MIAMI — Over the course of his 40-minute conference call with seven reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Miami Heat president Pat Riley conjured hundreds of words, some considerably more convincing, and some seemingly more candid, than others.
But it wasn't until late in the interview session, after Riley had already evaluated half of the Miami Heat's current roster and emphatically staked the squad's claim to ongoing competitiveness, that one of the most powerful men in sports uttered five words—actually three, with one used three times—that spoke most powerfully to the surreal nature of what he experienced in late June and early July.
"No responses back, no," Riley said softly. "No."
Riley offered those words when asked if he'd had any success connecting with LeBron James during the two weeks between learning officially that James would exercise an early termination option in his contract and making one last Las Vegas pitch to stay in Miami. Sure, Riley had tried, sending "a lot of emails and a lot of texts," but while "I was communicating with him at that particular time," reciprocation never came.
Suddenly, the great Riley was poor Mike Peters from Swingers—only James, unlike Nikki of that movie, never put him out of his misery by firmly demanding that he stop.
And so, no, in light of the "no responses back" revelation, not all of the rest of what Riley said Wednesday will make perfect sense to everyone, especially not the part where he insisted that he, like Heat managing partner Micky Arison, was "shocked" that James chose to leave the Heat and return to Cleveland.
How could they be, when signs that the superstar was seriously considering relocation now appear big and bright enough to take up prime positioning above Times Square? How could they be, unless they simply didn't want to see those signs—or conversely, if James or one of his representatives had somehow, at some point, given assurances that countered any of their doubts?
None of this is completely clear after Riley's conference call, not even as he provided much more detail about his free-agency efforts than he customarily has, during his two-decade tenure as Heat president. On one hand, he acknowledged that it "wasn't easy from the standpoint of not knowing" whether James would return, as he tried to secure commitments from supporting talent.
On the other?
"I went into it, and right at the beginning, I went into it with the thought and the notion that [James] was coming back, and I was selling that to the players," Riley said. "I believed that truly. So I was selling that to players. That's the only way I went into it. I let him know that, prior to free agency, that that's the way I was going with this thing. He never said to me, 'No, don't do that.' So I went into it with that premise, and found out on the 10th that that wasn't going to happen."
As proof of his assumption, consider what he revealed about the pursuit of Luol Deng, one that he said took a few "meandering roads" as the Heat adjusted to changing circumstances. Riley said he believed that Deng wanted to sign on the first day they met, which was several days before James made his own decision.
But at the time they initially pitched Deng, the Heat were expecting James to fill a maximum slot, and operating under the parameters of a "capped out" team, which meant that Deng, in Riley's words, "was looking at the full mid-level" exception of $5.3 million, which is the most lucrative contract that can be offered in such a situation. It was only after James informed Riley that he was leaving, and after Riley took a late run at Carmelo Anthony ("we were a little bit late to that party") that Riley and Deng agreed on a two-year, $20 million deal with the cap space that James' departure had created.
So, did Riley feel misled?
"No," Riley said. "No, I don't think I was misled. But I don't think I was encouraged either."
A reporter asked for elaboration.
"That's this business, OK, from that standpoint," Riley said. "So I didn't try to get that from anybody. They were free agents, all of them were going to opt out, and they were out on the open marketplace. I felt very good about both Chris [Bosh] and Dwyane [Wade] coming back and making the commitment to stay with us, as I did with Udonis [Haslem]. But as I said, and as Micky said in his statement, we were both very shocked when [James] did not come back. Obviously, I was thinking all along that he would be back."
There was more back and forth about the breakdown with James, and naturally so, especially since James hasn't spoken on the subject—and may never as he chooses to focus on his considerable new challenges in Cleveland.
Breakups make for the juiciest stories, even in sports, because of the mystery and the pain. There's still mystery here, and there's still hurt on the part of Heat fans, which means many will never fully let it go, even if they recognize that the city of Cleveland had more cause for anger four years ago and they appreciate James' efforts and accomplishments while representing South Florida. They are protective not only of themselves, but of Riley—who stands next to Don Shula on their sporting pedestal—and they will pounce on any evidence that he was in some way wronged.
But Riley needed to let it go.
He needed to offer his own responses back, not in the form of snarky criticism of the player who gave his franchise and his adopted city so much, but with speedy recalibration of the plan and thoughtful reconstruction of the roster.
"I don't get hurt," Riley said. "Very rarely do I get hurt. My wife will hurt me. My daughter might hurt me. And my son. But this is business. This is all business. You have an instinct about certain things. But as soon as something happens in this business, at that particular time, I had to react, we had to react as an organization and we did. So the hurt didn't last very long. I picked up the phone, then I hung the phone up, and we went to work."
He needed to give the fans the sense that, even after a sizable setback, he was still in command of the operation. That a few people out there would still answer his calls, let alone his texts and emails.
So that's what he set out to do, shredding the original smaller contract offer to Chris Bosh to keep him from heading to Houston ("I'll be damned if I was going to let him walk out the door."), securing continuing commitments from Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger after they'd agreed verbally while expecting James to remain and working with Wade, Haslem and Deng to sign two-year deals that would give the team as much salary-cap flexibility as possible in the summer of 2016.
"We're going to compete with everybody else to win a world championship," said Riley. "We're not going into this thing next year with this roster thinking that there's anything less than that. That's just the way I am as a man, and the way I coach and the way I manage."
That's probably too much to expect, even if a lighter Wade can stay on the court more often and he and Bosh can reintroduce more of the games that they, in Riley's words, "ceded" to accommodate James. There's not much more coming this offseason, even with Riley looking to add another backup wing and big with minimum slots.
But it is still possible to agree with Riley when he speaks of recovering well, certainly better than Cleveland did four years ago, when James' departure sent the organization into the sort of death spiral that only his unexpectedly early return could reverse.
Riley did not embarrass himself this offseason.
The Heat will not embarrass themselves this season.
And they may rise again in future seasons.
"This process didn't take anything out of me other than this one notion," Riley said. "It's that every now and then you have a chance to build a generational team, where you know that team can be together for 10 to 12 years. And you're not going to win 10, 12 years in a row. You might win five, you could win six, maybe you win four, but it's a generational team where everybody knows that that's the team that's going to be right there every year. So that has been broken, that chain has been broken prematurely. We're going to try to make it another generational team. And that's what my objective is."
Still, there are no silver linings to be taken from losing the gold standard of active players.
If anything good has come from James ending his Heat tenure, it's that Riley may now extend his.
"It's fired me up, basically," he said.
Not only did Riley assure everyone that he'll be leading the 2016 push, but maybe he'll go even longer. He's been working on a year-to-year basis for years, and it's still not clear how the Heat will replace all that he offers, even if Nick Arison and Erik Spoelstra take larger personnel roles.
"You know, I don't like to get beat...in anything," Riley said, laughing. "I want this team to be as competitive as it's ever been. I want our fans in Miami to come out and know they're going to see a great team every night. I want the media, you guys, to have some fun in covering a team that may not be as sort of formidable from the social media standpoint as the team we had for the last four years, but a solid basketball team that's going to be a great team to cover from that standpoint. And it's my job to try to make it better."
Or, more succinctly....
"We're going to build another championship team, and that's it."
That would be the ultimate response back.