It manifested itself in self-destructive behavior."
The Knicks won 51, 60, 57 and 55 games under Riley after winning only 39 the season before he arrived. He was hired May 31, 1991, giving him the longest active tenure among coaches of pro teams in the metropolitan area. "I thought some day we'd retire his number; it was not to be," Checketts said.