Pat Riley must know he is locked inside a prison of his own design. At 62, he appears destined to finish his Hall-of-Fame career in the bowels of a conference that might be ruled by a man he fired.
No, Riley didn't officially fire Stan Van Gundy in Miami. The Heat president just made the Heat coach uncomfortable enough for Van Gundy to surrender 21 games into the 2005-06 season and trade in Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade for more quality time with the wife and kids.
Van Gundy didn't miss his family any more than he missed it the year before or the year before that. But since Riley offered him no love and support in the workplace, Van Gundy desperately needed more of both at home.
The hostile takeover of his old job complete, Riley went on to steal Stan's championship ring. Van Gundy refused to file any public charges over this first-degree basketball felony. He checked into Riley's witness relocation program, cashed his consultant's paycheck, and waited for a job and a team that would win back his ring.
During happier times, Pat Riley (left) looked to Stan Van Gundy, brother of Jeff Van Gundy and the son of a respected small-college coach, as his right-hand man on the bench. ( / Getty Images)
This morning, Van Gundy's Orlando Magic are 16-4 and in first place in the Southeast Division, 10½ games ahead of Riley's 4-13 Heat. Van Gundy has a team built around a franchise star a few days away from his 22nd birthday, Dwight Howard, a center with a frightening upside.
Riley has a team built around the mummified remains of Shaquille O'Neal.
The Heat still have the surgically repaired Wade, the ultimate guy who gets it. But Wade's professional approach and Everyman demeanor should not be mistaken for weakness. He's not about to waste too much of his prime alongside a broken down and barely interested Shaq. If Miami's roster doesn't significantly improve over time, bet on Wade opting out of his contract in three years.
Riley will probably beat him to the door, because history says he's rarely long for the fight. He followed a 36-win season with a 25-win season before dumping his sorry Heat into Van Gundy's lap, sparing his own career winning percentage another round of nuclear strikes.
But a funny thing happened on the way back to the draft lottery. Van Gundy overcame an 0-7 start and made the playoffs. The following year, after Riley traded for O'Neal, Van Gundy led the Heat to Game 7 of the conference finals.
"Pat was upstairs in a private suite when Stan first started losing," said one NBA source close to Van Gundy. "When the winning started, Pat moved downstairs, closer to the floor. I don't know if Pat missed the coaching as much as he missed the limelight."
Riley drew blood after that Game 7 loss to Detroit, after Van Gundy was accused of failing to secure enough touches for Shaq. The team president declared he would take a more "active participation" in the running of the Heat. Asked if Van Gundy would be his coach the following season, Riley said, "That's a loaded question."
Just not half as loaded as the answer.
Riley didn't realize what he had in Wade when he drafted him. He knew precisely what he had in Shaq when he traded for him.
The big man who could win him his one for the thumb.
Van Gundy was the hurdle separating Riley from a title that would enhance a legacy shaped by Magic Johnson's hands. Everyone knew Stan didn't stand a chance.
"Pat just made every step along the way difficult and challenging for Stan after that," the source close to Van Gundy said. "What Pat would have absolutely detested in a president and general manager is exactly what he became — a second-guesser who wouldn't get out of the coach's way.
"Bosses can make your jobs miserable in many different ways. It doesn't have to be just with a firing. Sometimes they can make you more miserable by keeping you employed."
Riley told Van Gundy he was considering replacing him, but retreated after assessing the extensive public-relations damage he'd likely absorb. In the end, Van Gundy caved to the inevitable. Riley swooped in and scored that parade he'd promised on arrival from New York in 1995.
Van Gundy finally resurfaced last off-season as the lead candidate to coach the Sacramento Kings. But after Billy Donovan bailed on Orlando, the Magic offered Van Gundy a chance to stay closer to home.
Only Riley wanted no part of that. He had enough trouble dealing with his brutal playoff losses to Stan's brother, Jeff. He didn't need another Van Gundy in the same division.
Riley demanded a first-round pick and $1 million from Orlando as compensation. Funny, but in a different lifetime, Riley was furious at the Knicks for demanding a first-round pick and $1 million from Miami when he wanted to run the Heat.
Orlando ultimately convinced the Heat to take the 39th pick and a lottery-protected right to exchange first-round choice. Riley is surely regretting that concession.
The Magic spent $118 million on Rashard Lewis and $85 million on an extension for Howard, who only entered the league predicting he could someday be the equal of LeBron James. He wasn't kidding.
Riley has nothing but an old Shaq and an old Alonzo Mourning to throw at Howard. Like O'Neal, the Heat are in rapid decline. Riley said his team played "an absolute abysmal game" in a recent blowout loss to Denver. He would complain about the "gimmicks" he needed to use to cover for Miami's various defensive flaws.
O'Neal's $20 million wage isn't coming off the books any time soon, so the capped-out Heat won't have any big free-agent bucks to play with in the summer. All in all, Riley and his team are stuck with each other.
Meanwhile, Orlando is having a free-wheeling blast as it challenges Boston for conference supremacy, averaging 104.45 points per game — or 15 points more than the Heat. On Nov. 24, after the Magic beat Miami by a 120-99 count, Van Gundy would say he didn't want his players "trying to win one for the Gipper."
Riley is the one who needs the Knute Rockne speeches now. The aide he fired, Van Gundy, is breaking into the Eastern Conference clear.
Welcome to the back end of Riley's one-for-the-thumb Faustian deal. The Magic are poised to dominate the Southeast Division.
The Heat are poised to watch them.