Pat Riley met with the Lakers about succeeding Phil Jackson as coach in 2004, a job that ultimately went to Rudy Tomjanovich.
Why didn’t Riley, then and still the Heat president, return to Los Angeles?
On his end: The Lakers’ approach to the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant feud.
“We sat and we talked about the team,” Riley says. “And I remember the one conversation that came up and I asked them the question, I said, ‘What about Shaquille and Kobe?’ And they said . . . ”
Riley pauses, as if conjuring the tension of two decades earlier between O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
“They really didn’t want to talk about it,” he says of the meeting with the since-deceased Lakers owner. “And I said the only way that I could come and coach the team is they give me a chance to put these two back together, to build this relationship and to keep this thing going forward, because I thought with their team, and what they had just accomplished, that they could win more championships together in Los Angeles.
“And right after that, we all went upstairs to dinner and that was the last I heard about them wanting me to coach — but they definitely would like to make a trade with us. So I don’t know if he brought me out there to really coach the team, or if he brought me out there to speculate on whether or not we would trade Wade and Caron Butler and everything else. And I said no. But when they called back, when Mitch [Kupchak, the Lakers’ general manager] called back, there is no doubt we had interest and that then formulated into an offer and then a trade that was made for Caron and Lamar [Odom] and Brian Grant with the first-round pick. And we ended up getting Shaq and we ended up getting the championship. “
Lakers management knew better than Riley the depth’s of the Shaq-Kobe feud. Riley had the cachet where maybe the superstars would’ve tried to continue coexisting in Los Angeles. But the divide was real.
As is, it worked out for both sides. Riley greased the wheels on a Shaq trade, which Riley called the best acquisition in Heat history. Shaq helped Miami win the 2006 championship, and Riley has won a couple more titles as the Heat’s top basketball executive. The Lakers stuck with Kobe, brought back Jackson, traded for Pau Gasol and won a couple more titles.
But Shaq, Kobe and Riley joining forces in 2004 is a great “what if?” for the Lakers.