Pat Riley just turned 70. His hair has gone a natural silvery gray. He is at a point, in life and career, when a man begins to hear his mortality clock ever louder, to a point that reminders from elsewhere are neither required nor appreciated.
“People always are trying to make me older than I am,” he mused with a small smile Monday in his annual season-ending State of the Heat news conference. “They’re trying to ask me, ‘Why are trying to stay around this game?’ I love the game. I love competition. I love the challenge of building this team again.”
Riley is an NBA lifer in his 46th year in the league, and planning for his 21st season in Miami. He may be a newly minted septuagenarian, but he is convinced he has another championship ring – at least one more – in his future.
Do you doubt him?
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We don’t trust much in South Florida sports or have a lot of faith right now, do we?
We don’t trust Jeffrey Loria owning the Marlins.
We have doubts about Dolphins coach Joe Philbin.
We see Panthers hockey forever trying our patience.
We feel eroding confidence in Canes football coach Al Golden.
There isn’t a lot at the top of our sports marquee that has earned our unequivocal trust.
But Riley has.
By his tenure and titles, by his track record, the wily Silver Fox has earned every confidence that the injury-marred, playoff-less season just past was a blip, an outlier. In the triumvirate of Riley, owner Micky Arison and coach Erik Spoelstra, the Heat continues to be the unrivaled model for Miami sports.
“I challenge myself more than anybody else,” he said, “to make sure what happened this year doesn’t happen again.”
Do you doubt he is up to the challenge?
One year earlier, though in June, after Miami’s loss in the NBA Finals, Riley’s theme had been to pointedly challenge LeBron James to stay, saying, “You have to stay together if you got the guts. You don’t find the first door and run out of it.”
Twenty-two days later James found the door marked “Cleveland” and ran out of it.
Monday, Riley obviously was alluding to James and the timing and manner of his departure when he referred to having “no more smiling faces with hidden agendas” to deal with this time. Pressed on that, he attempted a fast backtrack by saying he could have meant “anyone across the board,” though it was obvious who he meant.
I later asked Riley directly if he is at peace with the way James left.
“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “I’m at peace with it.”
I think he was being smarter than he was truthful. In any case Riley is wise to set aside if not bury the LeBron animus, at least publicly, and portray a man not lamenting, but looking forward.
There is much to look forward to.
Center Hassan Whiteside, forwards Chris Bosh and Luol Deng and guards Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic – that is a starting five you can win with. With good health, and added depth including another three-point shooter or two, that is a starting five you can contend with.
“You would like to have seen that team intact for just one game,” Riley said. “We didn’t get to see that. It was a real disappointing year in terms of setbacks.”
Riley portrayed being able to re-sign Dragic as a near-certainty.
“If he doesn’t sign, my [butt] is going to be in that seat next year and I’ll be writing,” he joked, pointing at reporters. “We’re in a very good position to offer him more than anybody else.”
Dragic and Bosh are All-Star caliber. So, still, is Wade, who has shown an ability to offset advancing age with efficiency. Whiteside could become a powerhouse, what Riley called “ a formidable presence in the offense.” Deng is the selfless do-it-all guy every team needs. The return of Josh McRoberts to the rotation will be big. Guys like Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem still fill a valuable role.
There is little doubt that Miami – even with all of the injuries and Bosh’s blood clots and the 30 different starting lineups – still should have made the playoffs but for a late swoon.
“I told Erik [Spoelstra] to go beat himself up for a week,” Riley said, maybe half-kidding, “And if he didn’t want to, I’d help him.”
Riley’s remains a huge Spoelstra supporter and believer, but also an enormous asset.
“I’ve been in that trench before,” as Riley put it. “I see everything. He knows I see everything.”
The club’s president and architect has seen enough, and accomplished enough, that Heat fans should have little doubt he’ll see this franchise back into the playoffs next season, and soon back into championship contention.
It is hard to not have doubts about many of our biggest South Florida sports teams right now.
It is hard to trust and have faith in who is in charge and leading those teams.
Pat Riley makes it easy.