Pat Riley turned 65 years old in March, the retirement age for most but apparently the age of reinvention for him.
Just when Riley seemed to be on the verge of fading into professional irrelevance, buried under the weight of a pile of mistakes and a bitter fan base, he executed an unprecedented triple play, as he calls it, positioning himself for a climactic final act of a six-decade career that resembles the finale of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
As the model of his own standard, Riley has long been a target for satire with his slicked-back hair, Armani dress code and a motivational intensity that could exhaust a robot army. But NBA people who dismissed him as a pretty-boy ex-player and Magic Johnson’s house man in the 1980s and wrote him off as a Miami burnout case not all that long ago must now concede that he is an unparalleled multi-generational titan of the world’s greatest game.
This is vindication.
Riley’s unrivaled summer of 2010 truly started with the summer of 2004.
There was no elaborate plan for the Heat to woo LeBron James and Chris Bosh back then. Instead, that’s when Riley got Shaquille O’Neal to sign a $100 million, five-year contract. With that one move, costly as it was, the Heat had become instantaneous NBA royalty. The very next season, only an ill-timed strained Dwyane Wade rib muscle denied the Heat its ultimate goal. But a championship followed the season after. Riley believed another dynasty was on the way.
The team quickly got old. Fat. Unmotivated. Undisciplined. Ultimately embarrassed in a first round playoff shutout.
Things had to change. Desperately.
In an effort to pull out from under the abyss, Riley made a series of questionable decisions which crippled the organization. Unable to salvage its former glory, the Heat unceremoniously traded O’Neal in February 2008, they were quickly the NBA’s worst team, and Riley soon after realized that the bloated contracts the Heat had been accumulating would keep his team from having any real money to spend until the summer of 2010.
The intervening years were a monumental struggle. Riley stood idly by as a once-proud roster was slowly and effectively depleted of its talent. He seemingly couldn’t adapt. Couldn’t adjust. He was getting old. His philosophies outdated. His rants tired. His trades awful. His draft selections even worse. He seemingly had no idea what he was doing.
Wade was unhappy. Fans were angry.
But there was method in his madness. Every deal he struck was made with summer 2010 in mind, not wanting to take on any contract that would eat into the team’s valuable cap space for that fateful summer. It was a strategy that infuriated Heat fans who refused to waste prime years of their Hall of Fame shooting guard’s career.
It was a strategy that Riley himself struggled with at times. In the summer of 2007, he nearly killed the dream when he offered contracts to Milwaukee point guards Mo Williams and Charlie Bell; the Bucks thankfully retained both. In the summer of 2008, he signed James Jones to a contract that could have killed the dream. In the summer of 2009, he offered Lamar Odom a contract that would have killed the dream.
But here we stand.
After three long years of preaching patience in the face of uneasy failure, Riley has become the face behind the most brilliant plan in NBA history — a dream scenario even he never thought possible.
Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh will each be wearing a Miami Heat uniform in October, a trio of All-Stars and Olympic teammates that rivals anything from Magic, Kareem and Worthy of the “Showtime” Lakers to the Bird, McHale and Parish of the original “Big Three” era Celtics to M.J., Pippin and Dennis Rodman of the best-ever Bulls.
Whether the earth-rattling move was the result of a longtime scheme hatched by James and Wade, the product of a masterful strategy implemented by Riley, or the synergistic power of the Creative Artists Agency, which represents the Heat’s principal characters in the story, is at this stage irrelevant.
Riley cleared the money. He created the structure. He developed the culture of family.
He leveraged his own experience. Talk of titles wasn’t just idle talk with him. He lived it. He had the rings to prove it. Seven of them, in fact, as a player and coach.
And that’s what Riley sold James and Bosh on. Come to Miami, he said. Win championships. Make history.
In James’ case, Riley brought his proof. A bag of championship rings.
Rings and family. That’s what he talked to James about for the better part of three hours, sitting at opposite ends of a conference room table that held nothing but seven championship rings on top of it.
When that meeting ended, he and Arison walked out of the room, confident that James was coming to Miami.
A week later, the deal was done.
“Blood, sweat and tears, all that as a family. And that’s what I’ve always been a part of my whole life,” James said. “That’s always, since I was a kid, what I always seeked. And when I heard that from Pat and from Micky, it was, that was kind of like the icing on the cake for me.”
James paused. “And the rings were pretty cool. I need a few of those.”
Riley played with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West. He coached Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He coached Wade and Shaq. Now, as an executive, he’s brought in LeBron James and Chris Bosh. He leveraged his championship legacy and Hall of Fame ties to deliver what could be the most talented trio in league history.
Wade. Bosh. And, in a stunner, a two-time league MVP in James. All together on one team, his team, basketball’s best in 2006, basketball’s worst in 2008, and now basketball’s most feared for years to come.
Love him or hate him, few can argue that in a league filled with movers and shakers, Riley moves the needle like no other. He’s done it for decades.
Act VI – decade six – is just beginning. It could be his best of all.