SEATTLE — The last time he was here, he wore a cast on one foot and street clothes to the game. He sat behind the Michigan basketball team as it played for the national championship. And when that championship was won, and the buzzer sounded, he ran onto the floor, cast and all, and celebrated in a happy pile of players. The whole world was ahead of Eric Riley in those days. He was a redshirt freshman, an apprentice to glory, just waiting for his turn in the uniform. “I thought,” he says now, “I would be celebrating like that again. Only with me playing.”
The Life of Riley has changed significantly since then. He has a son now, for one thing. He has bills, for another. He is a senior on a team full of superstar sophomores, and his college career is over the next time Michigan comes up on the short end of a score, or when it cuts down the nets a week from Monday in New Orleans. One way or the other, it’s over. Riley hopes for the happier finish, but says: “At this point, life will go on if we don’t win it. I know that now.”
Eric Riley, 22, knows a great many things now. He has these huge, deer-like eyes that dominate his face — they are wide- open eyes — and you wonder if the last four years haven’t been responsible for that. He remembers being stunned that freshman season, when police escorts led the team through Seattle. Police escorts? And all those fans at the hotels, gyms and arenas, just waiting, no matter where the Wolverines went? “How did they know we would be here?” he remembers thinking.
One time, the bus schedule got mixed up, and the players had to take limousines to the arena. “That was really something,” Riley says, shaking his head. “Limousines. Me and Terry Mills, Loy Vaught, Rumeal Robinson, we were all in this limo, going to some practice. I couldn’t believe it.”
A happy pile. A championship.
And then came the real world.
A kid with a baby
Riley got to play the next season, but the team ran out of magic and was eliminated early in the tournament. The following year, it missed the tournament altogether. During that season, Riley learned he was going to be a father. “I was scared,” he admits. He would go to practice and hear teammates worrying about a test or a car and wish those problems were all he had to deal with.
His world was changing. The first time he held his baby, he didn’t know what to do. He was just a kid himself. And then there were bills to pay, and classes to keep up with, and, on top of that, there were these five freshmen who had come along and usurped all of the starting positions. Riley was a junior, ripe in body and skills. He had been second in Big Ten rebounding the previous season. But, suddenly, he was on the bench when the starters were announced.
“Things weren’t the way I expected,” he says.
That he dealt with all this, that he didn’t go off the deep end and say,
“It’s not fair! Why is this happening to me?” is a credit to his ever-developing maturity. Riley is a gentle, soft-spoken soul inside a 7-foot shell. He takes a lot of teasing from his younger teammates because he will let them get away with it, unless it’s something important. Anyhow, Riley is thinking other thoughts now: the NBA, mostly.
A few weeks back, Riley and sophomore Ray Jackson were talking about the NCAA tournament.
“You gonna shave your head like we all did last year?” Jackson said. “Nah,” Riley said.
“Come on, E! You gotta go bald, just once.”
Riley shook his head. “I’m too old for that.”
In your dreams, maybe . . .
Last week, against UCLA, Riley had a disastrous first half. He missed several shots. He was bumped around inside. Frustrated, he tried to get it all back with a single, rim- rumbling dunk. He missed.
“When that happened I said, aw, no! This is bad.”
He eventually took a seat, and he thought on the bench that maybe this would be his last college performance. What a way to go out. Luckily, Michigan won a squeaker.
“In my dreams, we win the championship with me hitting a turnaround jumper at the buzzer,” he says. He smiles, then looks down. “If I’m even in the game at the buzzer. . . . “
His son can talk now. When he watches on TV he says, in baby talk, “Eric Riley.” One day, he will be old enough to shoot baskets with his father. There is that to look forward to. And maybe an NBA career. And all the wonders of the adult world.
So maybe the college thing didn’t reach the heights he imagined the last time he was in this city, that redshirt year of innocence of championships. But he has done OK. He has learned to cope. That’s also part of higher education, isn’t it?
“With all that’s happened,” comes the question, “when this ends–“
He stretches his long arms over his head and smiles, already knowing his answer.
“I’m ready,” he says. Eyes open, as usual.