Only Pat Riley could hold court for 55 minutes and with candor, honesty, self awareness and reflection embrace the NBA Finals loss while at the same time doing the Pat Riley thing: preaching, teaching, lecturing, energizing. He was a father, a bully, a cheerleader, a coach, a motivator, a scolder, a basketball historian. He spent the bulk of his 55 minute “fireside chat” appealing to Lebron James even as he rarely said his name. The imagery was enough. Post NBA-Finals, Lebron James gave the impression that teams such as Houston and the Clippers have a shot at acquiring him if they put a package together of talented veterans who know how to win. To this, Riley’s counterargument was persuasive. He reinforced the basics. Winning is hard. You live where you are. You “re-tool” you don’t “rebuild”. You stay together.
He started his press conference the way someone begins to hammer at rock: he went hard. “I’m pissed.” He went on to reminisce of his Lakers teams, “We didn’t find the first door and run.” As if to dare his team to be men he spit out the words: “You’ve got to stay together if you’ve got the guts. And you don’t find the first door to run out of.”
But he admitted things were broken. The varied history of Pat Riley has him reliving certain parts of his life. 25 years ago he had a team of back to back champions who lost. It was the Lakers of 1986-88. But that team that won 5 titles, that era of players, did not have the financial luxury and flexibility as this era of players so Riley wasn’t faced with this modern conundrum of player rejection. Back then players were players. They stuck. And yet, like an old lion in winter, Riley couldn’t stop himself from intersecting the past with the present as a way to convince or perhaps motivate his team to stay the course. Stay with me. Believe in us. He sounded less like someone in the front office and more like a priest at confession.
Riley was angry at times, his voice had the jagged edges of cut glass. He talked about the Heat players being fatigued and not preparing themselves for the drain of playing more games than everyone else. In other words it was their personal weakness rather than the situation. He chided them, saying they should talk to Bill Russell who played in eight NBA title series in a row and won them all. Then, in the same breath, as if he realized a line was crossed, he admitted the game was different back then.
Known for his toughness, never one to allow for excuses, at 69 years old, Pat Riley is still unchanged. The beauty of Pat Riley is that the times, the era, the circumstances have not softened him. Rather it is the opposite. When he said “I’m pissed” just as he sat down it wasn’t clear at who he was pissed at or at what. He once famously said, “there is winning and there is misery.” But all emotion, whether it be sadness or despair, has a host, it attaches to something on the inside. Is it the players fault what happened to them in the NBA Finals? The coaches? At one point Riley emphatically said that Eric Spoelstra has to reinvent himself.
A great understanding of and a fondness for loyalty, the young Pat Riley played for the tough and irascible Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky. He was a better college player than a pro but he was a better coach than anything else and his Lakers career lasted 18 years. He was with the Knicks for 4 years. And he has been with the Heat for nearly two decades. “I didn’t come down here 19 years ago for a quick trip to South Beach”, Riley reminded everyone. This “running out the door” is peculiar to him even as it his great irony. The very thing he looks down upon was the very thing he embraced four years ago in building his “Big Three” in the first place. And yet, even the prospect of them leaving is not what it seems. “We’re going to find out what we’re made of here. It’s not about options. It’s not about free agency.” The world and everyone’s place in it is a question of character. Who are you? What do you stand for? Can you suffer through adversity? Are you going to turn your back on a fight? Are you a coward?
He was speaking to Lebron James even as Lebron James was not there but on vacation. If Lebron leaves Miami, even though the Heat will have $20 million dollars available to them, the Heat will be starting over again. At the start of the NBA Finals the Heat privately fumed at the ‘Built vs. Bought’ billboard hanging in San Antonio. But a defection by Lebron James only makes it true. The Heat were bought and now they have to build.
Riley seemed confident that he could build a consistent core around his Big Three even if they don’t take pay cuts which is more true than it is not true. What has to change is their style of play. Small ball with a mediocre second unit just won’t win anymore. He challenged himself and Eric Spoelstra to change. He challenged Dwayne Wade. Wade’s old style of driving to the rim and post floaters are no longer effective given the devolving state of his knees. He acknowledged Wade’s place in Miami lore. He was the beginning for the Heat; with the Heat he would always remain. But Wade would have to retool his shooting mechanics. “He’s a champion”, Riley said of Wade. “He’s a world champion and he’s a Miami Heat for life.” Wade or no Wade, Riley conceded, “We’re prepared. We have the main thing all written up and it’s dependent on July 1…We’re ready.”
On June 23rd Carmelo Anthony makes it official, on the market or off. Riley admitted adding Carmelo was a “pipe dream.” He sounded more resigned when he admitted the Heat weren’t headed in that direction. You only need so many stars. It was role players that beat the Heat in the NBA Finals.
Unlike a lot of executives who would have only spoken in clichés, at least on camera, Riley is comfortable with Riley and his bully pulpit. He uses the media to get his point across. He is well versed in his own appeal. His attraction to other players around the league is simple. It is because Riley doesn’t fear anyone, certainly not Lebron James. Riley has accomplished more in his career, has been around more dynamic players, has scaled more momentous heights and suffered such depressing lows that he religiously believes his career was built upon the heavy rock of his will. He wanted it more than anyone else did.
Pat Riley, the Lakers coach, used to always talk about the “peripheral opponent.” That thing you can vaguely see that is keeping you from achieving excellence. For the ‘Big Three’ that opponent is not free agency. It is not the rest of the NBA trying to convert them. It is themselves. Their toughness. Their weakness. Their fragility. Their need to do things easy instead of achieving what is hard.
After game 5 in San Antonio, Pat Riley sent all of his players an e-mail. It read in part: “The storm’s going to pass.” The storm is going to pass. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps that is the root of things. Perhaps the storm is heading out to shore and perhaps a tide is coming in. Perhaps Riley the genius is also Riley the psychic. We know he can be Riley the miracle worker and Riley the sculptor. We will know in a week if it is Riley the architect with the same blueprints just a few new additions. Or will it be Riley starting from scratch. One more time.
At one point in the press conference he had a sly smile. “Whatever it takes we’re going to keep them together…I’m optimistic.”