'Wild Rice' thrives in Florida
It was late afternoon in southeast Florida, and Mike Rice was settling in by the window of his condo in the region between Delray Beach and Boca Raton as happy hour approached.
"I'm about to make a vodka tonic and enjoy the view," Rice says, poking the needle in slightly to an old friend in rainy Oregon. "I can almost touch the ocean from our place."
Rice and his wife, Kathy, have been Florida residents for about a year, since they made the move from Portland following Rice's dismissal after 26 years as television analyst of the Trail Blazers.
After the Blazers told "The Wild One" they were no longer in need of his services in June 2016, he briefly considered seeking another broadcasting job. But the Blazers had to honor the final year of his contract, "so I could afford to wait and see."
The Rices initially intended to remain in Portland. They had vacationed often in Florida, however, and in October, flew there to find a place to rent.
"All of a sudden, this deal on a place on the ocean came up, and we ended up buying it," Rice says. "The following week, I put our (Portland) condo up for sale, sold one of my cars and then flew back to our new place.
"My wife and I loved everything about Portland, but it was a long way from my kids and grandkids. We see them a lot more now."
Rice, 78, is a native of Detroit who spent time in Pittsburgh before matriculating to Portland. It's safe to say he is having no trouble getting used to his new environs.
"It ain't bad down here in Florida," Rice says. "The sun is out every day. It was 80 degrees today. I play tennis just about every day and golf a couple of days a week. I bike; I swim. Retirement isn't too bad."
And Rice stays in touch with his old team via NBA League Pass.
"I watch every Blazer game," he says. During a recent game, "I was going crazy when the Knicks were coming back after the Blazers had such a big lead.
"I was with them for 25 years. No matter how it ended, I still feel part of the family. I still root for the Blazers."
It ended badly. Rice, Mike Barrett and Antonio Harvey were all fired in a "coup" that caught the trio off guard.
"I was dumbfounded," Rice says. "I had no idea it was coming. I thought we were part of the Blazer family. The management treated us like we were. Our whole lives were based around the franchise and the community. Barrett knew every sponsor. We'd go to events, not because we had to, but because we liked to. It blindsided me."
Rice learned of his fate in a meeting with several executives that didn't include Chris McGowan, the team's president and CEO.
"When I walked into that room, I really thought we were going to talk contract extension," Rice says. "You talk about going from one end of the spectrum from the other. I left thinking, 'Man, I didn't get an extension. I got a new life.'"
If there were a silver lining, it was the fans' reaction to the dismissals, especially those of Rice and Barrett. Rice was like the eccentric uncle who entertained and informed and hopscotched his way through a broadcast, much to the delight of his followers.
The Blazers heard it from the Rice Pack; so did he.
"It surprises me," Rice says. "It's still going on. When I tweet — which is something that keeps me connected — I read the comments that come in after every game, it seems, about how they miss the two Mikes.
"It makes me feel good, it really does. We accomplished something that people remember us for. We might have been let go, but we weren't let go by the fans."
Rice remains in excellent health for a man pushing 80. He had double knee replacement surgery in 2012 and a hip replacement nine months ago.
"The hip is 100 percent now," Rice says. "I feel good. I switched to playing tennis on the clay courts — a little easier on the knees. My tennis is probably better than ever. I don't golf quite as much as I used to. I like to do it well, and my chipping has gone away.
"I have two bikes, one a racing bike I take long hauls on. I keep active very day. You almost have to here in Florida. You wake up, and it's going to be 80 and sunny. What are you going to do, stay inside and watch TV?"
Rice has three children and seven grandchildren. Mike Jr. lives in New Jersey, serving as team tournament director for an organization called "Hoop Group." Daughter Stephanie lives in Denver. Daughter Susan lives in Canfield, Ohio.
"Not that they didn't like Portland, but everybody will come to Florida now," Rice says with a chuckle. "They don't think about the distance. They think about the weather."