Legend leader Pat Riley, equal parts shaman and mobster, told this story at the Heat’s Family Day, symbolically enough. He was trying to explain with a parable why he — and, by extension, the entire Miami Heat organization — had so publicly told Boston general manager Danny Ainge to shut the bleep up. Family Day. Shut The Bleep Up. Seriously. Riley was not smiling in any way while reliving this.
The Heat prides itself on the idea and the importance of family. It was the biggest part of the pitch to LeBron James in the recruitment three years ago. Sometimes that can mean family, as in very loving. And sometimes that can mean family, as in very mafia.
Ainge had said James should be “embarrassed” about how he complains for calls to the refs. So Riley, Miami’s boss, decided to take Boston’s boss out in a message-sending way that would be heard by all the other crime families across sports. It was the equivalent of a public hit, but no one ever heard Riley say the angry words himself. No, Riley protected the family by sending out a spokesman to tell Ainge to shut the bleep up, as if the Heat were putting this on company letterhead, in the voice of the organization, and as if the head of the Heat couldn’t be bothered to address this nuisance in public himself.
This not only fell somewhere between remarkable and unprecedented but had also been approved from on high, Heat owner Micky Arison saying, “I thought it was terrific. Couldn’t have said it better myself.” So here was Riley at the Heat’s Family Day, as little kids ran and screamed, and the smell of food filled the air, and all the Heat players brought their own families to mingle with Heat fans, using an old parable to explain what had been done:
As a rite of passage, a young warrior was once sent blindfolded deep into the wilderness. He was to spend the entire night awake on a stump, alone in the wild and alone with his fear. All night, unseen terror approached from every angle, noises growling and eating and fighting and fear being fed. But when sunlight came, the young warrior had survived his fear and the wild, and he was so much stronger and braver from the conquest of both. He never did see that, standing silently behind him the entirety of the evening, was the leader of the tribe, with a bow and arrow perpetually locked and loaded.
To really understand this Miami-Chicago series, which is like watching a lit fuse travel to its inevitable explosion, tiny sparks here and there on the way to something you know will reverberate bigger and louder soon, you have to hit rewind. Not just to the end of March, when the bullying Bulls kept Miami from history by snapping a winning streak at 27 games with what a complaining James said afterward were “not basketball plays.” But all the way back to the very beginning of this Miami experiment, to the recruitment of James, and what the Heat promised him, and whom the people were doing the promising.
James is a child star from a wayward single mother, a prodigy who even now is rarely alone because he finds comfort/love in surrounding groups, and the Heat salesmen pitching him on the merits of South Beach were all made Miami men. There was the coach who began as a video coordinator (Erik Spoelstra). There was the former star who retired and thought he was dying before returning to win a championship here (Alonzo Mourning). There was the salary-cap savant who had been with the team since it was born (Andy Elisburg). There was an actual father and son (Micky and Nick Arison). And there was the basketball legend (Riley). The least Heat tenure walking into James’ life at that moment belonged to Mourning, who had been here only 15 years.
James’ business empire and surroundings were being run by friends. Would he like to come work for a family?
Now look at what is happening on the court all around this majestic talent who has mastered this game. Aging Dwyane Wade, one of James’ best friends in the world, has stepped aside into a complementary role so that this city and this team can belong to James. All over the roster, shooters have taken discounts to play by James’ side, as did Udonis Haslem, who is in charge of enforcement on this family and you can be sure will be felt in this series soon enough. Shut The Bleep Up was a message from on high in the organization’s voice, to anyone listening, that everyone surrounding James in Miami has his back, today and tomorrow and beyond his present contract, and that this family business is growing like love. Reporters covering practice that day say James couldn’t stop smiling as he read stories about Riley’s comments on Twitter while stretching.
“Awesome,” James would call Riley’s words later.
So now here we are today, a broken and valiant and instigating Chicago team doing whatever it can to gain an advantage. Fouling. Pushing. Getting ejected. As Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers argued on the court the other day, Joakim Noah clapped and screamed in their face, encouraging them to keep yelling at each other. Once upon a time, when he was in Cleveland, when he was less serious, James might get distracted by this kind of nonsense. Heck, he once walked right off the free-throw line between shots to confront Noah, who was on the bench and taunting James for dancing too much. But he stood right beside Bosh, Chalmers and Noah during an emotional Game 3, right next to them, and ignored all that empty noise as if he were bored.
You’ve noticed how stoic and composed he is, right? You’ve noticed him pulling hot-headed Chris Andersen out of a fray? James knows that this is the only way Chicago can win, by making Miami do stupid and emotional things. So he gets pushed down, and gets called a flopper by Chicago’s mob boss, and all he does is get up without complaint or anger and explain after the game that he has too many teammates counting on him to retaliate over silliness. Too much family, you might say.
The biggest, baddest warrior in this particular jungle fears nothing now that he has finally taken off that blindfold.
He is emboldened because he sees two things so very clearly as he heads out into the fight:
All that stretches out before him.
And all that is at his back.