The Journey Begins
While the mantra was simple, it would go on to characterize the 2005-06 NBA Champion Miami HEAT.
It was 10 years ago to the day that Miami climbed the top of the mountain for the first time, largely due to the fantastic performance of Dwyane Wade. The shooting guard averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.67 steals and 1.00 blocks per contest in the 2006 NBA Finals.
With Pat Riley at the helm and Wade leading the charge, the HEAT had one of the more memorable comebacks in NBA Finals history. With the 10-year anniversary upon us, Coach Riley sat down to discuss the 2005-06 Miami HEAT with HEAT.com.
One regular season game that really stands out was against the Pistons on February 12 when Wade hit a game-winning jumper. From there, you went on to win 10-straight and 15-of-16. After the All-Star Break, the team really started to pick up some steam. Obviously, you want to play your best heading into the playoffs, but what else would you point to for the team’s improved play?
“Well, I think basically there was a change somewhere in December, around the first week of December, when Stan [Van Gundy] stepped down and resigned. I think the team was 11-10 at that time and when I took over, we had a four-game road trip and we won our first game in Chicago. Then we went to Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
I remember in Philadelphia, it was a rainy, cold, bad day. So we went up there, and a practice was supposed to be scheduled. All the players got out of bed, they were grumpy and they didn’t want to go out and go to practice at 11 o’clock in the morning, so I had set up a private screening of the movie called “Glory Road”, which was the game about Texas Western and Kentucky back in 1966. As the bus was going around the block two or three times, we finally pulled up to the movie theater, and all the players were going, ‘What are we doing?’
We...watched the movie and it was a pretty moving story for a lot of the players who weren’t aware of that time. It sort of broke the ice of, ‘Ok, Pat Riley is now our head coach,’ and they think that this is going to be what’s going to happen every day. No, it’s not [laughs]. It was a nice sort of get-together. Our theme song coming out of that movie was “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, which was a big part of that song that Alicia Keys actually sang…in the movie.
There was a turning point in Dallas when we went [there] midseason and lost by 36 points in a nationally televised game. It was embarrassing and everybody was very upset. I can remember after the game...in the locker room and I was just pacing back and forth looking at the players and saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ Gary Payton, venerable, old school guard, no-nonsense guy even with the head coach, he’s in the back of the locker room and I remember his voice coming out. [He said] something like, ‘Well, Pat, what are we going to do? What are we going to do about this?’ I looked at him and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘No, I want you to tell me.’ I said, ‘Well, Gary, I’ll give you one piece of advice: if you follow me and listen to me and just do what I tell you to do and then we can collaborate on what we have to do, then we can win. If you’re willing to do that from this day forward, I think we can be a very successful team.’ And Gary said, ‘I gotcha, coach.’
From that point on, we started to win, and it really was a team that I related extremely well with. A team that I felt could win a championship. There was no guarantee, but we finished [41-20] under me. We had a good finish, we felt good about ourselves and I think going into the playoffs we were ready."
How unique was it to have two Hall-of-Fame Centers in Shaq and Zo on the same team?
“First of all, it was incredible to get both of them together. When you stop and think about having Shaquille O’Neal, probably next to Wilt Chamberlain, the most dominant big man in the history of the game, not just because he was big but [also] just because he was so skilled, talented, quick and athletic and all of these things. Then, to be able to get his nemesis for years, Alonzo Mourning, a ferocious, fierce competitor that I had coached for seven or eight years. I said, ‘Wow.’
I remember having lunch with Zo one day when he came back from Toronto, and I asked him if he wanted to come back. He was going to have to make a great sacrifice and take the minimum because we didn’t have any room or exceptions. He said to me, ‘You mean to tell me I’m going to play with Shaq? You know how Shaq and I are, man, we’re like oil and water.’ I said, ‘Well, just think about how dominant you’re going to be. You’re going to have to come off the bench. You’re going to have to play 15-20 minutes a night.’
I [also] remember when Zo came back the year before that. He was introduced and people were chanting, ‘We want Zo! We want Zo!’ and Shaq was next to him saying, ‘We want Zo!’ The two of them forgot their warrior battles from the past and their dislike for one another, and that was born out of their competitiveness. But both of them at that time really relished the fact that, ‘Hey, we’re together, man. We got this covered. We got the paint covered. We got the boards covered. We’re going to be blocking shots. We’re going to be taking hard fouls.’
So, we had one of the best center tandems around. To be able to have Zo coming off the bench and playing limited minutes, but getting starter’s statistics, really helped us.”
What was Spo’s specific role at that time in terms of preparing the team?
“He was no longer an advance scout even though he was doing the video work too. He was on the bench at that time, so he was playing a big part in really helping me prepare. I learned so much about him and how much he learned about the game by the kind of information he would give me. It was information that was out of the box. It wasn’t just normal stuff.
I used to have every coach break down the film, write down all their notes and then slide it under the door the next morning on blue card stock. Then I could decipher everybody’s notes and take out what I needed, not use what I didn’t.
But he would deliver things to me that every time it was three or four different things that nobody else said, and it really got my mind to think about how we were really going to play these guys. And so, he was really advanced in his thought process and a little bit out there. He had spent so much time scouting, watching games, 10 years already with me, with Stan, back with me. [He also went] to all these camps, clinics and all these other things that he had done to prepare himself as a coach that he started to become a different kind of thinker and I appreciated that kind of stuff.”
What was your message to the team after going down 0-2 to Dallas in the Finals?
“There wasn’t any real message at that time. When you’re playing for a World Championship with a lot of veterans and Shaq..., [the message] was very simple. I think the message that we had created throughout all of the playoffs you hear now presently with Golden State’s “Strength in Numbers.” I sort of coined a phrase called “15 Strong” and we started to use that at the end of the season. Then by the time I was using it on a regular basis, players started to use it. “15 Strong”. It’s not one guy. It’s one through 15.
Then we created a big metal pit in the middle of the locker room in which I started to get 20,000 cards printed up with “15 Strong” on it. I put player’s pictures on it. Every night, one of the players would come into my office and in a wheelbarrow would be 20,000 cards. That player then would wheel that into the locker room and dump it into the pit [so it] got bigger and bigger. Then one night after a game in the playoffs, I remember throwing some of my personal pictures in there of my family members. I took some rosary beads that I had that my mother had given me [and] put them in there. So, players started to drop in personal things: items, jewelry, pictures, necklaces, and so it became a very personal thing. This was for real. We made an investment, not in the pit, but we made an investment in 15 Strong.
The media never knew what was in there. They always would ask, ‘What’s in the pit?’ and nobody would ever say what was in the pit. It was our own little personal thing. That sort of became what the theme was.
When we came home [after Game 2], everything changed. I think everything changed in the middle of the fourth quarter…ready to go down 0-3. I remember calling a timeout with just over six minutes to go in the game and writing on my pad, ‘Our season is on the line.’ That was it. I just left it there and the players were looking at it, read it and Dwyane Wade stood up and he cursed and he said, ‘I ain’t going out like this.’ And he just walked out on the court with this strength.”
(Wade went on to score 12 of Miami’s last 22 points, shooting 5-of-7 from the field and 2-of-3 from the charity stripe.)
“We ended up beating them at the wire with a Gary Payton jumper just to get us off the schneid. With about nine seconds to go, Dwyane didn’t make the play, Shaq didn’t make the play. It was 15 Strong, man. So the ball ended up in Jason Williams’ hands. He put his head down, dribbled into the middle of the lane, penetrated as deep as he could and kicked it to Gary Payton with about nine seconds to go and Gary just raised. He raised and made a jumper; the score was tied at the time. Then at the other end of the court, Dirk Nowitzki, God bless him, he missed a free throw, and after a Wade free throw, we ended up winning the game by [two]. That got us off the schneid and got us rolling into Game 4.”
The Comeback & Feelings of Joy
In that series against Dallas in Game 6, Zo had five blocks, including the one where he went crazy on the deck. Can you talk about what he brought to that game?
“Well even before we get to Game 6… at 2-2, Game 5 here was crucial for us. That game, we were down 11 points in the last minute of the second quarter, and we worked our way back into the game. That’s the game that Dwyane really came through big time.
But again, Gary Payton. We were staggering around and he made...a left hand layup that put us up one with 29.8 seconds left.
Dwyane, with us being down one or two, we got the ball inbounds to him in the backcourt. He was alone in the backcourt. I’ll never forget this. It was one of the greatest plays that I’ve ever seen a player make. We have to win, we’re down, there’s about three or four seconds left to go on the clock, he put his head down and he beat five players. Dallas just ran away from everybody else, thinking, ‘we’re going to stop Dwyane Wade.’ I remember at half court he split a double-team, then he dribbled to his left and there come another two players and somehow he got through there. Now, he’s heading downhill, heading to the basket and Dirk Nowitzki is coming to close out on him. I remember he goes to the basket and Dirk hits him on the hand.
I think with like a second, or 0.4 seconds to go, he makes two free throws and we get the win. That got us to Game 6. And so after that game that night, I remember talking to the players I said, ‘Well, I’ve been here before when I was coaching the Knicks. We went down to Houston ahead 3-2 and needing just one game. Look, when you’ve got a chance to win a championship, you’ve got to win it. Anybody in this room saying we got two shots to win this thing, we’re going to lose. I’m just telling you right now. If you don’t think Game 6 is Game 7 and it’s the last game of the year, then don’t come, don’t pack your bags, don’t go to Dallas, because I’m taking one shirt, one suit and one tie. That’s it. We’re going to play Game 6, we’re going to win, we’re going to celebrate and we’re going to come home.’ And that sort of became the theme for the trip and we went down to Dallas and played one of the best games that this franchise has ever played in a big game situation.
I’ll never forget the last play of the game. We were ahead by three. They’re inbounding, and we steal the ball. Dwyane gets the ball and he gets fouled with about nine seconds to go in the game. They call a timeout, set up a play. We’re in our huddle over there, we’re sitting down, we’re three points ahead and nine seconds away from our first World Championship. Man, I tell you, I’ve been here – the only thing that can happen is a nightmare – I just, look, we shouldn’t lose this game. We’ve got our best free-throw shooter ready to take two shots and put us ahead by four or five [to] make it a two-possession game. So, he’s sitting there really calm, and I remember once we break the huddle, he goes and he’s walking down to the other end to shoot the free throws. He puts his arm around me, and I know, he put his arm around me like, ‘Coach, this game’s over.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘Make the freakin’ free throws.’ That’s all I said to him. ‘This game is a long way from being over with.’
So, he goes down to the free-throw line, lo and behold, he misses both free throws, and here we go. Jason Terry is coming up the court with Gary Payton on him, and he can tie the score with a three. So, I remember him coming off of a pick-and-roll with Nowitzki on the side, and Udonis is what we call “slip-fronting” Nowitzki because he didn’t want him to get it. But Terry came off so close to him that Payton got caught trailing and he actually grabbed his jersey, and you can see it on the film. Terry got to the open pocket, raised, it was a pretty wide-open good look, he just missed it. I was just glad that they didn’t call a foul on Gary and [Terry] is making three free throws I would think. When the ball hit the rim, hit the backboard, it went way in the air, Dwyane rebounded the ball and the next thing he did was just throw it up in the air.
I remember Nick Arison telling me at the time when Dwyane got the rebound and threw it in the air, Micky looked at Nick and said ‘What happened??’ And he said, ‘We just won a championship! We just won a championship!’
What a wonderful moment and a breakthrough moment for the HEAT and for that team to be able to win a championship. It was just an incredible accomplishment. It’s one of my favorite[s]. I’ve been a part of nine championship teams and I wear that ring, 2006, because of what we had a chance to accomplish here in Miami for the first time. Then after that it was all “15 Strong.”
When we finally got back to the locker room after the presentation out on the court and champagne was being spewed all over the place, everybody got down into the pit. At halftime, [Jay Sabol] went in there and took everybody’s personal items out of there. So, the rings, the rosary beads, the necklaces, the pictures, he took everything out of there and put it in a separate bag and the players went down there and started throwing these cards in the air. “15 Strong” Championship Cards in the air and then they were stuck all over the walls. When they took a picture of the locker room after we left, we left Dallas a reminder that we were here.
The 15 Strong were here.
Then we went home, and there were 250,000 people ready there to greet us the next day on Biscayne Blvd. or two days later."
You’ve mentioned Gary a lot and obviously Zo. How happy were you for those guys that had such great careers to finally reach the top of the mountain and win that ring?
“I’ve always been somewhat veteran friendly to guys that may be at the end of their careers but still had a lot left, but you have to put them in the right situation where they know they have a chance to win and win big. So, he had a great year for us, but on the biggest stage when most young players might be a little bit afraid, there was no fear in him. When he hit that jumper to win the game for us in Game 3, he just raised in the air. It was the only shot he took all game, nothing but net. Then, when we needed another bucket in Game 5, he makes a drive, and he makes the typical Gary Payton left-hand-high-off-the-board bank. When we had to have the stop of all stops in Game 6, I put him on Jason Terry and even though Terry got a decent look at it, Payton was head on the ball, full court pressure the whole time. [He] got him thinking about getting him off balance enough that maybe he didn’t get as good a look as we think he got.
I was happy for Gary, obviously I was happy for Zo and for all the players and even Shaq because Shaq came here. He selected us, he wanted to get traded to Miami and come and play for Micky, play for myself and play for the HEAT.
Every single one of those players that was part of that championship team that had never won championships before, they’ll never forget it. It was an incredible ride, it was an incredible experience, not only for myself, but for Zo especially, who’s the face of this franchise along with Dwyane. But also for Shaq and for all the veterans who said, ‘Yeah, I’m coming.’ For Posey and Jason Williams and everybody.
But probably more than any one player, is that Dwyane Wade, and this can happen to every player at some time. How long it happens and how long you stay up there is the mark of true greatness. During those two months of the playoffs, Dwyane Wade was the best player on the planet.
Everybody has their opportunity to be the best player in the world, but you have to be the best player in the world at a time when the stakes are the highest, and the stakes are pretty high when you’re playing for a World Championship. So, not only was he the best player in the world, but I used to always text him at the time. All I said was BIW, BIW, capital letters, BIW, and he got it. And I still call him BIW, I do. Best in the World, and he had some games this year where he was the Best in the World and I think he’s been one of the best players in the world for the last 10 years.”
That championship parade in 2006, a lot of people look back on it and remember you dancing on stage and all the fun you guys had. Did you have a moment where you just reflected and said to yourself, ‘This was the vision I had when I came here’?
“Not that way. I think one of the tenets that coaches and players should take in their sport is that when you’re successful, when you become good and you get a lot of recognition and notoriety, is that you don’t ever tell people how you did it to make yourself look good. You don’t ever tell people how you’re going to do it because there’s a lot of arrogance involved in that. You just sort of take it humbly and feel very fortunate. Where I soaked it in the most at that time was with my family: with Chris, James and Elisabeth. Because James and Elisabeth, they only heard about the championships that I won, you know? They weren’t even in the world at the time.
To be able to have them in Dallas, sharing this moment. I remember in 1994 when we lost the championship when I was coaching the Knicks in Houston. My son James was 10 and he had come to that seventh game. After that seventh game, he hated basketball because he saw the misery, the pain on our faces, the tears and the disappointment. Even in later years he’d say, ‘Dad, how can you put yourself through this? There’s so much pain! I don’t want anything to do with that kind of a job.’
But he and my daughter were very bubbly that night [in 2006], pouring champagne on my head and spewing it all over the place. To be able to sit in my office just with Chris and I for some minutes, it’s special.
Besides dealing with your family and stuff like that, I think probably the one thing that made me feel the most pride is remembering when I was hired by Micky back in 1996 and having the press conference on the ship “The Imagination.” And not promising, but I could see one day the vision of a parade down Biscayne Blvd, and then having Mike Inglis and Eric Reid talk about ‘And there’ll be a parade down Biscayne Blvd!’
I just remember how proud I was to work for Mr. Arison, for Micky, and to have him share and see exactly what it was like to win and to understand that it takes a lot. To be able to have Micky, Madeleine, Nick, Kelly and all of our families that have gone through the tenures together and have some pretty disappointing losses back against the Knicks in the late ‘90’s to finally get to this moment. It just made me very proud to be part of this franchise.”
Photos courtesy of NBAE/Getty Images