Miami Heat president Pat Riley gestures as he talks to students at Paul Laurence… (Alan Diaz/AP )
MIAMI – It might have been his finest moment. Or maybe the most provocative. Miami Heat President Pat Riley devised a mind-blowing plan, clearing space on the Heat’s roster to lure free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade last summer.
Yet after Riley assembled a squad instantly as Hollywood as his old Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, and so exceedingly powerful that some contended it pushed the boundaries of fair play, he ducked quickly backstage.
His public silence and near-invisibility during a season of unprecedented scrutiny in Miami belie an influence that touches every corner of the franchise, players and coaches say. They say Riley’s handcrafting has been no less obvious on this year’s Heat team — which arrived in Dallas on Friday tied 1-1 in the NBA Finals, which resume with Game 3 Sunday night — than the 2006 one he coached to his fifth NBA title and first for the Heat.
“He’s a general manager-president extraordinaire,” said former Heat star Tim Hardaway, now the Heat’s community and corporate liaison.
“His footprint is definitely on this team,” Heat forward Juwan Howard said.
“When he talks,” Wade said, “you listen.”
Riley’s enormous vision led to a new – and, some contend, troubling — concept in the NBA: star players giving up money to join to create a title-collecting Super Team. Riley’s swagger, bulging championship ring and smooth sales pitch sealed deals.
“There’s no better pitchman in the NBA,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said Thursday. “No one you’d rather have than Pat Riley selling the benefits of your franchise.”
His emphasis on an us-against-the-world mentality and tight-knit, family atmosphere permeates the organization, Riley-isms leaking out of everyone’s mouths. Spoelstra, groomed and hand-picked by Riley to be his successor, not only talks like his mentor, he also stalks the sidelines — perfect posture, hands planted firmly on hips – just like Riley did, and brings the same gritty, hard-nosed, defense-first coaching style.
“Since Day One, that’s all [Spoelstra] has seen, the Pat Riley style, Pat Riley demands, Pat Riley meetings,” Hardaway said. “Everything. It’s all he knows, and why not have a Hall of Fame coach to follow and learn from?”
Staying out of public eye
Riley has declined all formal interview requests this season, offering generally non-revelatory comments to reporters only when cornered at public events, where he remains a master of captivating remarks.
He engaged an audience of elementary school kids at an “NBA Cares” charity event this past week in a hardscrabble section of Miami by telling them a story about how Michaelangelo imagined freeing angels from blocks of granite. Then he picked up the children’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are” and slid on his reading glasses as kids gathered.
“We got some people who are wild,” Riley said. “Above the rim. Dwyane. LeBron.”
As cameras pressed in after the event, he admitted to suffering a bit even while enjoying games in his front-row seat at American Airlines Arena among white-shirted Heat fans.
“The games, they’re harrowing for us to sit there and watch,” Riley said. “I don’t like to be in that position because I don’t have any control.”
Yet Riley insisted that building the Heat machine as team executive is no differentfrom driving it.
“I don’t even feel like I changed jobs,” Riley said just before Tim Donovan, his longtime media relations chief, stepped in to end what had been a short interview. “I’ve been in the personality industry as a head coach and president for 16 years, I’m just not out on the court because I don’t want to be. Erik’s done the same great job he’s always done. It’s the same journey — only less time.”
And less icy cold, and wet.
Hardaway, who played for Riley in Miami from 1996 to 2001, still shakes his head at the memory of Riley immersing his entire head in a bucket of ice water in the middle of the locker room after a regular season victory in Milwaukee.
“He gave a speech about overcoming your fears, or doing the impossible, or doing the spontaneous,” Hardaway said, unable to recall the precise message as vividly as the image. “It was just out of the ordinary. Very out of the ordinary. We were like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Riley thrived in the spotlight during his years coaching the Lakers, New York Knicks and Heat, commanding attention in the locker room and interview room with strategic comments and targeted eloquence. The commentary continues, players and coaches say, only largely during private moments with players, or well-timed appearances in front of the team.