MIAMI — During his pre-offseason press conference on June 19, Pat Riley was asked about the preferred methods to retain his stable of superstars, three players with a combined seven championships and 29 All-Star appearances. That's when some other trios, and a duo, rolled off the Heat's president tongue, where clearly he'd had them teed up.
"Whatever they want to do," Riley said of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. "However we can keep those guys together, OK? However we can keep those guys together. (Larry) Bird, (Kevin) McHale, (Robert) Parish, together. (James) Worthy, (Magic) Johnson, (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar, together. (Michael) Jordan, (Scottie) Pippen and Horace Grant or another, together..."
That other, for the Bulls' second run of three championships, was Dennis Rodman.
"(Tim) Duncan, (Manu) Ginobili, (Tony) Parker, together," Riley continued. "OK? Shaq and Kobe (Bryant), together. Shaq and, oh, excuse me, Kobe and (Pau) Gasol and another together."
That other was Lamar Odom, even if the core of that Lakers' squad wasn't together that long.
"Whatever it takes to keep them together, we're ready for," Riley continued. "That's our objective. That's my push to them. All of those guys stayed together and in their worst moments, and I just mentioned to you a number of times that they lost, they just allowed management to retool, let's bring this back together, this doesn't happen often, and let's stay here and let's try to keep this thing going."
There's something else, though, that Riley didn't say, something that separates this Heat trio from so many of their predecessors, something that should serve as a meaningful part of their legacy, especially if they stay together long enough for history to classify them as a collective.
It's something that has the potential to aid, or perhaps even undermine, Riley in his efforts to retain all of them—rendering him more of a spectator than he has been portrayed, in this space as well as others.
It's something that wasn't supposed to be possible in the modern NBA age, especially after the owners slammed through a new collective bargaining agreement intended, at least in part, to limit labor's influence—and specifically on the top players' ability to construct and maintain superteams.
It's something called control.
It's rather remarkable how much influence James, Bosh and Wade still hold—reinforced by Sunday's ESPN report, since confirmed by Bleacher Report, that they are continuing to consult with each other about contractual details and how to best facilitate Riley's roster retool.
In this sense, they continue to change the game as much off the court as on. But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Sure, none came to the NBA with a collegiate degree, with James skipping entirely, Wade leaving Marquette early (after being academically ineligible as a freshman) and Bosh leaving Georgia Tech after a single season. And the public's prejudices are such that athletes, of all kinds, are expected to leave the complicated cap stuff to the professionals.
Perhaps, then, they may still be underestimated.
They shouldn't be.
Each has already made two shrewd decisions, one that brought them together (signing contracts that expired in 2010), and one that could potentially split them apart (getting early termination options so they could explore the landscape in 2014).
Each has shown an adventurous, pioneering spirit, unwilling to let others' expectations define them.
James has booked meetings with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, invested in English soccer and hip-hop headphones and, above all, broken the representation mode by empowering and trusting his closest hometown friends. Wade has linked his name to ties and socks, luxury watches and Chinese shoes, while acting as an ultra-active overseer at his annual Brand Wade conference. Bosh knows no borders with his interests, whether serving as a hoop ambassador to India, tinkering in video production, promoting computer coding to kids, or speed-learning Spanish.
They are unique personalities, not only from each other, but from their contemporaries, and, since 2010, their on-court partnership has been invariably interesting, mostly exhilarating and occasionally disappointing, notably when they stumbled in the 2011 and 2014 NBA Finals.
Their off-court partnership has been even more fascinating, and never moreso than now.
They've again positioned themselves to do something that their notable predecessors generally did not: dictating rather than deferring, when it comes to where, and with whom, they play. Sure, Magic Johnson forced a coaching switch—to Riley, as it happens. Yes, Shaquille O'Neal exercised his 1996 free-agent status to set up the star pairing with Kobe Bryant, the same summer that Michael Jordan flirted with the Knicks. But, for all of the dynasties and mini-dynasties that Riley mentioned in his aforementioned riff, there was a greater dependence on management to compose the roster and initiate significant change.
The most those players really did was endorse an addition, such as when the Celtics of the mid-1980s encouraged Red Auerbach to add Bill Walton before the Lakers did. Even Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, one of the most powerful duos of all, held little sway over their general manager. First, Jerry Krause traded Jordan's friend Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright; later, he refused to renegotiate Pippen's contract because he was saving the money for a European prodigy named Toni Kukoc.
Those superteams should be credited for some of the NBA's revenue growth, even as compared to inflation. When the NBA reintroduced the salary cap in 1984-85 after four decades of "free" spending, the figure was just $3.6 million. Now the NBA's average salary is more than $5 million. But as much as that spike may have given players more of a cushion to make financial "sacrifices," they have also been faced with restrictions, including maximums on individual salaries (Jordan made 70 percent of his career $90 million in earnings in just two seasons) and more punitive luxury taxes.
The owners essentially left just one loophole, but it's not one that athletes in our society would be expected to explore, let alone exploit: the willingness to work for less, at least per annum, to accomplish more. We've been conditioned not to expect this, even as we claim to admire it.
For the past few decades, since Curt Flood, Spencer Haywood and others took stands to change their sports, many have railed against the "selfish" sports star, the man who puts self before team, net worth before winning. Many have celebrated the rare exemplary athlete, such as the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan, who signs for significantly less than he could command on the open market because he feels an allegiance to an area and an organization. James and Bosh can never be Duncan, in the sense of staying with one franchise for the course of their careers. But it is odd that they, as well as Wade and Udonis Haslem, experienced backlash in 2010 when they accepted less than the maximum, and—based on social media—will experience it again if they reduce their cap numbers to "stack" their team.
An athlete is supposed to find every edge, within the rules, in every way he can.
That's what Bird, Parish and McHale; Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy; and Jordan, Pippen and, as Riley put it, "some other" did on the court. But that's also what Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have done off the court, with their team friendly contracts, the ones that so many celebrate, the ones that are necessary to compete year after year in the current age.
That's what James, Wade and Bosh can decide to do again now, after each took the significant step of opting out.
"It's not something where I'm going to get in a room and get down on my knees," Riley said of their decisions. "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."
He's not in position to take the control they've earned.
He can only hope to benefit from it.