MIAMI (AP) — On the night of his last game as an NBA head coach, Pat Riley heard the final buzzer, looked straight ahead, and briskly walked away.
Deep down, he knew it was over.
“I didn't have to look back,” Riley said. “I know that's behind me.”
And now, after spending several days plotting the Miami Heat's next course, Riley's past becomes Erik Spoelstra's future.
The Hall of Fame coach resigned Monday, April 28, although he'll remain team president. His first act as Miami's former coach was to choose its new one, and hired Spoelstra, a 37-year-old who started in the Heat video room in 1995 and now becomes the NBA's youngest coach.
Riley sees himself in Spoelstra.
Riley was 36 when he first became a head coach, and didn't have any experience either. His first off-the-court job in the NBA was traveling secretary
for the Los Angeles Lakers, handling boarding passes. Spoelstra also was at the bottom of the Heat totem pole when starting out, making videos for the team Christmas party, but Riley is convinced he's ready for the top job.
“It's very rare to have the opportunity to work for one organization for your entire career like I have,” said Spoelstra, who was told the job was his April 25. “It means it's a special organization.”
Miami finished with the NBA's poorest record (15-67), by far the worst of Riley's career. As president, Riley will continue overseeing the plan to revamp a franchise just two years removed from a championship, after deciding he'd best benefit the franchise from the front office.
Last year, Riley said he was committed to coaching three more seasons. On April 28, he admitted he never believed that to be true.
“I am definitely sure that I don't want to do this anymore,” Riley said.
Riley's future was among Miami's many offseason issues. The Heat could have the No. 1 pick in the draft, are assured a top-four pick and are certain to make moves in an effort to revamp a roster plagued by injuries.
“Pat Riley has instilled in me values that enabled me to win a championship in just three seasons,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said April 28. “I've seen him do the necessary things to make us winners and I believe that with his focus on being president and his commitment to the team, we will once again become a contender.”
Wade has worked extensively with Spoelstra in practices and 1-on-1 sessions.
“I believe in Coach Spo and have complete confidence that our team will succeed with him at the helm,” Wade said.
Spoelstra indicated he would like to keep assistants Ron Rothstein, Bob McAdoo and Keith Askins.
Unless he comes back – he has once before – Riley finishes his career with 1,210 victories, third most in NBA history behind Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson. He won seven championships, including five as a head coach, and was voted into the Hall of Fame class this month.
“I think the call from the Hall of Fame did something to me,” Riley said. “There was a lot of emotion on that telephone call. When you come to the finish, or you know it's the best time, it's a clean ending.”
Riley essentially began the rebuilding job in February, when he traded disgruntled center Shaquille O'Neal to the Phoenix Suns. The move not only rid the team of a player who didn't want to remain in Miami, but gave the Heat some salary-cap room that wouldn't otherwise have been available until O'Neal's contract expired in 2010.
In recent years, many team insiders considered Spoelstra as the person Riley would promote when he deemed the time was right.
That time was Monday, April 28.
“He's a man that was born to coach,” Riley said.
It's a tactic Riley used before. He stepped down days before the 2003-04 season began, walking into then-assistant coach Stan Van Gundy's office one morning and asking him, "You ready?"
Van Gundy remained coach for two-plus seasons, resigning 21 games into the 2005-06 campaign. Riley replaced his former protege on the bench and engineered Miami's march to the 2006 championship.
But the Heat have gone 59-105 in regular-season games since, the second-biggest two-year fall by a championship team in NBA history.
Riley started his head coaching career with the Los Angeles Lakers, winning a championship in his first season with a team led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He also took the New York Knicks to the NBA finals before coming to Miami in 1995, where on the day he was introduced he famously talked about envisioning a championship parade down Biscayne Boulevard.
Eleven years later, that vision became reality.
“I've worked for a great leader, a Hall of Fame coach and someone who's been a great mentor to me for 13 years,” Spoelstra said. “It's been a great relationship.”
Riley told the story this week of his final pregame speech. He talked to players that night about the movie Forrest Gump, particularly the portion where
Tom Hanks' character spends three years running around the country for no particular reason.
“He was leaving his past behind him. And that's what we have to do,” Riley said. “I'm leaving mine behind me. I'm leaving last year behind me. It's been a wonderful experience and it's been a great journey. Now it's Erik's.”