clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Behind the smoke and mirrors is the real Pat Riley

New, comments

In a rare moment of candor, the Miami Heat president opened up about his life before coaching, what truly makes him happy, the departure of LeBron James and moving on to a new era of basketball excellence.

Mike Ehrmann

Sometimes it's easy to get lost in the carefully-crafted image, to the point where you can't separate what's real or imagined. Through which lens do you view Pat Riley? Is he just the well-tailored suit prowling along the sideline or is he the hardnosed, blue-collar family man from Schenectady, New York?

In an intimate interview with ESPN's Dan Le Batard, Riley revealed details about his life in basketball that are hidden behind the Armani curtain that was sewn for him in Los Angeles. Le Batard gets a lot of flak for his perceived homerism. It's a byproduct of growing up in South Florida to Cuban parents, attending the University of Miami and covering sporting events for the local paper before moving on to the national stage. But it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to sit down with Riley, anyone who knows how to navigate his way past the façade and cut to the heart of a man who has spent nearly two decades with the Miami Heat.

It's fitting that my first reasons for writing up the interview were based on a misleading tagline - comments about LeBron James - that are a very insignificant part of the story that Riley tells. He begins by describing what life was like for him after his once-promising career in the NBA was unceremoniously cut short by lingering injury. Although never a star, he'd carved out a career as a gritty and complementary piece on superstar-laden teams, probably not unlike the players - Keith Akins, Bruce Bowen, and many more - that always thrived on Riley's squads. After getting called down to a local diner in Phoenix (his last stop in the league after winning a ring with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West in Los Angeles) to meet with his coach, he knew it was over and soon "found out what real depression was."

He floundered for a while, living a relaxed, undemanding life that involved sunshine, volleyball and sharing margaritas with Chris, now his wife of 44 years. After always outworking everyone on the court, it was easy to fall into this simple life in the sand - "You get pretty good at being a beachbum" - but he knew it wouldn't last forever.
Riley explained that there were eight men that had influenced him throughout his life and they all shared one thing in common; coaching. One was his father, who had a long career in baseball as a player and coach. He declined to name the others but said that he saw himself becoming a "storyteller" and teaching basketball was a natural fit.
It's here where the contrasting views of Riley first come into focus.

His start with L.A. is often perceived as happenstance, merely being in the right place at the right time after Paul Westhead was fired by Lakers' owner Dr. Jerry Buss. The reality is one that is coveniently ignored, that Riley's lineage would always lead him to the sideline. His "respect for the profession" ran so deep that he admitted to Le Batard that his most confident period in coaching - the mid- to late-80s - began only after the end of a five-year span when he felt uncomfortable at being referred to as "coach," even after having won multiple championships.

Riley is pressed about his life in Los Angeles and reveals that at the height of his time with the Lakers, the image of "the GQ coach" was a mistake. He stops just short of saying he regrets this - he doesn't feel guilty about this or anything else in his decades in basketball - but concedes that it was a bad decision to put "his brand" ahead of the team. Even the iconic fashion trend was born of his blue-collar nature: his father had always told him, "Don't ever leave the house unless you've got on a clean shirt, pressed pants and combed hair."

After remaining in title contention for nearly a decade, he realized his time in L.A. was done after a postseason elimination by the Suns and the subsequent misery of losing led Riley to shatter a mirror with his fist. As blood ran down his sleeve, it was time to step away from the game that might mean too much to him.

He doesn't deny this intensity is what led to his success but he reveals that basketball has never made him happy. Not playing, coaching or making decisions as an executive. His views on the subject are confusing and you wonder if, perhaps, he's being just a bit disingenuous here. He adds that, "...joy, happiness...they're not really a part of my life."

But it's all framed within the context of Riley, the family man, when he says his fondest memories are of coming home and letting out his trademark, piercing whistle - one that could be heard over the roar of raucous crowds at The Forum, Madison Square Garden and AmericanAirlines Arena alike - to summon his two children to give him simultaneous "triple kisses."

It's the constant in Riley's evolution in basketball - the oak-like roots that he always replanted in glittering L.A., New York and Miami. When asked if there was any one thing that he'd done in the sport that made him proudest, Riley bristles at the line of questioning. It paints a conflicting picture - him growing uncomfortable and squirming in his chair - of how he's usually perceived, all slicked-back hair and perfectly in control.

This is furthered when he begrudgingly admits that keeping his front office together trumps all the winning and success. Being surrounded by, as Le Batard puts it, "Heat Lifers and loyalists" is much more important than the spotlight that people assume Riley always covets.

Two particularly damning moments in this storied career are clarified in the interview. His departure from New York led to the nickname "Pat, the Rat" that graced homemade signs when the Heat went to The Garden in 1995. Most of it stemmed with how Riley allegedly resigned from the team but he explains that his move to Miami had been in discussion with Knicks president Dave Checketts for weeks before it actually took place.

Similarly, the story of how Riley resumed coaching the Heat in 2005 has stained his tenure in South Florida. When Riley resigned from coaching and handed the reins to trusted assistant Stan Van Gundy, many assumed it would be a matter of time before he'd regain control. When it happened a little over a year later, the story sold publicly was that Van Gundy wanted to step away from the sideline.

At the time, many assumed he has been forced out.

Riley refutes this (as has Van Gundy) but it's easy to buy into, given the contrasting images of well-manicured, Machiavellian Riley lurking in the shadows behind sloppy, portly everyman Van Gundy. An image created in a bygone era of excess has haunted Riley even as it continues to define him.

Considered the architect of the "Big 3" era, he's asked if he feels disconnected from the celebration and success that was enjoyed for those four years. Not at all, he responds, before adding that it was necessary in order to give current coach Erik Spoelstra an opportunity to be the singular voice that represents the organization.

He relished in the Heat's 2012 championship, conceding that it was "special" and he felt it was in the midst of a 10-year run of success that "ended prematurely." He's guided to the subject of LeBron James and you expect that finally the juiciest tidbits will be revealed. Instead, he deflects it with ease.

Riley says that he doesn't "have any hate in me" toward James but the phone call from the superstar player is one that will stick with him forever. He, perhaps stubbornly, refused the notion that he would have done anything differently and instead chalks up losing James to "forces of nature." These include the loss to the Spurs in the 2014 Finals, perhaps Miami being inferior to the Cavaliers and, of course, the lure of going home.

But he's moved on and expects everyone in the "Heat Nation" to do the same. A recent, six-minute video is seen as a glossy homage to a fan base that might be fractured by the loss of James. The words narrated by Hall-of-Famer Alonzo Mourning weren't written by Riley, but as he explains, perfectly summarize his feelings about the Heat franchise.

Riley admits that the team has received some criticism for the campaign that launched this season but, once again, he redefines the context in which it's perceived. If critics might see it as a reminder that this new team, sans James, is still worth watching, Riley will simply remind you that the message is one that's been a part of the team well before the events of this summer. From owner Micky Arison to Riley and to his protégé, Spoelstra, it's a shared view on building a team through hard work and, thus, defining a city.

Underneath the foamy waves of South Beach is a current of grit and dedication that is, of course, perfectly in synch with the view of Riley. As Le Batard succinctly put it, "You're Schenectady, not Hollywood."

Away from Showtime and the celebrity of the Big Apple, Riley has managed to once again plant his hometown roots for the last time.