Fifty NBA seasons have rolled past Pat Riley as he awaits the start of the next one. In a lifetime given to basketball -- too literally at times -- he has reached a good place. It has taken him a long time.
“I am finally getting to the point...,” he says, and the thought trails off, but what is at the other end is appreciation. Contentment.
“...My life has been like a walk-off homer,” is how he continues. “At 72, I’m rounding third. There’s a whole bunch of people sitting at home plate. I know who they are. I am as happy as I’ve ever been, right now. For 50 years I shut the world out. Everything [but basketball] became second. Now, as much pressure as I have here, I’m not going to allow it to do to me what it used to. It was toxic. Negative. I wasn’t much fun to be around.”
As the Heat’s team president prepares to watch his club open its 30th season Wednesday in Orlando, Riley is in a good place. He and wife Chris just returned from their son’s wedding in Denver. They have a grandson, now 6.
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I ask Riley if he’s a good Grandpa.
“Better than I was a father,” he says. “You learn.”
Riley is in a good place professionally, too. He has learned to trust, to delegate. Owner Micky Arison, CEO Nick Arison and right-hand-man Andy Elisburg enjoy his faith. Riley calls Erik Spoelstra “the best coach in the league.”
When he came to Miami from New York to coach in 1995 he asked his four assistants to follow him to the parking lot and open their car trunks. He was looking for golf clubs. He saw none.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go to work!’”
The man who coined the phrase “there’s winning, and there’s misery,” demanded everybody share his obsession.
Twenty-three years later -- Riley has now been with the Heat only three years fewer than Don Shula ran the Dolphins -- the Heat godfather points across his spacious office to his desk a 3-point shot away as he and a guest chat on a couch.
“I always felt if I wasn’t sitting in that chair eight, nine, 10 hours a day, people would walk by saying, ‘He’s not committed anymore’,” he said. “That’s a pretty bad way to go through life. Now I feel a freedom from that. We all know how to get the job done.”
Do not mistake Riley’s late-career epiphany of perspective for nonchalance. The man who has nine NBA championship rings as player, assistant, head coach or executive (the last three with Miami, of course) is hungry for one more.
His office is upstairs at the team’s Bayside arena, a short walk from the practice court, the hardwood laboratory where rosters become teams. From that couch, you hear the faint squeak of sneakers as his Heat wrap up a practice.
This latest iteration of Riley’s Heat is a very different one.
The man who invented Showtime in Los Angeles and who joined LeBron James and Chris Bosh with Dwyane Wade in Miami always has surrounded himself with starpower, turning courts into stages. Today’s Heat is downsized, a Chevy sedan in a league of Porsche convertibles. Starless? No man on the opening-day roster has made an NBA all-star team.
Goran Dragic might be an almost-star and Hassan Whiteside a could-be star, but...
The Heat, opposite of what it was just a few years ago, has become the underdog -- The Little Team That Could (maybe).
Riley disputes the characterization.
“Goran averaged 20 points a game, shot 39 percent from 3, had all-star numbers -- just didn’t get picked,” Riley said, “Hassan, if he played when I was coaching, I probably would have pulverized him into 25 points a game. But they don’t play that way now.”
Riley, inventor of the star-alignment template that now defines the league, finds himself with a team trying to be relevant again without the superstar he always has coveted.
“You need stars,” he admits. “But what I mean by stars are players who transcend the game and the moment. I’m not saying we don’t have any. We’ve compiled 10 or 11 players who have the possibility to become very valuable. We have to take our $25 chips and turn them into $100 chips. They’ll do that themselves on the court.”
Riley acknowledges Miami won’t be “a room team” next year -- a whale-hunting franchise in the room with superstar free agents. For now the Heat is all in with Dragic and Whiteside augmented by rehabilitated careers such as Dion Waiters and James Johnson and promising young guys like Josh Richardson -- the nucleus that went 30-11 in the second half last season. Notable additions are free agent Kelly Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo.
“We’re playing for a championship,” says Spoelstra. “No matter how unrealistic that may seem to other people.”
Heat people truly think reaching the Eastern Conference finals is plausible.
“I’m happy with the talent and balance of youth and experience,” Riley says. “In one year this team has really grown in chemistry, camaraderie and respect for each other more than any team I’ve been around -- even the Big 3. One or two guys have spoken publicly that they want to be the guy and emerge. And so emerge! No more Tweeting about it. Do it on the court.”
The Heat’s plan to shock the world or at least the East relies on stuff like identity, culture, fitness, depth and coaching to create a whole greater than its parts.
Pat Riley has changed, yes. A lot. Mellowed, if you insist. He says, “I don’t need to worry about all the little things. I don’t have that ego anymore.”
But not everything has changed.
“I still love the game, and I don’t want to waste another year of my life just doing a job. I want to win.”