Pat Riley, at age 75, is still exacting revenge.
In a single flip through the calendar, the Miami Heat team president transformed a roster that landed in the lottery last season into one on the verge of ousting his archival Boston Celtics and setting up an NBA Finals showdown with a superstar and a team he led to multiple titles before acrimonious splits 24 years apart.
Nobody outside of Miami saw this Heat team contending for a championship this season, and yet Riley is five wins from his masterpiece. He led the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers to four championships as their head coach in the 1980s. After a stint with the rough-and-tumble New York Knicks of the early 1990s, Riley joined the Heat, with whom he has won another three championships as the executive responsible for pairing Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James with Dwyane Wade. But a ring in 2020 would be his finest work.
Should he maneuver the Heat past the Celtics and to a fourth title opposite James and the Lakers, Riley will have eternal satisfaction for a career’s worth of unforgiving grudges against anyone who has wronged him.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has since pinned on Riley the Detroit Pistons’ Finals sweep of the Lakers in 1989, around the time Michael Cooper had begun referring to the regimented drill sergeant as “Coach Hitler.” Within a year, despite leading a team that had lost Abdul-Jabbar to retirement to 63 wins and the top seed in the Western Conference, Riley had lost the Lakers. Between Games 2 and 3 of a 1990 first-round series against the Houston Rockets, Magic Johnson and his Lakers teammates took aim at the coach’s back.
“They had a team meeting and they’re motherf---ing him,” ex-Lakers public relations director John Black told Jeff Pearlman in the book, “Showtime.” “Motherf---er this and motherf---er that and all these motherf---ers directed at Pat. I didn’t know it was to that extent. And I was like, ‘Holy f--.’ It was all melting down.”
Two weeks later, the Phoenix Suns upset the Lakers in the West semifinals, and Riley quit, having lost his ego battle with Johnson. The coach clashed with general manager Jerry West, and the Lakers opted not to honor his handpicked successor, Randy Pfund, so Riley gritted his teeth through a peaceful transition of power to new coach Mike Dunleavy. In the years since, despite Riley’s admitted “sentimental” interest in returning to the Lakers as an executive, the team never sought to hire him, instead picking Johnson again.
As team president, Johnson succeeded in luring James to L.A., and now Riley is one win from a shot to show them the fruits of his labor with the Heat. It has been six years since James left Miami, spoiling a plan Riley set in place to bring a handful of championships to South Beach. James and Riley did win a pair of titles together in 2012 and 2013, but their split a year later was even more acrimonious than the one in L.A.
Riley practically dared James to leave Miami in 2014, stating publicly, “This stuff is hard. And you go to stay together, if you've got the guts. And you don't find the first door and run out of it.” James accepted the challenge, returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Riley was “very angry,” requiring a confidant to convince him not to lambaste James, just as Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert had done in comic sans four years earlier.
“I had two to three days of tremendous anger,” Riley told Ian Thomsen in “The Soul of Basketball” in 2018, conceding he and James had never spoken in the years since. “I was absolutely livid, which I expressed to myself and my closest friends. My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down. That team in 10 years could have won five or six championships. But I get it. I get the whole chronicle of [LeBron’s] life.”
When James won his ring with the Cavaliers in 2016, his thoughts quickly turned to revenge against Riley.
“When I decided to leave Miami — I'm not going to name any names, I can't do that — but there were some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years [who] told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career,” James told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, clearly referencing Riley. “And that s--- hurt me. And I know it was an emotional time that they told me that because I was leaving. They just told me it was the biggest mistake I was making in my career. And that right there was my motivation.”
It was a quest to build one more champion in Miami that has also motivated Riley in the years since The Heatles broke up. James’ departure, coupled with Wade’s fading impact and Chris Bosh’s early retirement, forced Riley into one last rebuild. His trade for Jimmy Butler last year was a stepping stone to luring yet another big-name free agent in 2021, when Riley would reveal another contending roster, but his latest plan has been expedited by the emergence of several sly acquisitions, starring Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
It was Herro who Riley selected 13th last year, one spot ahead of Boston, the benefit of a pre-draft coin flip. One more twist of the knife against Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations who Riley told in 2013 to “shut the f--- up and manage his own team” in an official statement. Ainge had been critical of the officiating against James at the time. “He was the biggest whiner when he was playing,” added Riley.
And it was Herro who scored 37 points to bring Miami within a game of eliminating Boston, a franchise and city Riley had lambasted in his 1988 book, “Showtime,” a year after his Lakers beat the Celtics in the Finals. It was his second straight Finals win over Boston after a loss to the Celtics in 1984 that led to his ridicule.
“The ‘Boston Mystique’ encourages the lowest common denominator of fan behavior,” he wrote. “It grows directly out of the low-rent attitudes of Boston management ... The Boston Mystique isn’t leprechauns hiding in the floorboards. It's a willingness to use any tactic to upset an opponent. Turn up the heat when it's already hot. Shut down the visitors’ water heaters. The general manager [Red Auerbach] chasing officials all the way to the dressing room to try to intimidate them. To hell with dignity. To hell with fair play.”
The first leg of Riley’s three decades-long revenge tour is nearly complete. The Lakers and James would presumably come next, and with perhaps his final rebuild, Riley will look to tear down the team and player he helped construct into all-time greats. After all the acrimony, Riley is five wins from getting the last laugh.
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