Dan Le Batard: Pat Riley a witness to LeBron James’ deliverance

I didn’t hear thunder roar

Didn’t see the lightning flash

But I know that He changed my life

and the heartaches in my past

I’m revived and I’m satisfied

know that I’ve been set free

All the joy I have within

He has given me.

“Those lyrics are LeBron,” Pat Riley says.

The legend who sits atop the Heat organization, boss to The King, recently recommended this gospel hymn to LeBron James, a song to commence the soaring. It is titled He Took Away All My Pain, by a group called Sounds Of Blackness, and it is about the liberation from anguish necessary to truly begin the most profound ascensions. Over the years, Riley has consulted with a library of generals and philosophers in search of inspiration, history littered with the lessons found in failure’s rubble. But later in life, as mortality approaches for a sports immortal, Riley has moved away from mere men and gotten closer to God, his journey taking him through scripture and song.

At the miserable end of the miserable end, back in 2011, Riley says he had “a bunch of [expletive] written down” to share with James at their exit meeting. About spending time with a psychologist. About working on a jump hook. About losing weight. And there were an assortment of spiritual nuggets and philosophical quotes, too. But he discarded it all as soon as a hollow, haunted James walked into the room, figuring that what James really needed was just to go somewhere and suffer, alone with his shame.

“He was in a very dark place for those two or three weeks of isolation and hibernation,” Riley says. “There’s nothing like going through it. That is enough. I don’t think, after what he has endured, this man is capable of being broken. He can be down at the depths of personal depression, but now look at him.”

Yes, now look at him. Shooting threes better than Ray Allen. Rebounding better than he ever has. Shooting under 40 percent in only one stinking game this season, a mathematical absurdity for a non-post player. Somehow improving, in other words, even though he was already the best player on the planet. Riley loves acronyms. He gave Dwyane Wade “BIW” after the crowning in 2006. Best In World. He texts Chris Bosh “MVB.” Most Versatile Big. But he pushes James with something larger, comparing him not to any peer today in a peerless world but rather against all of history: BOAT, he calls him. Best Of All Time.

“Is that who you are and who you want to be?” Riley asks. “Is that where you aspire?” Riley knows these things are subjective with artists, especially across eras, but he adds, “All you really want is to be in the argument. It is an incredible accomplishment just to be there. Picasso. Matisse. Donatello. Pollock. LeBron is already in the argument.”

Riley has almost half a century of skin in this game, so much of it spent around greatness. He was on the bench when Jerry West was in the middle of a 33-game winning streak. He held up the trophy with Magic and Kareem. He still has the scars from what Michael Jordan did to him. There was a lot of comparison shopping being done with basketball genius last week, as Jordan celebrated his 50th birthday, which was Sunday, so many ghosts talking as James took his first steps along Jordan’s path. Although no one seems to remember it, his 6-0 record in the NBA Finals an excellent amnesia, Jordan was scalded, too, before he ever won — ball-hog, can’t win the big one and all the usual nonsense. So last week James was talked down to by the ghosts and the gods, Jordan and Magic comparing him unfavorably even to contemporary Kobe Bryant, Jordan saying five championships trumps one. But Riley, for one, thinks we are witnessing someone in Miami who has no precedent.

“I’ve seen runs that have opened my eyes, but this is different,” he says. “I think people really miss the point with LeBron. There’s a possibility he may be smarter than all of them, maybe the smartest player ever. He has watched all of them, sincerely studied all of them, benefitted from what came before. And he has become a hybrid of all of them. At 6-9, 260 pounds, he has taken a piece of everyone’s game. That’s what history does. He has got everyone in him. He’s a better ballhandler than all these guys. He delivers the product in a way we haven’t seen before. Athleticism, strength, power, force — we’ve never seen this explosiveness in anybody.”

Riley pauses here, armed with almost half a century’s worth of basketball perspective.

“Kobe and Jordan, you can’t compare them to LeBron,” he says. “LeBron has no similarity with anybody, I don’t think. Not that I’ve seen. Ever.”

He took away all my pain,

and He gave me joy

because of His sacrifice

I’ve forgiven

No more will I be afraid

I found my love

He turned my darkness to light

He took away all the pain in my life.

Riley has seen a small change he doesn’t think is so small now that the pain is but a memory and the ascension has begun as if accompanied by gospel choir.

“Have you watched LeBron in the first quarter and even before games?” he asks. “He’s so ready to play. So ready. He’s not throwing [expletive] in the air. He’s insatiable. There’s no contentment there. He wants the game to hurry up and start.”

As if he can’t wait to get to his destiny, greedy about greatness. Riley compares this to the James who arrived here ready for a party and coronation in 2010.

“Maybe too frivolous,” he calls that James. “I don’t mean that in a negative way. I just think 2010 — that loss, that [season], his introspection, his education — has brought him here, and now we all get to find out how far it will take him. He’s more mature in game and in approach. We’re seeing something truly enjoyable, above and beyond anyone else’s performance. We’re seeing it so often that it is becoming who he is. Routine. I’m not taking that for granted. I’m not dismissing his greatness by calling it routine. But he’s making it look routine, and it is his routine. When you get to his level, you are raising the bar.

“The great John Wooden used to say it is what you learn after you know it all that counts. You never figure it out, but you do get to another level of efficiency. He made it through the darkest of the dark, and he came out the other side. Michael didn’t ever feel like he was going to win after seven years. You have to reach absolute failure with people worrying about you for the resiliency of the competitor to really be revealed.”

Riley has been doing a lot of work with our military, honoring soldiers before each home game for years now. He reaches for a letter he received recently from a member of a special-ops unit. He doesn’t want to compare basketball to war, but he says the soldier and James prepare the same way for the fight. “So highly trained, so skilled, so efficient when given an assignment.” In the letter, the soldier has quoted from the Bible for his mission, book of Isaiah, Chapter 6, Verse 8, about the mentality of the elite and the ordained: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”

There are a lot of religious overtones in the worship around James, from his Witness sneaker campaign to the Chosen One tattoo that stretches across the expanse of his back.

Speaking for his prodigy, Riley says this on behalf of a liberated James as history beckons in the distance:

“Here I am, America. Here I am, basketball world. They sent me.”

I don’t claim to be the best saint

but I’m not what I used to be

If He can make a change in me

He can do anything

It’s because of His love

I celebrate a brand new life

full of miracles and blessing

I’m free from toll and strife.

Read more Dan Le Batard stories from the Miami Herald

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