From his seat, whether at an exhibition game or the NBA finals,
Pat Riley has remained largely stoic this season. His expression
hardly changes, no matter the situation.
But now, the Miami Heat president confesses, the truth can come
out: It’s all a front.
”It’s a harrowing type of thing, when you truly care about
winning,” he said this week.
Fortunately for Riley, this Heat team has won more
regular-season and playoff games than any other in franchise
history, 71 and counting heading into Thursday night’s Game 2 of
the NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat held a 1-0
lead in the best-of-seven series, trying for their second title
after topping the Mavericks in six games in 2006.
Riley masterminded that run and has been the chief orchestrator
for everything since. Miami went from the top of the NBA to the
bottom two years later, winning only 15 games in an injury-plagued
2007-08 season that would be the Riley’s coaching finale.
Structuring contracts a certain way then allowed the Heat to spend
freely last summer when retaining Dwyane Wade and adding LeBron
James, Chris Bosh and others that have Riley on the cusp of another
”I think a community develops a covenant with its team
throughout the course of a season, good or bad,” Riley said. ”The
year that I won 15 games, as much as they disliked it, I really
believed they were there in support of the team and they hoped that
one day, that we knew enough about what we had to do to get to a
day like this today.”
Here they are. If the Heat pull this off, it would be Riley’s
eighth ring: He has five as a head coach, one as an assistant, one
as a player.
”I need a few of those,” James said last summer, when one key
detail of his recruiting meeting with Riley came out.
By now, it’s almost a part of Heat lore. Riley – a winner of
1,210 regular-season games and a three-time NBA coach of the year –
took his rings, put them in a pouch and dropped the bag on a table
in front of James while trying to woo him to Miami. The message
couldn’t have been more simple, a Hall of Fame coach teasing a
future Hall of Fame player with the jewelry he covets most.
Call it a unique form of motivation, which is one of Riley’s
many calling cards.
”If you know Pat, you go into his office, he calls you in
there, and it’s like talking to the Godfather,” Heat coach Erik
Spoelstra said. ”The lights are always dim. He can see you, but
you can’t really see him.”
Spoelstra is the latest Riley pupil become an NBA coaching
success story, from the most modest of NBA beginnings, working in
the Heat video room in the mid-1990s and unsure if his boss knew
his name. Riley watched Spoelstra rise through the franchise as an
assistant, then picked him as his coaching successor in 2008.
In some ways, that’s been both a blessing and a curse. Even this
week, as the NBA finals were set to begin, Spoelstra was asked if
Riley was calling all the team’s shots. The topic comes up on a
fairly regular basis, and earlier this season it was widely
speculated Riley may have to return to the bench and save Miami
after the Heat got off to a 9-8 start.
On this point, the Heat are very clear: That was never, ever
going to happen.
”I use Pat as a resource as much as I possibly can,” Spoelstra
said. ”I think all the other elements are the ones that I’m more
fascinated with. He’s a walking motivational leadership speaker,
and he can pontificate about so many other elements outside of X’s
and O’s. Those are usually our discussions, about how to motivate,
how to manage personalities, how to lead, these type of things that
usually cost people $50,000 to get that type of advice. I just have
to go down the hall and knock on the door.”
It’s believed Riley makes $50,000, or more, when he speaks to
corporations about how to succeed.
On that topic, he would seem to be a bit of an expert.
He’s written books on the subject, he still finds ways to relay
that knowledge to players and he oversees every element of the
basketball-operations side of the Heat, right down to which
motivational quotes will be etched on the walls leading from their
locker room. Even this week, when Riley appeared at an NBA Cares
event and touched the league’s championship trophy, a slew of Heat
players in attendance took immediate notice.
”Coach Riley is very inspirational,” Wade said. ”He’s in the
background, but he’s around often and when he talks, you listen
because of his knowledge of the game. And also, he’s a leader. He’s
the leader of this organization and we respect him. I think he’s
done a great job of putting together a pretty good team and coming
in at the right times when he feels the need to be able to express
Riley retired in name only. The only thing he really gave up is
patrolling the sideline on game nights.
He’s at just about every practice, usually flanked by team owner
Micky Arison and other team executives, sitting off to the side.
He’s known for sneaking up on players when they least expect it and
engaging them in conversations, just telling them what he sees on
the floor. And he keeps an extremely low profile now, trying to not
overshadow Spoelstra and the coaching staff. He rarely gives
Still, when he speaks, it resonates. Riley told fans last season
that the Heat were trying to put together ”a dynasty,” and that
video on the team’s website sent season-ticket demand skyrocketing.
Then he did his part to back up that boast, landing the three
most-wanted free agents in last summer’s NBA player-movement
”Having him around is amazing,” James said. ”To be able to go
to someone if need be, and it’s not always just about basketball,
it’s about anything. We’re blessed to have him around. This
organization is blessed to have him, period.”
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