MIAMI -- It takes a special occasion for Pat Riley to let strangers into his home. Yet he's also shown that he'll use any and all methods, especially inspirational and symbolic ones, to drive a point home.
And so it was Thursday, during his annual state-of-the-Miami Heat address, that the team president revealed how he and his wife Chris had spent the previous evening: with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue and some old records, including a recent gift from his grown daughter Elisabeth, James Ingram's 1981 ballad "Just Once."
"We sit around the bar, and we pick out our LPs and listen to the songs that inspired us when we were ambitious and achievement-oriented young people," Riley said. "And it helped us. Books, lyrics, quotes, messages, those kinds of things."
The preferred methods of message delivery have changed slightly in the modern age, but Riley has always managed to stay in tune with the times. For the majority of his 55 minutes at the podium, he masterfully delivered a message through other media–conventional quickly converted to social—to the ambitious and achievement-oriented young people who, at least until their opt-out deadline of June 29, are still under his organization's employ.
This presentation—and it was more that than inquisition, with the attending press quickly becoming props in the performance—was unceasingly entertaining, occasionally rambling and surprisingly unsparing, with Riley acknowledging the need for Erik Spoelstra, Dwyane Wade and even himself to "reinvent" themselves.
It showed a soft side, with Riley noting his "love" for James, but that love was also tough at times, with Riley dismissing the excuses, such as mental fatigue, that several players offered during their exit interviews. It even broke some news, though more of the TMZ than NBA variety, through an unsolicited confirmation of the rumor that James' wife Savannah is expecting a girl.
Above all, it seemed intended to appeal to James' appreciation of hoop history and also to the four-time MVP's burning desire (contrary to what he claimed during the Finals) to build upon his legacy.
It all started with Riley hearing a question about opt-outs, to which he replied with a request.
"If you would bear with me for a minute...." he said.
Then he took six, with a sweeping soliloquy.
"I think we need to have a perspective about things," Riley said. "I think everybody needs to get a grip—media, Heat players, organization, all of our fans—we got to get a grip on greatness and on teams. I've been here for 45 years in the NBA, and I've witnessed dynasties, I've witnessed great teams. The '80s Lakers, five championships in 12 years. So what does that mean? Seven times they didn't win. In that run, they didn't win. You got to deal with it, you got to come back."
Riley continued: "[The] Celtics were supposed to be a great team in the '80s—12 years together, three wins, nine losses. The Chicago Bulls, from '87 to '98, 11 times in 11 years they won six titles, that's five times that Michael [Jordan], Scottie [Pippen] and Horace Grant lost. The Lakers, from I think '96, with Shaq and Kobe, to today, like 14 or 15 years, they won five [titles]. That means they lost 12 times. The Spurs, in 17 years, won five titles. So you add it up, what's the math there? You know, they lost 12 times."
He let out the first of several quick, trademark, place-holding, point-making laughs.
And while, as Riley well knows, some of those facts were fast and loose—with Jordan missing most of two seasons, Grant being gone for the end of the Bulls' championship era, Shaquille O'Neal being traded to the Heat in 2004, etc.—the details are relatively immaterial to the message.
"This stuff is hard," Riley said. "And you got to stay together, if you got the guts. And you don't find the first door and run out of it if you have an opportunity. This is four years into this era, this team, four Finals, [has] only been done three other times before. And two championships. From day one to the end, it was like a Broadway show. [We] sort of run out of steam, and we need to retool. We don't need to rebuild. We need to retool. And that's what we're gonna do. I've been a leader and a decision-maker, and that's my level of expertise. And I'll do everything I can to retool the team. But everybody, just get a grip. This has been a great run."
This was followed by another one of those laughs.
Riley expanded upon the message: "And it ended up like most losses ended up. You know, I know what it is to win. We watched it. The confetti drops. Everybody hugs each other, kisses each other. Men are in embraces. 'I love you. I love you. Hey bro, this is how it's gonna be.' They punch each other, say 'I told you it was gonna be like this, this is how it's gonna be. We're even better friends off the court than we even are on the court.' And it's true. That's what creates a forever bond. But what really cements it, cements a forever bond, is going through what we went through this year and staying the course. I've been through that experience, and I know other teams have been through it."
Then, he went back to a time when James Ingram was among the R&B stars ruling the airwaves.
"1982, when we beat Philadelphia, they came back the next year and got us," Riley said. "When they added Moses Malone the team. When I personally choked away a game in '84, and Magic Johnson was called Tragic Magic, and we were called the L.A. Fakers and sissies, that inspired us. We didn't find the first door and run."
He noted how some of the Lakers didn't like each other.
"Nobody liked me," he said, continuing. "But we came back in '85 and we got 'em, we got 'em good. In 1988, when we got Detroit and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] hit that phantom sky hook foul, he had to make the two free throws. He didn't choke. He did not choke on the free throws. He had to make them. He made them. And that led us to a seventh game and a win. But the next year, Detroit came back and swept us. What happened last year with San Antonio? Did they run? They faced it."
"They faced it. And they came back. And you saw the result," Riley said. "We're gonna find out what we're made of here. It's not about options. It's not about free agency. It's not about anything. It's about what we have built over four years here. And we have a chance to do something significant. But losing is just as much a part of it as winning is. And when you're a team, you deal with it. No, there was no hugging, and there was no high-fiving. And, you know, there's just looking around the room now and finding out who's gonna stand up. This is time that you go home and take care of yourself, and look at yourself. And what are you gonna do to come back and make the team better?"
"Because we have a tremendous opportunity here for long-term success," Riley said. "But don't think we're not gonna get beat again. So just get a grip, everybody. That's my message. That's my message for the players also."
Have they heard it?
"They're hearing it right now," Riley said. "I'm sure they'll hear it."
Everyone will hear it differently. Heat fans will hopefully hear it, firmly believing their front office leader has a plan to proceed. Cavaliers fans will hear it scornfully, noting that Riley didn't suggest that James should face his previous failures with a return to Cleveland.
But all that matters is how James heard that speech, whether while vacationing with Ray Allen and James Jones and their families in the Bahamas or upon his return.
And it is also important how James heard the 49 minutes that followed.
Before Riley ceded the stage, he spoke to many of James' possible concerns, with a series of promises:
- That he won't be hassling him for a decision, recognizing that he needed a week to 10 days to decompress, giving him the same sort of space as he did during the season. "I'm an arms-distance guy," Riley said. "I was in the pit for a long time. It's a texting relationship. It's a short meeting in the hallway or at practice or something. I don't bring him in for long dissertations, because I think he would yawn at me in five minutes. But I think it's born out of great respect. He knows I love him. He knows I respect him."
- That he won't pressure James, or any of the other members of the Big Three, to take a pay cut. "No, it's not their responsibility," Riley said. "Their responsibility is to take the best deal they can take for themselves and their family and their career from a monetary standpoint.... It's not something where I'm going to get in a room and get down on my knees. I wouldn't do that to a player. It's a voluntary thing on his part. It's going to have to be something that he's going to say, 'Hey, I want to do this.' Because of that, we'll take them right the way they are."
- That he can upgrade the team—even if they don't take a pay cut—with one of the mid-level exceptions, two trade exceptions, two draft choices or by signing players who may take less to come to Miami. "I think the team needs to be a layered a little bit with some young guys, and that's one of our objectives this year," Riley said. "There's a lot of flexibility, no matter what those guys do."
- That ownership is committed. "He will do anything to get those guys to come back," Riley said. To this end, Riley disputed the perception—one that spread amongst the players this season—that Micky Arison would avoid punitive luxury-tax payments at any cost. Specifically, he attributed the amnesty of Mike Miller and the trade of Joel Anthony, both of which upset James, to the need for future flexibility.
- That he's open to anything, including the biggest things. Asked about adding a fourth star if the existing three stars take pay cuts, Riley called it "a pipe dream." Riley added: "But everybody thought 2010 was a pipe dream, too. I don't harbor that thought. I'm being realistic right now, dealing with what we have in front of us. That's not where we're headed." But then, of course, he added that it was a "possibility." Just to keep James thinking.
"I'm an Irish guy who believes in big dreams," Riley later added. "I'm optimistic, you know. Until that's proven different, I just have a lot of optimism that there isn't a better place for players to be than in Miami."
While he quipped that there was no need to drop his championship rings on the table, he kept dropping in lines that sounded as if they could have been lyrics on one of his sentimental records.
"I didn't come down here 19 years for a quick trip to South Beach and a suntan, I'll guarantee you that," Riley said. "And I don't think they did either. I think all of those guys that have come here have gotten exactly what they wanted. They got the best competition on the biggest stage, and we won two of them. You can couch them any way you want. I think we won two of the last three, not two of the last four. And then we're going to go from there, and we hope that all those guys want to come with us."
He did, and always will do, his best.
At this point, we can only guess whether it's good enough, as James wonders if he ought to stay or head on out the door.