This is the 12th instalment in a periodic series called Catching Up.Taylor Allen retells the stories of Manitoba sports icons while also providing an update on what they're up to today.Have a certain sports figure in mind? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestion.
As a member of five (yes, five) halls of fame, you'd think Martin Riley's students at Miles Macdonnell Collegiate would know their teacher is a basketball legend.
Last week it was announced Riley — who's already enshrined in the Canada Basketball Hall of Fame, Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, Manitoba Basketball Hall of Fame, and Manitoba High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame — has been inducted into the Canada West Hall of Fame for his stellar five-year career with the University of Manitoba Bisons.
Riley, 65, teaches psychology, law, and geography, but maybe he should be giving history lessons instead.
"I had a kid message me today. I think he plays basketball a bit. He's a student and he's got a little basketball picture and he messaged me and said 'Hey Mr. Riley, congrats! I didn't know you were a hooper,'" Riley said with a laugh.
"But you know, I don't have to tell anybody. It's not my style. I know what I did."
For people familiar with local basketball history, they know not only was Riley a hooper, but one of the best to ever come out of the province. A three-time All-Canadian for the Bisons between 1973-78, Riley led the Herd to a national championship in 1976 and was named the top player in the country. But Riley had made a name for himself before he set foot on the U of M campus. After Riley and the Sisler Spartans went 35-0 en route to a provincial title in 1973, the 5-11 point guard from the North End was named to the Canadian senior men's national team at the age of 17.
Riley vividly remembers how legendary Team Canada coach Jack Donohue told him he had made the team.
"He goes 'Martin, you're not tall.' And in my mind, I'm going 'Duh.' And he said, 'You're not that fast' and I'm going 'Yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm not.' And then he said, 'You're not that quick, you don't jump, you shoot the ball OK, but I really like how you play defence, though.' So I'm thinking 'OK, I'm cut' because he went through all these things that I don't do," said Riley, who also went on to win back-to-back senior men's national titles with Nicolett Inn (1979-80).
"But then he said 'You play really good defence, you take care of the ball, and you understand the game. I'm going to take a chance on you. We'll see where it goes.'"
Riley made up for everything he lacked with his intense work ethic. He recalls a time at Sisler in Grade 10 where coach Gary Grubert walked into the gym and told Riley to work on his left hand. Riley asked for how long and Grubert told him to stick with it until he got back.
"He forgot about me. He came back about 45 minutes later, no lie, and there I was, working on my left hand," Riley said.
"I didn't move. He said 'You're still doing that?' And I said 'You told me to wait until you got back.' I follow instructions real well. Later he told me that's when he knew that I'd be good."
But Riley pushed himself even if a coach wasn't there to bark orders.
"I had my first beer in high school because I said if we won the championship, I'd drink a beer. So, I had one beer. And then I punished myself that night by doing a billion crunches, push-ups, and dips," he said.
He didn't slow down with the Bisons. Riley was known for being the first to arrive at the gym and the last to leave. He'd get there hours before everybody else, sometimes he'd even jog to Bison East Gym from his home in the other end of the city, and he'd stay for hours, doing everything from positional drills to running stairs.
"I wanted to get out of the house," he said.
"I did not want to go home. Single mom, five kids, there wasn't a lot there. No fault of my mom's, that's for sure."
Donohue's gamble paid off as the Winnipegger became a standout in red and white. Riley represented Canada at the 1974 and 1978 FIBA World Championships, the 1975 and 1979 Pan Am Games, the 1977 and 1979 World University Games, and helped the team to a fourth-place finish at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Canada's men's basketball squad would also qualify for the 1980 Moscow Olympics and Riley was named the team's captain. But Riley and his teammates had the opportunity taken away from them. To protest the Soviets invading Afghanistan in 1979, the United States boycotted the Games and Canada was one of many countries to follow suit.
It's been over 40 years since he went through that heartbreak, but before you can even finish asking the question, just mentioning 1980 will elicit a disgruntled "Oh God."
"We were good. I think we (would have) won a medal. I'm telling you. Leo Rautins was on the team. Oh my God, we were good," said Riley, who played professionally in Argentina for two seasons.
"The Americans weren't going to be there so that freed up a spot... Donohue told us we could do one of two things. One, we could scream to the papers and complain, or we could silently take it, be disappointed and come back stronger when things resume. Then he said, 'But understand, either way you handle it, you will not go.' Hey, it didn't matter what we said, we weren't going."
Four years later, Canada would qualify for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and Donohue wanted Riley to be a part of the team. Riley was the head coach of the Bisons at the time and had to decline the offer.
"If the U of M had let me, I would've gone in 1984. Donnie said 'I want you on this team.' The U of M said 'Hey, you can go, but then you don't have a job.' So, then I chose my job, but they fired me a year later. That was really good," said Riley, the Bisons coach from 1981-84.
"The thing is, for me, I feel like I should have been in three (Olympics), not one. But in 1980, man, I tell ya, the government had all these sanctions and the moment the Olympics were over, they lifted them all. We were a pawn... So, does it grind me? Yeah, when you bring it up. Anyways, there you go. I vented. I'm going to have a drink now. Maybe two."
Riley didn't get the perfect sendoff to his playing career, but it didn't put a damper on his love for the game. He coached Miles Mac to a pair of varsity boys provincial titles and went on to start the Winnipeg Wolves basketball club in 2006 and is now in charge of the girls' program.
Considering how far Riley made it in basketball despite his stature and humble beginnings, there's likely no better example for the next generation of local hoopers.
"You know something, you can do more than what you think if you just work hard and think the game. You've got to think it, too. You can't just be a hard worker. You can't just run through the wall 10 times to show how good you are. You have to be able to work hard and think at the same time and then you can get by."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.