Mike Riordan: Last of the Blue-Collar Pros, 1978

[How about a little Mike Riordan? Iron Mike. Also known to his friends as Bags and Rags. This profile, which appeared in the April 1978 edition of Basketball Digest, comes from the electric typewriter of Paul Attner, who covered Riordan’s Bullets for the Washington Post. I’ve also inserted a Youtube video featuring Riordan during one of his more-productive NBA outings, Bill Russell story-telling in the background. Fifteen seconds into the video, Riordan unwinds a driving hook shot. The sight of it just stopped me. True, there are MANY things that today’s players can do with a basketball that Iron Mike couldn’t come close to topping. But none of today’s dribble-happy Euro-steppers could uncork one of Riordan’s beautiful—and accurate—driving hooks. He was, at the headline states, the last of the grinding blue-collar pros.]


Mike Riordan has made the major decisions of adult life by playing the percentages. So, he didn’t need Jimmy the Greek to tell him that the odds were 100 to 1 against his continuing in pro basketball this season.

“I’ve reached the point of no return,” he said. “Unless someone pops up and tells me that I will be an integral part of a team this year, my playing days are over. I don’t see anyone coming after me now.”

Riordan’s retirement five days before the Washington Bullet veterans reported to training camp wasn’t heady news around the league. But his departure marks the end of an era in the NBA, for he is the last of the true blue-collar players, a rough diamond in the midst of sparkling gems. 

He is the last of a special kind of pro who cared more about fastbreaks than investment reports and who relied more on cunning and guts and sticking that wonderful lantern jaw into the right places than on natural talent. 

When he was drafted by the New York Knicks on the 12th round 10 years ago (behind notables as Bubba Smith, Randy Matson, and Ron Widby), he covered the percentages by lining up a graduate assistant’s job at his alma mater, Providence. It seemed wise, since even his own college coach thought his chances of making the pros ranked below slim and none. 

Now, the percentages had told him to plot out a future in something other than the NBA. That’s why he opened a bar-restaurant, Riordan’s Saloon, last spring in the waterfront area of the capital city [of Annapolis, Maryland]. The place used to be called the Upper Crust, a name that still causes Riordan some embarrassment. “Imagine,” he says, “me being in a place that had a name like that.”

Riordan’s establishment reflects his approach to life. It is comfortable and unpretentious. He sells green T-shirts with “Riordan’s Saloon” imprinted on them, and his idea of a dress code is not having one. The menu is simple, featuring seafood and “good old American sandwiches.” But there are fresh flowers on every table. 

“This is the one major business investment I’ve made,” said Riordan. “I’ve always tried to remember where I came from, even during the high points of my career. I’ve seen too many players leave the game not knowing what to do; it might be the biggest problem in the league right now. 

“I never had any illusions about my talents. I never expected my career to continue for very long. I just got on the train and rode it for as long as I could. I never had the luxury of talent, like a lot of players, so I could always see the end.”

For him, the end has come sooner than expected. At age 32, he still feels he can perform capably, maybe for another year or so. But he doesn’t want to spend another season like the last one, sitting at the end of the bench playing out the final minutes of lopsided games. 

It is remarkable Riordan has lasted this long. At 6-foot-4, he was always at an in-between height for the pros. He was never quite strong enough, never quite efficient enough to remain secure in his job, especially when playing alongside a pure talent like Elvin Hayes. Even when he was on top of his game, the Bullets always were searching for a replacement. When he stumbled, the list of challengers to move him out grew longer: Weatherspoon, Robinson, Grevey, and, finally, Dandridge and Ballard. 

But he shows no bitterness toward the Washington Bullets. Instead, he says the team officials did as much as he could expect when they told him earlier this summer that they probably couldn’t use his services anymore. 

“They were honest, and they let me know where I stood before training camp began,” he said. “It would have been unfair to take me to camp and then cut me the last week. That would take away what zest I had left for the game.”

It was that zest that separated Riordan from most players and made him the darling of Capital Centre fans. He never stopped running, and he never stopped playing the hand-checking, aggressive defense that so irritated opponents. He loved the game so much that his season really never ended. It would just shift from the cavernous indoor areas to some summer outdoor court, where he could keep his legs in shape and practice that moonball jump shot. 

He always looked out of place on the court. His uniform never seemed to fit, and his funny running form made him look like all knees and elbows. 

For a while, he was one of the NBA’s prototype small forwards, a position he learned after coming to the Bullets in a trade with the Knicks six years ago. It was during three wonderful years, from 1972 through 1975, that he scored so many baskets at the end of Wes Unseld’s blazing outlet passes. 

It was also at the end of that era, in the last game of the disastrous 1975 playoff final against Golden State that Riordan had his bleakest moment with the team. Unfortunately, “some people never can forget it.”

With Rick Barry getting away with what Riordan said “was murder with the refs, getting them to call cheap fouls,” Bullet coach K.C. Jones, his team down 3-0 in the series, asked Riordan to give Barry one or two hard checks “to show the refs what a foul really is.”

After the second such collision with Barry, a scuffle erupted. Warrior coach Al Attles was ejected, and Riordan’s image as a mugger was established. Golden State fans still were booing him two years later, and he remains bothered “that people thought I was trying to maim him or cheap-shot him. I wasn’t. I would never do that, even if they wanted me to and fined me if I didn’t.”

Memories of that day, however, are offset in Riordan’s mind by a horde of brighter times, beginning with his school days in Great Neck, Long Island. “I grew up in a blue-caller neighborhood,” he said. “Most of the kids went on to the service or the cops or fire. A small percentage went to college.”

He became part of that small percentage because his parents, who had immigrated from Ireland, pushed him in that direction. He pushed himself into basketball, perfecting his skills on the nearby city playgrounds and then gaining some notoriety as a 6-foot-2 center on his Catholic high school team. 

When he looked toward college, the best offer came from Providence, a school he had grown to love by watching Holiday Festival and NIT games in the old Madison Square Garden. But Providence hedged its bet, giving him only a partial athletic scholarship. It wasn’t the last time the experts waivered when assessing Riordan’s ability.

“I came in with Jimmy Walker,” Riordan remembered. “When we left, he was the first player chosen in the draft, and I barely got picked. I tried out for the Knicks only after I knew I had the graduate assistant’s job at Providence. I thought I had a chance, but I wanted to be safe.”

The Knicks liked what they saw enough to farm him out to the Eastern League. By the next season, he was on the varsity, playing the role of a foul-giver for part of the season before moving in as No. 3 guard. In that position, he helped contribute to the Knicks’ championship season of 1970. 

“Being a part of that team remains the highlight of my basketball career,” he said. “There is nothing like winning a title. It creates a relationship among the players that is hard to describe.”

Which is why he took the trade to the Bullets so hard at first. The Knicks had always been his favorite team, he was a New York native, and he was uncertain of his future. But when the Bullets traded away Jack Marin, Riordan found a second career at forward. 

He also brought his refreshing manner to a team that responded to his devilish personality by eventually making him play representative. He contributed by helping to break the squad dress code. Clothes and Riordan have never gotten along. He hates ties, feels at home in jeans, and relishes the fact “I never need a red cap when I go on roadtrips. Never had so many suitcases I couldn’t handle them myself.”

Although his nickname, Bags, came from his Knick days and a postgame ceremony that included a slightly off-color awarding of game balls for the worst shot of the night, it eventually grew to be associated with a few suitcases he took on trips. 

But when he joined the Bullets, he faced the possibility of needing more clothes. “We still had a rule that you had to wear a coat and tie anytime you appeared in public on trips,” he said. “We had some new players on the team, and we all told (coach) Gene Shue we didn’t own a tie. 

“So, he saw the handwriting on the wall and dropped the rule. I guess I’ve never been one for Superfly outfits and three-piece suits.”

Nor has he been one for watches (“I don’t like to be on schedules”) or gaudy symbols of his status as an NBA star. He’d much rather be a jokester, as any of his teammates will attest. 

Once, he and Unseld attended the film The Exorcist. As soon as he saw that Unseld was wrapped up in the gory action, Riordan excused himself to get some popcorn. “I was really into the movie,” said Unseld. “All of a sudden, I feel this hot breath on my neck and these weird sounds. It scared the hell out of me. I should have known it was him.” 

Riordan talked Unseld into drinking his first beer—“I threw it up all over a hotel lobby”—and constantly tried to make Bullet players believe the most-outrageous things. “It’s hard for me to take things seriously,” he said. 

Except when it comes to those matters close to his wallet. Although it might seem he would be more comfortable doing his own contract negotiation with teams, Riordan signed early in his career with an agent. “I learned quickly that the business aspect is so important,” he said. “I wanted someone who could go in and push my worth, who knew what they were doing.”

Riordan had a unique first choice for his agent: Bill Bradley, who was then in his prime with the Knicks. “Why not?” asked Riordan. “When the team starts saying that you aren’t worth a crap, who would be better to explain to them your strengths than a guy who had to guard you?

“I was perfectly serious. I talked to him about it, and you could see his eyes sparkle. But he finally decided it would be a conflict of interest.”

Now the days when he needs an agent are just about over. He sees himself as a restaurant owner “for a number of years” because he likes the job, even if it means working five long shifts a week. 

“I’ve worked at every phase of this job, from cooking to tenting tables,” he said. “I was a player-coach at first, but now I’m full-time coach here. I guess people expect me to be out front, gladhanding them all the time, but I’ve got too much else to do.”

But won’t you miss basketball? “Hell, yes I love the game, it’s in my blood. But, well, the percentages just aren’t there anymore, so why fight them?”

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