MIAMI — Without seeing the inside of Pat Riley's wallet, there's no way to say for certain if he still keeps any of the custom cards there, the ones that say "Forever." But he did. At least, that's what he revealed forever ago, before LeBron James had won two championships for the Miami Heat, and before Riley embarked upon the nearly impossible project of replacing him.
You see, the Miami Heat president has coined the phrase "Forever Men" to describe his favorite players, those who have given the most to him during his four-plus decades in the NBA. The ones he sees as most like himself.
Magic Johnson is a Forever Man. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a Forever Man. Patrick Ewing is a Forever Man. Alonzo Mourning is a Forever Man to the core of his being, parroting so many of Riley's principles as a player, and now working with him in the Heat front office. And even if they haven't always agreed on everything, Dwyane Wade is a Forever Man, too.
You don't need to be a superstar to be a Forever Man, if you embody Riley's most cherished ideals. Udonis Haslem, the scowling symbol of sweat and sacrifice, is for sure a Forever Man, as will become evident when Haslem returns to the roster on another new contract. So is Brian Grant, who played for the Heat in the early 2000s.
"He had a lot of the same characteristics that I had when it came to losing," Riley told me about Grant early in 2011. "He hated it."
So, after traveling to Oregon to support Grant's event for Parkinson's disease four summers ago, Riley handed him one of those cards, to show "that relationships really are forever. That men and women like him are forever people, that he and I will have a forever relationship for the rest of our lives."
It is clear that Riley wanted nothing more than for James to be his ultimate Forever Man, even if it wasn't always clear, while James was with the Heat for four seasons, just how close they were. Riley isn't coaching anymore, hasn't been for six seasons, and he's largely stepped aside to allow Erik Spoelstra to serve as the Heat's singular voice. That's why I asked him in mid-June, after the Heat lost the NBA Finals to San Antonio and before a free-agent period that he never expected to go so poorly, to characterize his relationship with James.
"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 borne out of great respect. He knows I love him, he knows I respect him.
"I think one of the important things about having a relationship with your players as a coach or as a president is you don't pander and you don't punish. And there's a fine line in between. And there's got to be a tension between what it is you want as an organization and what it is that the players want. Players today are different, they're a little bit different in what they think and what they expect."
Then he paused briefly, and made sure he summarized correctly.
"I've always felt that I had a great relationship with LeBron and respect him very much as a great leader," he said.
Now that James has returned to Cleveland, to his roots, his relationship with Riley will forever change from whatever it was. No matter how valid James' reasons, there's no question he broke Riley's most enduring, repeated rule, at least when it came to the Heat franchise: "There are only two options regarding commitment," Riley wrote in The Winner Within. "You're either in or you're out. There's no such thing as life in-between."
So there shouldn't have been much question about how Riley would respond. Sure, he's had a couple of controversial walkaways, once from the New York Knicks in 1994—by way of fax—and then again when he ceded the coaching reins to Spoelstra in 2008 after two miserable Miami seasons. But this didn't strike me as the sort of challenge that Riley would cower from, this chance to prove that the Heat organization can survive the shunning of any single player, even an all-timer in his prime.
He split his statement into two paragraphs. The first was all class, full of praise for James, calling him "a fantastic leader, athlete, teammate and person, and we are all sorry to see him go."
The second was all Riley.
Over the last 19 years, since Micky (Arison) and I teamed together, The Miami HEAT has always been a championship organization; we've won multiple championships and competed for many others. Micky, Erik and I remain committed to doing whatever it takes to win and compete for championships for many years to come. We've proven that we can do it and we'll do it again.
So that is what he is trying to do now. That's why there was no chance he would revert to the full rebuild route, not at age 69 and with his legacy on the line for the 3,000th time, not with so many season tickets already sold and so many fans calling for a competitive squad, and not with the basketball world watching to see how the Heat will recover. To see how he will recover.
Instead, Riley has embarked on Plan C, one that, so far, makes perfect sense.
He locked up Chris Bosh for five years at a premium price of $118 million, a deal that could turn out much better than Bosh's recent statistics suggest. The presence of James and Wade, and the absence of called plays—ones that run to him rather than just through him—has forced Bosh to adapt, to improve in other areas. He has extended his range and refined his defending, and now he will be forced into an aggressive offensive posture, as he was in the games James or Wade missed and he excelled. He'll also age better than he might have, had he been forced to pound in the post the past four seasons.
That gives Riley a stable piece, as well as another possible Forever Man, someone who is now all in, no in-between.
And Riley is trying to supplement Bosh with For-Now Men, those who will preserve flexibility going forward, but mostly for the summer of 2016, when many teams figure to be flush with cash due to an infusion of national television rights revenue, and when Kevin Durant may be among an elite set of targets. Riley has never swung for singles or doubles, but he can settle for that for the next two years, on the chance that another hanging curveball comes. It helps to keep the Heat viable and attractive until then, especially since they owe another first-round pick to Cleveland, and Riley doesn't much care for the draft anyway.
So, as first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, he closed the deal on Luol Deng—a proven professional who had turned down a three-year, $30 million extension to stay in Chicago several months ago, leading to a trade to the Cavaliers. Deng is now headed to Miami at a price tag of two years and $20 million.
Deng plugs the starting hole at small forward, and while he's not an ideal floor-spacer, he's still a quality wing defender and a versatile offensive player who will benefit from less excessive usage than he experienced under Tom Thibodeau in Chicago. Miami is deep at forward since adding Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts earlier in free agency.
And Riley is continuing to try to stay solid but also lean, offering contracts of no more than two years to several of the Heat's useful free agents. Sunday, he locked up Mario Chalmers on a two-year deal, hoping that Chalmers, with plenty to prove, can rebound from a distracted and distressing postseason. And late in the evening, according to Wojnarowski, he also came to terms with Chris Andersen, who has courted with several other teams. James Jones is also likely to return, as a shooting specialist.
Of course, Riley still needs to officially secure two of the aforementioned Forever Men, Wade and Haslem. That still will require some persuasion, since each would prefer at least a third season, but it would be stunning if something didn't get done. Neither wants to go anywhere.
Miami doesn't appear to have the financial wherewithal to add another frontline piece. So, to earn a top-four seed in the East, they may need an upside surprise from someone such as first-rounder Shabazz Napier, summer league sensation James Ennis or, if he re-signs, Greg Oden.
Even if Riley can add another impact rotation player and create a team with considerable depth, that won't significantly diminish the disappointment over James' unexpected departure. That is too much to ask. But something started happening in the past 24 hours, after the shock started to wear off. It's something that will only build now that Deng has turned down other suitors to join the Heat, to join Riley.
No, the Heat president couldn't keep James. But his efforts have begun to energize South Florida behind him, rather than against him. He is their reason for belief, their light through the clouds. We should have seen that coming. After all, for all he's done over the past two decades, Pat Riley is Miami's Forever Man.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.