LeBron James can still make Heat fans leap. Not with glee anymore, while soaring for a slam, but with curiosity and maybe even misplaced hope. It happened again Friday, after his choice of headwear for his post-shootaround interview session in New Orleans started to filter through social media — a “Miami Winners’ cap that came courtesy of an affiliated enterprise, Roll With the Winners.
This, of course, caused some to suggest he might consider coming back someday to rejoin the franchise with which he won his two championships, though that’s a much longer shot than any even Stephen Curry would consider. His stays in South Florida are limited now to a month at most, such as spending September working with trainer David Alexander. In this case, it’s just a couple of days, here with the Cavaliers for the third time since rejoining that organization, trying to win back in AmericanAirlines Arena for the first time.
Yet, if Saturday’s is just a fleeting glance, it’s still worth being a witness, not just because James remains very near the top of the game — averaging 25.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists — but also because his attitude and approach are familiar as ever, more familiar than most of the revamped Heat roster might look to him. He has never embodied the Heat culture, in word and deed, more than now, now that he has been away for a spell.
Simply, he sounds and acts a little more like Pat Riley every day.
This is a striking development, considering how James’ Heat tenure ended. He and Riley were never as close as many assumed, especially by the end; even Riley referred to it as a “texting relationship” during a 2014 free agency news conference that turned into a transparently public plea. Last season, whenever James got word of Riley bemoaning James’ premature breakup of a “generational team,” James would be bemused.
That was true even as James was modeling his culture-creation efforts in Cleveland after what he had experienced in Miami. This season, he’s cribbed enough from the Riley playbook to pen his own unauthorized sequel to The Winner Within.
He has publicly called out Cavaliers teammates repeatedly for lapses in effort and focus, even after victories, bringing to mind Riley’s rules about complacency and “The Disease of Me,” and how a little “temporary insanity” from a leader can get a team into gear.
Further, as was detailed on Cleveland.com, James has called a multitude of meetings to make his seriousness clear. So, now Cavaliers players are no longer riding Hoverboards inside Quicken Loans Arena, nor are they dressing sloppily; the latter James initiative reminds one of how Riley always administered a stricter dress code than the one then-commissioner David Stern eventually mandated for the entire NBA.
Then, in a Sports Illustrated cover story devoted to his obsession with bringing a championship to Cleveland, James spoke of the need to block out any distractions, what Riley might call “peripheral opponents.” James said he tried “to remember what I learned from the great Pat Riley: What is the main thing? Because the main thing has to be the main thing.”
The great Pat Riley?
That was something of a stunner to outsiders, even if it sounded like what Shaquille O’Neal has said, after initially shredding Riley following his trade from the Heat.
Neither Dwyane Wade nor Chris Bosh had seen James’ quote, but neither blushed when informed. Only four players remain from James’ Heat tenure, and none really had the problem with James leaving. They would welcome a thawing in the organizational freeze, if only for a faraway ceremony for their championship collaboration, the one coach Erik Spoelstra always spoke about as they were chasing rings.
“Like your high school team at your 20-year reunion,” Chris Andersen said.
Bosh said he would happy to attend, so long as he was still handsome, with “a salt-and-pepper beard, real nice.” Udonis Haslem, a prime protector of the Heat brand, would be there, too, because “time heals all,” and “nobody understands about being home more than me.”
“Obviously, in the moment a lot of people feel a certain way, feelings get involved,” Wade said. “But there’s a bigger picture — and that’s history. We’re all a part of the history. And there was nothing malicious that was done at all.”
Or, as Bosh put it: “I think what we did was special. We were able to do something generational. And it was awesome. I think as we get further and further removed, I think it will be more special, because we have that ‘what if’ thing going.”
What did he think of James’ comment?
“There will always be admiration and respect, no matter what,” Bosh said. “You can have difference of opinion, you can disagree, you can move on to other situations, but the respect still has to be there. The work is the work, no matter what. Yeah, Pat Riley is great. I think that’s obvious. LeBron is one of the smartest basketball encyclopedia guys I know; he knows about the game. He knows what he means to the game. He knows what Pat means to the game. He knows what we meant to it. That’s something you can’t ever take away.”
You can take something, though. James clearly has.
“I mean, once you see what it takes,” Bosh said, “you have the template.”