The setup would have been beyond beautiful if it wasn't so obvious.
One game -- one quarter -- away from winning the Eastern Conference finals, literally three minutes from going to The Finals. Shaq hurt, D-Wade hurt -- yet, still the game is undecided late.
After watching his Miami Heat shake the hands of the then-defending champion Detroit Pistons, Pat Riley saw one thing that had to change in order for the handshakes to be different next year. It was the sight of a coach, upset but still proud. Riley saw defeat in the face of Stan Van Gundy, but not a look of anger. What he saw was a coach who may have felt he had just lost to a better team as opposed to being beaten by an inferior one.
The look Pat Riley was looking for was not on the court that June night. The look he was looking for was inside of a luxury suite above the court.
The look was on his own face.
Less than a month later, Dr. Jack Ramsay initiated the prophecy: Pat Riley is going to be the Heat coach next year. Riley denied it, Van Gundy denied it, owner Micky Arison stayed away from it. The face the Heat showed the public (and the media): "We're going to win Game 7 next year, we're going to the Finals no changes."
Then Pat Riley flashed back to his future. He saw his old Lakers teams, he saw six coaches.
He saw a ring for his thumb.
He needed an excuse, a reason. He created several.
Sabotage would never be so beautiful.
* * * * *
Let's say that I told a joke on SportsCenter. Let's say I said, "If the Heat aren't 30-2 by All-Star break, Pat Riley's coming down to run the squad."
|ALL RILEY, ALL THE TIME|
• Anthony: My life with Riley
• Hollinger: Can Riles stand Pat?
• Stein: Q&A about Riley's return
• Broussard: It's Showtime or shut up
• Complete NBA coverage
Let's say Prophet Ramsay was on the same show and wasn't joking.
Let's say we believe the 2-19 the Miami Heat threw at us last week. Let's say we believe everything Riley said at the press conference. Let's say that Van Gundy really misses his fam.
See, no one saw what Riley saw when he looked out on that court that night. Yes, what he did in the next few months can easily go down as one of the most scandalous, underhanded, contrived moves made in modern sports -- including shaking up two-fifths of the Heat starting lineup, adding another aging player in Gary Payton, personally trading for and acquiring players with dominant personalities who would drive any coach without a ring into retirement.
We saw an almost Kanye West-sized ego, we saw a man with Trump-like control issues, we saw a power-thirsty, spotlight-hungry former guru who was tired of Larry Brown and Phil Jackson getting all the pub while Van Gundy was collecting the credit. We saw a man who put his self-interest before his word or loyalty to the man he hired to do the job he was unable to complete less than four years ago.
We saw an NBA executive gone wild.
Blinded by our own ignorance, we didn't see what was really going on. We missed the beauty of this subversion.
And because we didn't see what he was seeing -- didn't see the future of the Miami Heat from his vantage point, from that suite he used to call home in the American Airlines Arena -- we didn't see Pat Riley's calculated genius.
Let's say you once won NBA championships with a trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Let's say you coached the Knicks for years and were never able to get Patrick Ewing those two missing pieces. Let's say that that's one of your greatest regrets, but you'd never admit that publicly.
Now let's say you had Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade. And in them you saw a reincarnation of Kareem and Magic. Almost the same ages, almost the same stages in their careers. Let's say that you were the president of an NBA franchise that had just signed Shaq to a five-year deal, but knew that the window of Shaq being Shaq was closing, that he probably had two years of supreme dominance left. What's the first question that goes through your mind?
|The other thing that Riley saw that night was the last 20 years of coaches who have walked away with NBA titles: He saw Larry Brown, but he also saw Jackson, Chuck Daly, Rudy T. and Gregg Popovich. He also saw himself. He realized at that moment that regardless of how good a coach or how good a job Van Gundy had done, he may not have been in the class (yet) of the Hall of Fame coaches who have won titles.|
Where's my reincarnation of James Worthy?
See, this is what Pat Riley saw when the Heat exited the floor that night. He saw Magic (Wade), he saw Kareem (Shaq), but he knew the main reason the Heat got beat was because they didn't have that third player, that other impossible matchup problem on the court to give the defense fits.
Enter Antoine Walker. Big Game James: the Remix.
Yes, he also brought in Jason Williams, James Posey and Gary Payton, but that was all part of the plan. Security to make sure that if something did go wrong, Van Gundy would get the blame, the Heat would be too much, the personalities would be too extreme, and he'd resign from the job.
That didn't happen, but still
The other thing that Riley saw that night was the last 20 years of coaches who have walked away with NBA titles: He saw Larry Brown, but he also saw Jackson, Chuck Daly, Rudy T. and Gregg Popovich. He also saw himself. He realized at that moment that regardless of how good a coach or how good a job Van Gundy had done, he may not have been in the class (yet) of the Hall of Fame coaches who have won titles. And if coaching matchups are as important as player matchups, who's going to win the battle between Pop and Van Gundy? A man with three chips, the other in his first Finals.
Figure that out, then understand (if not appreciate) why Pat Riley did what he did. He did what all businessmen do at that time: he handled his business.
And as unfortunate as it is that his business came at the expense -- and demise -- of Van Gundy's "interim" stint as coach, none of us can argue that looking at the situation from Riley's point of view (with the window of Shaq being Diesel closing, with the ability to afford D-Wade before he's eligible to test the free-agent market closing, with the historical evidence that only G.O.A.T. coaches win championships now), he may not have done what's in the best interest of Stan Van Gundy, but he did do what was in the best interest of the city of Miami and the Heat organization.
Ain't that what a good gangster -- I mean, team president -- is supposed to do?
* * * * *
Tonight will be his first home game of his return.
The new era of Riley came off 3-and-1 on the road. Miami's average number of points scored has increased from 92 to 105, its turnovers down from 14 to 11 per.
As Shaq -- who is unfairly being blamed for orchestrating this takeover -- told the Miami Herald last week: "It's not that I'll listen more, it's that everyone will listen more. How can I put this without hurting anyone's feelings? Pat knows what it takes to get there and he knows what it takes to win."
Pat also knows that in June -- if his plan pans out the way it should, the way he envisioned it -- all of the people calling him everything from backstabber to turncoat to Machiavelli to Omorosa, will be calling him a genius once he and his second coming of Kareem, Magic and Worthy win the last game of the 2006 season.
Everyone will then see what he saw; they'll get the sabotage.
The only question is will Stan Van Gundy understand the beauty of it all?
Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.