Pat Riley is always scouring books and music and life for inspirations, but there is nowhere he finds more joy than in the pit in front of the stage at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Riley calls Springsteen his “pastoral, rock-n-roll spiritual advisor,” so the Miami Heat’s Boss has trailed The Boss all over the globe, attending dozens of his concerts and spending time with Springsteen backstage, just two old immortals crossing paths during their life-long searches for meaning and truth. Riley quotes Springsteen in notes he gives his players and employees, so someone knew to play Springsteen’s “The Rising” for him in the swaying arena as soon as his Heat had vanquished the Celtics, and Riley raised an arm and shook a fist like he does in that pit. On Sunday, as he prepared for yet another team party, Riley was busy having Springsteen’s “Rocky Ground” put over a video montage of this Heat season, and damn if the tears didn’t sneak up on him for the first time.
“I didn’t cry during the game or celebration, not like I’ve done in the past,” Riley says. “It would always be when I saw my wife or my children or a player or a player’s wife or someone I knew cared as much as I did. This time, though, I was just numb. Numb from happiness. I almost lost it a little bit in the locker room when I was with LeBron [James] because of what he has been through. But listening to On Rocky Ground from this new Wrecking Ball album, it is what we have been through, our journey, and it made me emotional.”
His team covered so much rocky ground before finally becoming the wrecking ball. Riley remained mostly silent during the turbulence as the media fired his young coach again and again and traded his players and delighted in questioning his blueprint with unrelenting and unholy noise. Us-against-the-world is a tired athletic cliche, but there has rarely ever been a team that embodied it the way this one did, the critics and doubters not imaginary or invented for motivation but rather loud and lapping against the locker-room doors in wave after unrelenting wave for two straight seasons.
“There were two flash points the media jumped on,” Riley says. “The Decision and The Celebration. They just hung on to that for a couple of years. If it wasn’t that, it would have been something else. They would have fabricated something else. Jealousy and resentment are one thing, but when you envy what someone does, you have to look at yourself as a person. When someone else does something good, you envy them because that's what you’d like to have. There was a lot of that in all the negativity. I told Spo early on, ‘Get used to this. Jump on and get used to this if you are going to be a coach in the modern generation.’ ”
Riley likes the storm. Needs it. He is truly terrible at being satisfied. He doesn’t trust the calm. He wants the water rising and the kingdom on fire, and he’ll make it so even as everyone is floating and feeling safe, especially if everyone is floating and feeling safe.
“I'm past Thursday night,” he says. “It is over. We’ve got the draft coming up.”
So you aren’t like Wade, who has printed up Team No Sleep T-shirts while careening between South Florida parties?
“I’m going to put out Sleep Management T-shirts,” Riley says. “We’ve got a championship in our back pocket. Just one. One of the things you don’t want to do after it is in your back pocket, you don’t want to start reminding everyone how you did it. That is the start of the team on the demise. I remember when we won in 1987, best year we ever had with the Lakers, Mychal Thompson was our Shane Battier. We won the championship, had a great night, celebrated, a really great night, and he was in the weight room at 7 a.m. the next morning. I remember that 25 years later. You don’t want to get too drunk with your success. You don't want to waste a lot of time telling everyone how you mastered it. Simply, euphorically, quietly, enjoy it. That is hard for the contemporary generation today to understand."
Come on, Pat. You sound like an old man telling those partying kids to get the hell off your lawn. Let them enjoy it.
“I will ... for a week,” he says. “We will. Party. Celebrate. They’ve already had three all-nighters. It is absolute joy. They should totally immerse themselves in the good feeling. Share it with family and friends and everyone who stuck with you. Enjoy the golden glow for another week. But it can’t be a party every night all offseason with someone slapping you on the back. They’re beyond famous now. I hope we deal with it how Mychal Thompson did. LeBron met with [Hakeem] Olajuwon last offseason to improve his game. Is he going to do something like that again this year? Is Wade going to do something about his health now that he’s 30? Maybe think of a different night-to-night approach? Is Chris, God bless him, he’s our center? Our best lineup, the one we go to war with, is with him at center. Is he going to be OK with that now that he has won? Now our guys have to get better in the head, and they need to know how to handle and defend the championship, and win more. I'm going to wait about a week, and then I'm going to send them letters and reminders.”
He laughs at himself, softening as he approaches 70.
“Maybe two weeks,” he says.
No one is immune from this shepherd’s tending. You can hear Riley’s voice in coach Erik Spoelstra’s tone and manner, and even the phrases Spoelstra has borrowed from his mentor. Riley was pleased with how his protégé weathered the storms but even his praise is soaked in a warning as he says, “The King has a ring, and this young coach is on the way if he knows how to handle the fame.” Asked to place the run James just had in a historical context, Riley says, “I would say that you don’t want to get into that at all. He simply won his first. That’s all.” Pressed, he adds, “There’s no doubt his performance throughout the playoffs is equal to any of them ever. We have a player who has the ability to go above his norm. And he had to. The best thing about him was, when the chips were really down, and we could have gotten taken out, he really showed everyone one of the great performances in history. But, from an individual standpoint, there is just so much more for him. Now he knows how to do it. Now there is no doubt. He has the formula. Let’s see what he does with it.”
Riley has won so many championships. He lured James initially by dropping all of his rings in front of him. Where does this one rank?
“There is a damn novella with all of them,” he says. “Every one of them is a book — different characters, story lines, dramas, ups and downs. This was the most difficult, though, because, for two years, you simply couldn’t live a normal life. Your professional life affected every part of your normal life. You had to win. There wasn’t a choice. There was just desperation. It had an impact on all of us. Live and die every night because we wanted it so much for this city and these players. Any line of work, any job, one of the things we desperately need from work beyond food and a roof over our heads is self-esteem. Work is the place you get recognition. You develop a community, a network, your own nation where you live. But it is work. And we’ve been through incredible adversity from the outside.”
Did you ever doubt?
“No,” he said.
That doesn’t sound very human.
“I had my concerns,” he said. “It is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. You never know you are going to win the championship until you win it. But I felt like we had a hell of a team.”
They’ve been through a lot together over a decade, Riley and Wade. Wade was taking student loans for diapers at Marquette, and he did a lot of his growing up here, taking pride in being a Dad even while going through a messy and public divorce. Funny thing about that 2003 draft. Riley was going to take Bosh. But the Heat fell a draft spot by winning the last game of a meaningless regular season, Toronto took Bosh, Miami had to “settle” for Wade, and Riley would have them both soon enough. Wade bringing Bosh to Riley.
Riley helped teach Wade to walk so straight and sure that, in 2006, as Riley called plays, Wade improvised, doing whatever the hell he wanted so often en route to the championship, that Riley finally threw up his hands and asked him in a huddle, “How can I help you? Tell me how I can help.” Wade won that championship, and he has been so grateful for how this organization and city has treated him over the last decade that he brought James and Bosh here instead of bolting for his hometown of Chicago when free agency beckoned.
Riley was completely unsurprised that Wade decided earlier this season to finally defer to James with uncommon self-awareness for a star. The Van Gundys say that the hardest thing to coach is an aging superstar because the mirror so often lies to them, but Riley says he didn’t even have to nudge Wade out of James’ way. That kind of decision had to be made by Wade himself for it to come without resentment.
“What Dwyane did was normal for him,” Riley says. “He didn’t have anything to lose. He’s got skin in the game, and he’s had it for a long time. He is one of the most beloved players in the history of this city. He’s invested. He’s gotten all the pats on the back and awards and money and fame. It is easier to serve your teammate who hasn’t gotten the one thing he wants. When you do that, in the end, you are going to be the winner, too. Whatever he gave up, because the team needed it, it is one of the great things that great team players do. Magic did that all the time, gave up his game for someone else. What Dwyane did came very naturally to him. It wasn’t a pain to him. He’s smart enough to know what was needed.”
Wade and Bosh and James have all admitted that, when they were on that introductory stage prancing, they all thought the championships would come easier. But Riley says he never thought that way. He has won enough to know just how hard it is.
“Was this one of those old Laker teams or Celtics teams or Jordan teams? No, it wasn’t,” he said. “When we stripped it down and had only Joel Anthony and Mario Chalmers, and we added the three guys and [Mike] Miller and [Udonis] Haslem and a lot of minimums, we knew we were going to have to make due for a while. Getting Shane Battier was a coup. Even though he didn’t play well during the year, he has a DNA and a way about him that makes everything better. He was right on time. It is almost like all the things during the regular season were just getting ready for that moment. When he got there, he wasn’t going to blow it.”
Riley laughs, ever greedy, always insatiable.
“And that last game Miller had,” he says, referencing Miller’s 7 for 8 from three in Game 5, “he would have had that 15 or 20 times this year if he’d been healthy.”
The ground is no longer rocky, just soaked with champagne, all the obstacles cleared from the path.
There will be a parade on it today.