Forty-five years in the NBA, a life given to professional basketball, have given Pat Riley a perspective that lends ultimate authority. Add his natural charisma, the quality of his oratory skills and his knack for parable and story telling, and appreciate that listening to Riley for 52 minutes straight, as we did on Thursday, can be mesmerizing – close to spell-binding.
It’s as if you have wandered into a wonderfully acted one-man play, a Broadway soliloquy. Or stepped into a sermon by the master preacher/sage from whom Joel Osteen might have learned his trade.
“You want to trend something?” Riley began his annual post-mortem news conference. “I’m pissed!”
A warm chuckle rolled among the congregation of gathered media in an interview room within the Heat’s downtown arena.
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Had they passed around an offering plate at the end of his near-hour at the pulpit, most of the media would have been tithing. I’m sure a few of my swooning brethren had to stifle a “Hallelujah!” or two. And I suspect most Heat fans listening live on the club’s website also were nodding approval as Riley staged what amounted to a deftly delivered, deftly disguised pep rally.
“I think everybody needs to get a grip!” Riley advised.
The Heat’s club president and architect is so good he can even scold you and it tastes like sugar.
“Media, Heat players and organization, all our fans – we got to get a grip!” he said.
Riley, rightly, was suggesting that four consecutive trips to the Finals resulting in two championships is rare air to be breathed deeply, savored and appreciated.
He recited the numbers on several dynasties throughout NBA history, including a Spurs team that just won its fifth championship over the past 17 seasons.
“What’s the math there? Means they didn’t win 12 times,” Riley said. “This stuff is hard. You have to stay together if you got the guts. You don’t find the first door and run out of it. You got to deal with it. You have to come back.”
The man was addressing the media, but he was speaking to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Miami’s best bet to keep this championship contention going is Riley’s skill not just as a basketball man, but as the closer who must now convince the Big 3 this thing is still trending upward – just getting started, really. Not for nothing does he command $50,000 and up (usually much more) for motivational speeches.
Riley could sell space heaters on the equator. I mean that in a good way. He is that convincing. It would be 115 degrees out, but Riley would flash his championship ring at you, spin a parable, quote some poet, and you would buy a space heater. Also, a blanket.
Riley, 69, loves to convey a point via outside means – “Books, lyrics, quotes, messages,” he said – and mentioned Thursday that he and wife Chris had spent the previous evening sipping Johnny Walker Blue and listening to music (which he prefers on old-school vinyl LPs, by the way).
He referred to the 1981 James Ingram song, Just Once, and its lyrics.
You could apply them to the Heat’s current situation. (Then again, after enough Johnny Walker Blue, you could probably apply anything to anything).
“Wondering if we want to stay, or head on out the door,” croons Ingram.
“Find a way to stay together,” he sings.
I asked Riley his degree of optimism that the Big 3 of LeBron, Wade and Bosh, who all can become free agents this summer, all will re-sign and be back with Miami.
“I’m an Irish guy. I’m optimistic,” he said. “There isn’t a better place for players to be than in Miami. They’ve invested heavily in this city and changed dramatically here.”
He mentioned all the marriages and kids, even revealing that LeBron’s wife, Savannah, is due with their third child, a daughter. Riley mentioned the community bonds, the friendships, the reasons beyond basketball why the Big 3 might stay intact.
“However we can keep those guys together, whatever it takes, that’s our objective,” Riley said. “We need to retool, we don’t need to rebuild. But, everybody, just get a grip. This has been a great run. What cements a forever bond is going through what we went through this year and staying the course.”
He said he hopes the four years with LeBron here “turns into another eight or 10.”
Four years ago in forming the Big 3 Riley displayed his various NBA championship rings on a table to impress LeBron and Bosh during the recruiting process. This time he hopes the four straight Finals and two titles will sell themselves.
“I’m not dropping championship rings on the table again,” he said Thursday. “They can drop their own.”
It was a polished, money quote. “I made you a champion,” it said. It is recyclable in some form for any future speech to any Fortune 500 gathering.
In his 19 seasons in Miami Riley has proved to be the most accomplished and decorated coach/executive in South Florida sports history. Only Dolphins icon Don Shula would merit the same conversation.
That track record and pedigree is what allows Riley to reference “staying the course” and have it received with trust, and faith. When he pledges his own faith in Wade and in point guard Mario Chalmers, you almost feel guilty for ever having doubted.
At the same time, there is pressure on Riley, even if he said Thursday he feels none, to give coach Erik Spoelstra the improved roster it will take to win another championship.
Riley referred to adding a major star (like Carmelo Anthony) to create a Big 4 as a “pipe dream.” And simply having the Big 3 back might not be enough, especially if Wade, 32, continues to suffer health issues and general, gradual decline.
“He’s too smart, too good, too talented to not be able to be a major contributor for years to come,” said Riley of Wade – but how much of that is one man’s loyalty and admiration? “Dwyane is a Heat for life. I’d be very surprised – with him, especially – if he were anywhere else but in a Heat uniform next year.”
Reality, though, is that Miami lost the last three games to San Antonio by a combined 57 points and in doing so looked “inept” (Riley’s word), and, “like a team that wasn’t very good.” Reality too is that, in the Finals, after LeBron and Bosh, the Heat starters were a guy who looked old and tired (Wade), a point guard of plummeting stock (Chalmers) and a fifth starter better suited to a reserve role (Rashard Lewis). The best reserve, Ray Allen, turns 39 in July. The bench was thin.
In other words, even if the Big 3 all return – a likelihood – the Heat will still need a healthier, reinvigorated Wade, smart additions elsewhere and a recommitment to defense to call themselves better.
But that’s getting too far ahead. For now, for Miami, it all starts, all over again, where it started four years ago:
With Pat Riley in charge.
In charge of the blueprint and of keeping LeBron James at the hub of it.
In charge of closing the deal.