This was the king, laid low. Pat Riley is regal at all times, stately, a diplomat’s bearing and air, whether swathed in Armani or dressed down. But this was Riley, on Saturday, in the midst of his saddest offseason, humbled and hurt.
His hair was a silvery gray, undyed. He looked tired.
“Obviously, from my standpoint and from the team’s standpoint, we’ve had a tough summer,” he began a 50-minute media session. “Period.”
Riley has suffered larger losses that were noisier nationally, yes, such as unexpectedly seeing LeBron James bolt just two summers ago. And he certainly has overseen far worse seasons, for sure, than the one his Miami Heat concluded in May.
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But this was the July of the 1-2 blow of losses both professional and personal.
This was the summer when he marshaled all of his championship rings and charm, rolled out all of the Hall of Fame résumé and oratory sway, and none of it was good enough to boat the whale Kevin Durant, who opted for Golden State.
Mostly, this was the summer he let Dwyane Wade go.
“When you get a chance to win, you gotta win,” he said of being in the room with Durant. “We didn’t do it.”
But that didn’t hurt him down to the bone or leave him feeling regret like watching Wade leave for the Chicago Bulls last week after 13 seasons in Miami. That was personal. Riley admits he wishes he had played a bigger and more direct role in making sure Wade stayed.
“What happened with Dwyane floored me,” he said. “What I had planned for him and how I saw the end here with the Heat, it’s my responsibility to make that happen. I didn’t.”
Riley admits it wasn’t ultimately a money issue with Wade, and that he as club president probably could have done more to show Wade how much the team wanted him to stay.
“I have a great regret I didn’t put myself in the middle of it and totally immerse myself in the middle of it,” he said. “Get in a canoe and paddle to the Mediterranean [where Wade was vacationing] if I had to. Or meet him at the airport [when Wade and owner Micky Arison met in New York]. I wasn’t in the middle of that negotiation, and that’s my job. He’s the asset, the star, the face of the franchise. I should have tried to do everything I could have verbally to try to change his mind. But there’s no do-overs in this thing. It’s been a sad week for [wife] Chris and I.”
Riley has not spoken with Wade since he left but said he is in the process of “crafting a very long email to him.” There are no bridges burning as there were when James left. Wade said last week, “I will always love Pat.”
Said Riley on Saturday, of Wade: “I wish him nothing but the best. If I saw him right now I really believe it would be a warm embrace.”
Wade leaving the Heat may be the most seismic departure in South Florida sports history. Yet Riley spoke of a life-goes-on tone. One cannot dwell when there is a new roster, a new season ahead.
“The process never changes,” as he put it. “Faces do. People come and go. But the machine keeps rolling down that track.”
Riley could not offer any new assurances on the health and availability of Chris Bosh, who has seen two consecutive seasons interrupted by a blood-clots issue and still is not medically cleared by Heat doctors to play. Riley acknowledged a managed comeback, such as Bosh returning with a limited workload or travel schedule, might be considered.
“It’s always fluid. It’s a sensitive, complicated situation. But it’s a positive environment with Chris and our doctors,” Riley said. “Chris wants to play and, obviously, we would be open to that. But on today, the 16th, there’s not an answer. I wish I could give you one. By August, September we’ll have a lot more information.”
The continuing question over Bosh’s future, the gamble on a big contract for the mercurial Hassan Whiteside, the wisdom of matching a competing offer to keep Tyler Johnson with money that might have been used instead to help re-sign Wade — these are hovering issues that will affect the coming season and beyond, and in turn shape the final chapter of the Heat’s Riley era.
Riley feels better about the team than many Heat fans might. He likes the young nucleus of Goran Dragic, Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Johnson, with Bosh what he calls “the X-factor.”
Riley said, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that we can compete for a playoff spot.” He describes “a very young, athletic team and still being in the game” for a major free agent next summer. Maintaining that flexibility was a large factor in ultimately letting Wade go.
He called that his “fiduciary responsibility to keep us in the game to have a shot and be in the room with a Kevin Durant,” adding, “I’m always looking for that opportunity, and that’s what we’ll do again next year.”
Riley’s legacy in the NBA and in Miami is secure. If he retired tomorrow, three championship parades along Biscayne Boulevard and a franchise turned into one of the league’s most respected are what he leaves us.
You know Riley, though. He isn’t done and he can’t coast. Doesn’t know how. If he weren’t still hungry, at 71, he’d have already retired.
This summer proved his fallibility, proved that even this man can’t always get what he wants. But a former amateur boxer knows how to get up.
Riley is the good kind of greedy. He wants one more whale. One more parade. One more hurrah to gild his name and let him retire waving from atop a double-decker bus.
I’m not at all sure it will happen. But neither am I sure I’d bet against Pat Riley.