Wright Thompson’s profile of Miami Heat president Pat Riley has had Heat fans abuzz since its publication Tuesday. In particular, one section on the events leading up to LeBron James’ departure in 2014 has re-opened a discussion on one of the best players to don a Heat uniform.
Riley told his lieutenant, Andy Elisburg, to get the two championship trophies LeBron had won and pack them in their hard-shell carrying cases. Elisburg also brought charts and an easel for a presentation about the free agents the Heat would pursue. The day of the meeting, a hotel bellhop followed them with a luggage cart carrying the presentation and the two trophies. Riley brought wine from a Napa vineyard named Promise. It was the same label Maverick Carter had presented Riley with when they did the deal four years earlier. Riley respects Carter, and when he walked into the suite and saw James with agent Rich Paul and friend Randy Mims but no Maverick, part of him knew the meeting wasn't sincere. He told Elisburg to keep the trophies and easel in the hall. James and his associates were watching a World Cup game, which they kept glancing at during the presentation. At one point, Riley asked if they'd mute the TV.
Riley flew home worried and got a text telling him to be ready for a call. About 15 minutes later, his phone rang and Paul was on the other end. The agent handed the phone to LeBron, who started by saying, "I want to thank you for four years ..."
"I was silent," Riley says. "I didn't say anything. My mind began to just go. And it was over. I was very angry when LeBron left. It was personal for me. It just was. I had a very good friend who talked me off the ledge and kept me from going out there and saying something like Dan Gilbert. I'm glad I didn't do it."
For many Heat fans, the move exemplified pure disrespect from LeBron James — running an NBA legend (and a colleague with whom he had won two championships) on a fool’s errand and refusing to give him the decency of his time and attention in a meeting ostensibly meant to persuade James to stay with the Heat.
This anecdote resurfaces the lingering tension between James and Riley. After defeating the Golden State Warriors with the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, the three-time NBA champion said that “people that I trusted and built relationships with” in Miami told him that leaving for Cleveland was the “biggest mistake of my career.” It wouldn’t be that big of a leap to assume that James was talking about Riley (in a statement that contradicts Riley’s account that he was silent).
In the Wright Thompson piece, Riley also said that he wishes he would have signed Dwyane Wade to a maximum-level contract after James’ departure (instead of a two-year deal Wade signed) and let Chris Bosh go.
But of course, Riley says, almost immediately after LeBron left, Bosh's camp wanted to reopen a deal they'd just finished, knowing the Heat had money and felt vulnerable. Bosh threatened to sign with the Rockets. In the end, Riley gave Bosh what he wanted. Now he wishes he'd said no to Bosh's max deal and given all that money to Wade. (James and Bosh declined to comment for this story. Wade issued a statement thanking Riley for their years together.)
"You never think it's gonna end," Riley says. "Then it always ends."
Of course, no one knew about Bosh’s blood clots in 2014. But Riley initially wanted to sign Wade and Bosh to identical deals in 2014, according to ESPN’s Dan LeBatard. Bosh’s leverage over the Heat with his offer from the Rockets forced Riley to offer Bosh a max contract that has now turned into an albatross. That issue complicates the notion that the Heat took Wade for granted and never gave him his well-deserved payday.
But who thinks we’ve heard the last of this? Not me. The Big Three era was remarkable for what happened — the hysteria during the 2010-11 season, the 27-game winning streak, the two championships — but also for how quickly and how acrimoniously it ended. There are still plenty of layers to peel back.