Three decades ago, which is roughly three lifetimes ago for him, the man heard and saw a disturbance develop on the basketball practice court: Two Knicks were ready to kill each other.
Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason, a pair of notable bad asses who were angrier than red ants, had a blowup and now were squaring off, with fists balled. Everything around them stopped cold. And then the two began throwing punches and wrestled each other to the floor.
When a few teammates tried to rush and break up the fight, they heard a firm and direct order from the person in charge of preventing the chaos:
“Let ’em go,” Pat Riley said.
Riley was a coach then, he worked in New York, and his hair was still jet black. And those are the only differences with the man between then and now. He still believes in building winners, by any means necessary. He subscribes to toughness, a trait he insists is necessary for players to thrive in the NBA. And at 75, an age where many in Florida are shuffle boarding instead of preparing for an NBA championship, Riley is once again up for a fight.
Pat is the man. We got a bunch of dogs on this team, and he’s the big dog.”
Heat swingman Jimmy Butler
It’s hard to say if the 2019-20 Miami Heat are Riley’s magnum opus; after all, when it comes to traveling deep into the NBA calendar, he has been there and done that, almost too many times to count. But this represents quite the satisfying achievement for the Heat president, to put a team in the championship round without a superstar, to get the chance to stare down LeBron James and the Lakers in the process, and to build this title contender by kicking the idea of tanking in the groin.
Maybe the best compliment you can pay Riley right now is to suggest this team reflects the personality of its boss. Which is exactly what Riley had in mind when he pushed enough of the right buttons to make a Heat appearance possible in these NBA Finals.
“Pat is the man,” said swingman Jimmy Butler, the team’s spiritual leader. “We got a bunch of dogs on this team, and he’s the big dog.”
In their first meeting last summer, when he was weighing the decision to sign with the Heat as a free agent, Butler said Riley won him over in five minutes. That sounds about right. Whether it’s tossing championship rings on the table, or delivering compelling and stirring motivational talks, Riley usually gets his man. But that man must meet The Man’s standards, which, in hindsight, Butler surely has.
It’s all turning out splendidly for Riley, who has masterfully rebuilt the Heat, six years after LeBron departed and the Big Three dismantled, without enduring a painful rebuild or having the luxury of a Draft pick higher than No. 10 overall. He’s in a demanding, what-have-you-done-lately job that favors the young and penalizes the careless, yet Riley is neither. A winning attitude permeates the Heat culture that Butler raves about.
In the last three offseasons, Riley has conducted a master class on how to do more with less. He signed Butler, drafted Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo and grabbed undrafted diamonds in the rough in Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. Before this season’s trade deadline, he got Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder in exchange for basically three players who weren’t really in the rotation.
Butler has revved up the competitive pulse, bringing unapologetic fire and an appetite for taking over games in the moment of truth. Adebayo became an All-Star and just finished bulldozing the Celtics with a stellar Game 6 performance at both ends of the floor, and is just realizing how good he can be, especially defensively. Herro is developing rapidly as a big-time scorer who isn’t afraid to take key shots and brings confidence rarely seen among mid first-round picks.
Robinson, one of the NBA’s best shooters, cannot be left unguarded on the perimeter. Nunn was an NBA G League standout who became an All-Rookie First Team pick this season. Iguodala is wise and championship tested, having played a key role during the Warriors’ recent dynasty. Crowder has proven to be a solid 3-point shooter and floor-spacer while bringing an ability to guard multiple positions.
“He didn’t assemble this team for us to play 82 games and go home,” Adebayo said. “That’s not the reason why he brought Jimmy here, that’s not the reason he drafted me, not the reason he got Andre and Jae … this is all about preparation on how we can win the championship. Pat wouldn’t have assembled this team unless he knew we had great things ahead of us.”
What’s impressive is how Riley managed to erase his mistakes to make this happen; great team-builders always do. He overpaid for James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters, yet none are around anymore and the damage has been minimal at best.
Even more impressive: Butler will be the Heat’s only big-money player in 2020-21. Everyone else is either on rookie deals or minimal contracts. That means the Heat will be in play to sign A-list free agents, and how many will resist the temptations of South Beach and turn down Riley for the chance to play next to Herro, Adebayo and Butler?
The prospects for the Heat dimmed considerably when LeBron took his talents from South Beach and went home to Cleveland. Riley felt betrayed. He told author and former NBA.com writer Ian Thomsen in his book, “The Soul Of Basketball”, the following: “I had two to three days of tremendous anger. I was absolutely livid, which I expressed to myself and my closest friends. My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down. That team in 10 years could have won five or six championships.”
A chill developed between LeBron and Riley. LeBron won a championship in Cleveland, which some might say is worth five more in Miami. Chris Bosh had to retire for health reasons and Dwyane Wade turned gimpy and old. He went back home, to Chicago, then ring-chased with his pal LeBron in Cleveland, before a final reunion with Riley and the Heat.
Riley was left to deal with the rubble, but he refused to break the team down and rebuild from scratch. Retreating is not in his basketball DNA. The Heat went through a few reinventions designed to stay respectable. The very next season, in 2014-15, the Heat missed the playoffs but were only one win from advancing to the conference finals the following season and had only had one losing season since.
And now, this.
Riley was the captain of “Showtime” with the Lakers in the NBA’s golden age of the 1980s. He then brought respectability and grit to the Knicks and took them to Game 7 in the 1994 Finals. In Miami, he grabbed Shaquille O’Neal and paired him with Wade to win the team’s first championship in 2006. After that, he went full-time to the front office and formed the “Big Three” Heat. Counting his playing days with the Lakers, he has reached a Finals in six straight decades.
When the Heat began the playoffs in this NBA restart, some in the organization urged Riley not to attend the games in Orlando out of concerns for his age, given the coronavirus. Outside the organization, the thought was, why bother? Miami was a No. 5 seed, with mild expectations of going very far.
But Riley isn’t easily intimidated, just like his team. He made the trip up Florida’s Turnpike and became a fixture at Heat games, once again sitting next to his wife, Chris, just as they do at American Airlines Arena.
And that’s where he’ll be, starting Wednesday, a senior citizen with a white mane watching calmly and showing no outward emotion after the ball goes up. Inside, however, there is a winner within who will expect his team, against steep odds, to fight the good fight.
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