Pat Riley says Gonzalez had an NBA future

In 2002, after his fifth NFL season, Tony Gonzalez played for the Miami Heat's summer league team. Fernando Medina/Getty Images

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Hours after he reflected on what life would have been like had he pursued professional basketball, Tony Gonzalez stopped a reporter in the hallway to clarify his stance on the matter.

"I could have played in the NBA," said the Atlanta Falcons tight end -- who will play two more NFL games before retiring -- with determination in his tone. "I would have put up 1,000 jump shots a day. I've got that type of work ethic."

The 6-foot-5 Gonzalez, a former two-sport standout at Cal, admired Charles Barkley and would have had to develop a Barkley-type game to thrive as an undersized force. And although Gonzalez obviously made the correct career move by sticking with football -- he's the most prolific tight end in NFL history -- the 37-year-old often wonders what life would have been like had he pursued his hoop dreams.

"I think about it all the time," he said last week. "Especially my fifth year [with the Kansas City Chiefs], when they franchised me, and I went over to Miami to get my internal question answered, 'Could I play in the NBA?'"

Gonzalez played on the Miami Heat's summer league squad in 2002 as part of a roster that included longtime NBA players Caron Butler, Rasual Butler and Mike James. Gonzalez played 29 minutes in two games, scored three points and collected 11 rebounds.

"After leaving there, at least in my mind -- ask Pat Riley or Stan Van Gundy and maybe they'll tell you that 'Hey, there's no way he could have ever played' -- but I think I could have been on a team."

James, an 11-year veteran who was released by the Chicago Bulls on Monday, was impressed with Gonzalez's skills.

"Tony was really good," James said. "He was tough. Rebounding was his forte: defense and rebounding."

Riley, now the Heat's president, coached the team back then along with assistants Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra, the current head coach. Riley -- whose assistants coached the summer league games -- recalled that folks thought it was a publicity stunt when Gonzalez was added to the roster.

"I'll never forget those guys showing up at the gym, the summer league team, with one of the true professional, world-class athletes of all time," Riley said of Gonzalez. "You could just see the difference in Tony's demeanor, in his behavior, his approach, how hard he played and his attention to detail.

"And I said, 'What are you doing here?' And he said, 'Listen, I want to play.' He was, at times, dominant in practice. I didn't get to see him in games. He was a great rebounder. He had a nice medium-range jumper. He could really defend. I just love the fact that he was here."

Riley had a better appreciation for Gonzalez's story based on his own two-sports background.

"I was a quarterback in high school and I was a very good quarterback," Riley said. "I decided to play basketball [in college], but I also got drafted by the Dallas Cowboys and went down and had a meeting with Tom Landry, Gil Brandt and Tex Schramm. They wanted me to come and play with the Cowboys right out of Kentucky. And I never played football in college.

"Back then, they had a theory that basketball players could make very good defensive backs. So I actually considered playing in the NFL. But I'm glad I didn't. And I'm sure Tony right now, after his incredible career, is probably glad that he didn't play basketball."

Gonzalez, who averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in three seasons at Cal, has played in non-NBA sanctioned pro summer basketball leagues in California throughout his football career, and was approached in the past to play overseas in the Philippines and Japan. He said he averaged about 20 points per game in those leagues.

Riley said the Heat never considered bringing Gonzalez to training camp, simply because the organization knew it wouldn't be able to get him to quit football. Regardless, Riley firmly believes Gonzalez could have played in the NBA.

"Greatness in any sports comes with world-class conditioning and world-class talent, and that's why Tony has been who he is all these years," Riley said. "In the NBA, it's the same thing.

"He would have had to have been an off-guard, but the game was a little bit different back then. If he ever would have pursued it, I think he would have been a 10-year pro."

Seventeen NFL seasons seemed to work out just fine for Gonzalez.