Commentary

The reinvention (again!) of Pat Riley

His reputation as a legendary string-puller grew exponentially over the summer

Originally Published: October 7, 2010
By Johnette Howard | Special to ESPN.com


Pat RileyAP Photo/Alan DiazHe no longer calls the shots from courtside, but Pat Riley is still a master of manipulation.

"We got hoodwinked. Led astray. Hornswoggled … Bamboozled. These guys get in front of Pat Riley and he shows them his rings, and they lose their mind. Pat Riley gets people in his spell and it's, 'Whatever you want to do, Coach.'"

-- Spike Lee, film director, Knicks super fan and failed LeBron James recruiter, to The New York Times

In hindsight, the revival of Pat Riley seems so predictable, even inevitable, we should have felt the NBA rails humming. We should have seen it coming a couple hundred million dollars away.

It wasn't that long ago that things were going so poorly for Riley in his dual roles as the Miami Heat's head coach and team president, the man who literally wrote the book on "The Winner Within" ruefully told a reporter, "I'm just another coach now. Take my name off the marquee."

But all that changed again this summer when Riley coaxed free-agent stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh into joining incumbent Heat superstar Dwyane Wade in Miami in the dizzying span of 48 hours -- pulling off the NBA's biggest talent heist since Lakers general manager Jerry West sidled up to the Charlotte Hornets and nonchalantly asked what it would take to pry away the draft rights to a Philadelphia high school kid named Kobe Bryant.

[+] EnlargeChris Bosh, LeBron Jame, and Dwyane Wade
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeRiley's latest magnum opus: Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade

Riley pulled off a salary cap-defeating trifecta that no one thought possible, in part by getting each member of the Big Three to take less money. He made a short victory lap of press conferences and public appearances, but has remained almost entirely off stage since, even refusing all interview requests Tuesday night when the Heat's Big Three made their hotly anticipated preseason debut before a packed house at Miami's American Airlines Arena.

All told, Riley has conducted only three interviews in the 12 weeks since James, Bosh and Wade all signed. Which begs a question: What is ol' Riles up to now?

You have to admit: Going underground at this juncture in Heat history is odd for a man whose sheer force of personality and experienced hand on the rudder were credited for landing the Big Three. But the 65-year-old Riley is more than just a hipster champion whose swagger and classic Armani suits travel across generations.

Riley's biggest stroke of genius was comprehending, and then exploiting, how the James saga had the potential to turn from a mere basketball free-agency chase into a full-blown psychodrama, a high-stakes executive endurance test, a two-year Machiavellian exercise that required stomaching some staggering risks and devising a way to do an end-around past the rest of the NBA. Once that happened, Riley was comfortably on his turf, playing by his rules.

All those years he spent studying war generals and philosophers while coming up with motivational gimmicks and how-to books on executive leadership, all those seasons he worked at flipping the emotional switch of players -- in short, everything Riley has been parodied for in good times and bad -- paid off in his pursuit of the Big Three. Especially with James.

By the time Riley flew to Cleveland to win the five-team beauty pageant that James conducted in July, pushing what was supposed to be a two-hour pitch meeting to nearly three hours and in the process big-footing the L.A. Clippers contingent that was cooling its heels in the lobby, he might as well have been a hypnotist with a swinging watch when he asked James to sign on the dotted line.

[+] EnlargePat Riley
AP Photo/J. Pat CarterWhen he was on the bench, Riley knew every trick and used every motivational ploy.

In addition to the usual stuff about winning titles, Riley emphasized and re-emphasized to James how the Heat organization is a family. And James -- a kid from a single-parent home, a 25-year-old man-child who still surrounds himself 24/7 with his high school pals in every facet of his life -- parroted Riley's pitch almost verbatim after making his decision, explaining how family is "something I've been looking for since I was a kid."

It ain't psychobabble when it works.

Of course, we now know Riley actually began the groundwork for that heartstring-tugging ploy by gleaning intelligence for more than a year before the pitch meeting from people like Wade, a U.S. Olympic teammate and friend of LeBron's. Riley wanted to know what made James tick -- his fears, his secret desires, everything.

Knowing that James desperately wanted to avoid ending his career as a one-man band without a title, Riley told him that dynastic runs are another thing he knows something about. He tossed a bag with his championship rings onto the table and playfully told James, "Go ahead. Why don't you try one on?"

Only Riley would think to have all seven of his rings cast in gold, silver and platinum so he could switch among all 21 of them, depending on what he's wearing.

So, again, we should have known Riley would find a creative way to pull the right emotional levers and prevail.

But by all appearances, he isn't done yet.

The longer Riley quietly stays in the wings now, saying little, only occasionally showing his face, the more exaggerated his influence this season is likely to be perceived. And the more powerful his long-running reputation for string-pulling and psychological ploys should paradoxically grow.

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyRiley might not want to coach again. But what happens if the Heat doesn't play well under Erik Spoelstra?

Riley can continue to claim he's content to let 39-year-old Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra speak for the organization. But surrendering control has never been Riley's m.o. Remember, this is a man who used to pick the office carpet and paint colors at previous stops.

Two of the three times Riley has surfaced to talk since the Big Three signed, it's been with guns blazing at their numerous critics -- presumably so James, Bosh and Wade wouldn't have to respond.

Family, see?

"Get a life," Riley barked at the naysayers, calling out Charles Barkley and Orlando Magic rivals Otis Smith and Stan Van Gundy in particular.

"I don't know why we have so many critics," Riley has said. "And frankly, I don't care."

Then he went silent again like a U-boat submarine slipping back into the depths.

The suspicion is that Riley is constructing a bulletproof alibi for himself if Spoelstra lacks the gravitas to wrangle stars like James, Wade and Bosh into a title team. Then Riley can return as coach and again save the day.

But does Riley really want to go back onto the bench at age 65, even if he sees the potential for one last dynastic run?

The more likely explanation can probably be found in the third and last interview Riley gave, a Sept. 23 press conference before the start of Heat training camp. There, he flashed back to the hype that accompanied his Showtime Lakers days and acknowledged the potential for this Heat season to turn into something akin to a rock star tour.

But when asked if this season would be a failure if the Heat didn't win it all, Riley -- the same hard-driving coach who once spoke of a Lakers' three-peat before the confetti had barely hit the ground at the parade celebrating the team's back-to-back titles in '87 and '88 -- did something uncharacteristic, at least for him: He demurred.

Pat Riley
AP Photo/Mario SurianiRiley never fears the big stages, including the one on David Letterman's show in 1988.

"That isn't the kind of pressure we want to put on this team," Riley said.

Huh?

When you add it all up, Riley isn't just undergoing an image revival. He's reinventing himself yet again, not unlike how he left the fast-breaking Lakers and switched to a bump-and-grind style with the Knicks.

But can a micromanager and unrelenting taskmaster like Riley, the king of the dreaded 3½-hour NBA practice, really back off and recast himself as the Heat family's father figure now?

And even if his intentions are good, can it last? Will it work?

Depends on what kind of family father figure you're talking about.

"It's a Corleone gangster movie!" Spike Lee jokingly told the New York Times.

If the Heat mow down everyone as expected this season, settling all their grudges, there'll be no need for Riley himself to personally get his hands dirty.

But try not to make him mad.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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