Pat Riley: The Miami Years

Six sides of the Hall of Fame coach and Miami Heat architect

Updated: June 22, 2012, 10:53 AM ET
ESPN.com

Pat RileyVictor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesPat Riley's ultra-competitive streak has led to seven championship rings. Is No. 8 on the way?

For longtime NBA fans, Pat Riley might still be best known as the GQ cover boy who coached the Showtime Lakers to four titles in the 1980s, or as the motivational guru who led the down and dirty New York Knicks teams of the '90s.

But the longest stretch of Riley's professional life -- by far -- has found him coaching, building, coaching (again), tearing down and reengineering the Miami Heat for the past 17 seasons.

And now Riley, who moved upstairs in 2008 to run the franchise full-time, has his latest and most infamous creation -- the Miami SuperFriends -- in the Finals for the second straight season, after winning a title six years earlier as the coach of a Heat team featuring Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal.

We asked our writers to give us their unique takes on Pat Riley: The Miami Years.

A ringmaster chasing the win

By Marc Stein

It's not just an all-time quote in the modern history of the coaching profession.

With Pat Riley, it's the total truth.

You surely know the words by heart by now, but they still carry weight after all these years. No one sentence tells the story of Riley better than this: "There is winning ... and there is misery."

That's him. That's really how he thinks. When it comes to maniacal competitiveness, Riley was/is the Michael Jordan of coaches/executives. In the two decades that I've been blessed to sit in the best seat in sports journalism and track the NBA from press row, I can't think of anyone I've encountered who wanted to win more.

Maybe Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Maybe.

I've certainly had my issues with some of the choices he's made, as pretty much anything Heat-related that I wrote during the 2005-06 season confirms. Still can't believe, to this day, that he let LeBron's infamous pre-championship parade ("not five, not six, not seven") ever happen.

And as much as I embrace and even celebrate my own paranoia, my own neurotic side, I've never quite understood how Riles could force his broadcasters and other select members of Miami's traveling party to stay in a different hotel than the team hotel when the Heat are on the road ... when it was Riley's job as a Lakers broadcaster that put him in position to get into coaching in the first place.

Yet as a leader of men, as a motivational speaker, Riley has few peers in the annals of the sport. He eventually wore down the Showtime Lakers with his unrelenting intensity, but check him out two decades later. Try naming an authority figure in the game who connects with star players better than he does.

He likes to refer to us media pests as "peripheral opponents," but he once confessed to the Orange County Register's Earl Bloom -- my first mentor on the NBA beat -- that he thought he'd never be fully appreciated as a coach until he took over a bad team or an expansion team and took it all the way to a championship. Winning it all his way in 2006 essentially checked off that box and shut a lot of us up.

And who else could have mustered the requisite charm and audacity to try to put the Heatles together?

Only Riles. He gave birth to the concept of the Armani coach and has spewed a slew of memorable quotations to fill up the Internet, but trust me:

He'd rather be remembered for his three-hour practices.


Pat Riley and Shaquille O'NealAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter taking over for Stan Van Gundy as coach in 2006, Riley led Miami's ill-fitting group to a title.

One last dance for a Hall of Fame coach

By Israel Gutierrez

Pat Riley's final stint as a head coach began in peculiar fashion, to say the least.

The summer prior to the Heat's 2005-06 championship season, just months before he took the reins from Stan Van Gundy, Riley took a team that reached Game 7 of the conference finals and essentially disassembled it.

Working around his treasured pieces of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal, Riley picked up some of the most non-Riley players with whom he's ever associated.

Jason Williams, whose reputation was flash first, defense last -- or never?

Antoine Walker, the shoot-first, shoot-always "power" forward?

Gary Payton, the volatile final piece of the puzzle -- if that puzzle was intended to detonate a locker room?

It made zero sense at the time, especially under Van Gundy, who wouldn't have signed off on these players if it came with a $1 million bonus.

But 21 games into the regular season, it was Riley's turn to play the hand he had dealt, as Van Gundy departed, and Riley did it masterfully.

It was as if he'd been preparing since he had stepped down in 2003, whipping that cast into shape so thoroughly that even Williams was willingly playing defense.

[+] EnlargePat Riley
Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesRiley didn't always get along with Shaq, but he could get him to sing his tune when it mattered most.

Riley was at his motivational best during that postseason. His "one shirt, one suit, one tie" announcement after the Heat took a 3-2 lead in the Finals heading back to Dallas was an all-timer, right up there with his guarantee the Lakers would repeat after winning in 1987.

And who can forget the "15 strong" theme he developed, complete with thousands of cards produced featuring the players, their families and the Larry O'Brien Trophy?

It was coaching at its overdramatic best, but it was to be expected from a man who once dunked his head in a bucket of ice water and held it there to describe to his Alonzo Mourning-led Heat teams just how desperate they should feel.

Who would've thought, after watching Riley's podium dance -- awkward but somehow still hip -- during the championship celebration in Miami, that it would've ended so ugly?

Riley, who might have never displayed more loyalty than he did by keeping nearly that entire championship roster together for one more year, quickly experienced a crash.

Wade's shoulder dislocation led to a first-round sweep at the hands of the gutsy Bulls in 2007. The following season, which you could tell from miles away would be Riley's last on the bench, left him stunned.

O'Neal, the persuasive big man who helped lure Riley back to the sideline, disrespected the legend in a way no one else had.

O'Neal wanted out so badly, he and his representative tried to manipulate a trade, ideally to the Mavericks. O'Neal dismissed Riley's and the staff's attempts to get him healthy with state-of-the-art training machines.

And as the final straw, O'Neal threatened to come to blows with Riley just before a practice. In front of everyone. Poking his coach in the chest, showing no respect, and requiring teammates to pull him away.

I spoke with Riley about this after O'Neal was eventually traded to Phoenix, and he'd never felt so insulted in his career. It was as if all the work he'd done to establish his status was invalidated by a childish superstar who would undermine Riley until he got his way.

When Riley handed over the team to Erik Spoelstra, you could feel it was his last coaching stint. He experienced the best and the worst of it in three short seasons.

In typical Riley fashion, though, he made every moment feel important, and every bit of the ride memorable.


Pat RileyNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesUnderneath Riley's slick head of hair lies one of the greatest motivational minds in NBA history.

The Cult of Riley

By Kevin Arnovitz

Midway through a grueling first-round playoff series against the Bulls in 2006, Heat coach and team president Pat Riley had what Alonzo Mourning described as a "tin pen" constructed in the middle of the Heat's locker room.

Before each playoff game thereafter, Riley or a designated player would roll a wheelbarrow full of stuff to dump into the bowl inside the pen -- thousands of cards that read "15 Strong" on one side, with photos of players' loved ones on the other. Riley put his championship rings in that bowl, and even the rosary from his mother's funeral.

When the Heat set out on the road during that postseason, Riley had team managers pack up the prop to relocate it to the visiting locker rooms in Chicago, East Rutherford, N.J., Detroit and, ultimately, Dallas for the NBA Finals.

Before the procession of media marched into the locker room for press availabilities, a large blanket was draped over the pen, because Riley's stunt wasn't for public consumption. As with many of Riley's well-scripted motivational exploits, the pen and its accoutrements belonged exclusively to the Heat.

Everyone outside the Heat organization was an uninvited guest, a conductor of "noise" -- a term current coach Erik Spoelstra also uses to characterize the prattle, criticism and pop theories from the media and a skeptical public about this new version of the Heat.

Riley or a designated player would roll a wheelbarrow full of stuff to dump into the bowl inside the pen -- thousands of cards that read "15 Strong" on one side, with photos of players' loved ones on the other. Riley put his championship rings in that bowl, and even the rosary from his mother's funeral.

Those inspirational practices, the motivational phrases written inside playbooks and preached in film sessions -- now by Spoelstra -- might sound corny to outsiders, but to those inside the organization, they were salvation.

The Heat were never given a birthright. Long before it was a "destination" franchise for elite talent, Miami was just another expansion franchise struggling in the NBA's Michael Jordan era, having played its first game just months after MJ won his first MVP award.

Riley changed that, not just as a whiteboard tactician, but as an ecclesiastical leader.

One coach last year described the Heat's ethic as "cultish" but emphasized that he didn't mean it pejoratively. Cults demand unwavering devotion from disciples, and all of those Riley catchphrases -- variations of which have been appropriated by Spoelstra -- might seem like baloney to the cynic, but those messages have the religious power that can entrance someone adrift in the world. Someone like LeBron James, perhaps, whom Riley famously recruited in 2010.

One of Riley's guiding principles is "contact," an almost pentecostal relationship between player and coach.

"You've got to talk to them through the course of the game," Riley said in 2011. "You have to ask their advice and take their advice. I learned that from Earvin Johnson, and he became my greatest ally and I became his.

"You have to put your hands on your players in timeout huddles. You got to put your arm around them when they come over to the sideline and ask you questions. You don't have to kiss their ass, but you have to keep contact with them."

Riley confessed that what ultimately drove him back upstairs into the Heat front office after the 2007-08 season was his inability to maintain that contact. He'd lost his flock.

"A lot of coaches are separate," Riley said. "One of the things that probably happened to me in the end is that I became more separate, a little more intolerant of guys who would be messing with my value system."

Feeling that he lost contact, Riley handed Spoelstra his ministry. Spoelstra might not carry Riley's charisma -- he's more of the diligent divinity student than the fire-and-brimstone preacher -- but he's infused with Riley's moral and ethical code, and faithful to the spirit of that totemic bowl.

Religious institutions love their material symbols and their incorruptible creeds -- but most of all, they worship their prophets.


Miami Heat Steve Mitchell/US PresswireDid Riley's hard sell in the summer of 2010 help the Heat orchestrate their free-agent coup?

Whose 'Decision' was it?

By Henry Abbott

In the days leading up to The Decision, the story as I heard it was that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were determined to play together. After thriving on Team USA, they realized how nice life could be having teammates who worked as hard as they did, who could make things happen on the court like they did. They would play together ... somewhere.

There were ways a handful of teams might be able to make that happen, but it would take a lot of doing. The Heat, on the other hand, had the cap space to sign everybody, if each of the three would take a little less than they could make elsewhere. I heard that's what was going to happen, and I was scrambling for insight.

I called up a big-time agent, one who had some players tangentially involved. I hoped he could confirm some of what I had heard. He didn't know anything about it -- but he did know about the history of contracts and the cap.

And then he added that if Pat Riley had talked James, Wade and Bosh into uniting in Miami, it would be essentially unprecedented -- a massive coup for Riley.

That jolted me a bit. Was this Riley's doing? I had heard it was all about what the players wanted. But if Riley were really that masterful, that's exactly what the players would think. The best salespeople sell in a way that makes you think it's your idea.

I don't know if Riley really did pull the strings. He also could have been the lucky guy with good timing, the guy who had the team with the cap space to unite three players determined to play together. It could also have been a bit of both.

But Riley certainly won the summer of 2010. The guy who wins ... well, it's tough to second-guess his performance. Nicely played.

I'll tell you something else I appreciate: Two years later, I still don't know. It's a credit to Riley's discretion that he has yet to take a victory lap.


Riley-MourningMichael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel/Getty ImagesRiley's players don't stray far. Alonzo Mourning is the Heat's vice president of player development.

Riley Guys

By J.A. Adande

A man is defined by the company he keeps ... or, in Pat Riley's case, those he keeps in the company. Look at the Heat's corporate directory, or in the staff seats at their home games, and you see names like Alonzo Mourning and faces such as Tim Hardaway's -- and you realize that once you're in Riley's circle, you're never out.

Mourning is the Heat's vice president of player development. Hardaway is the team's community and corporate liaison. The more accurate title for both former players is Riley Guys.

"You've got to earn that respect from him," Hardaway said. "By earning that respect, you've got to show him that you're willing to work hard on and off the court, be prepared see things the way he sees it, and want to win and do whatever it takes to win, being prepared at all costs to do that.

"The benefit is that you're in for life. You're in the organization for life. You're one of his guys. He's going to take care of you."

Riley has always been a man of extremes. When he coached, his practices were known for their length and ardor. But, as a former Heat player once told me, the reward for getting through them was first-class accommodations in every aspect. Few teams live as luxuriously as the Heat.

The players who give him the most are the most likely to work for him when they retire. Bob McAdoo helped Riley win a championship in his first season as coach of the Lakers. When McAdoo's playing days were over, he got a job on the Heat's coaching staff. He's been there for 17 years.

"The thing you see is loyalty," McAdoo said. "That's valuable. Because you don't see a lot of loyalty in this game. I've seen coaches win Coach of the Year, they're fired the next year. I've seen coaches win 60 games, because they didn't win the championship, fired. It hasn't happened in Miami. Pat's been loyal to us. He treats us as family. We know we've got to produce. It's more like a family situation. It makes you work harder, year-in and year-out, because you know you've got a guy that's got your back."

It's something to keep in mind whenever the topic of Erik Spoelstra's job security comes up. Riley's nature is to keep his guys, regardless of the public sentiment. Especially someone whom he has groomed from the moment he walked in the door, as is the case with Spoelstra.

The Riley mentality permeates the organization. When you hear Spoelstra talking about the need for his team to play with force, it's the same words Riley used when he was coaching the Knicks in the 1990s. Do things Riley's way and you'll keep on doing.

But a word of warning, from Hardaway: "Pat, if you cross him, you're out of there."


Pat RileyAP Photo/Alan DiazWill Riley, 67, walk away for good if Miami wins the 2012 title? Either way, he has his exit planned.

The final ring?

By Brian Windhorst

Pat Riley is known for many things, his long-range vision being one of the most well-known. Just as he spent three years plotting to assemble the greatest free-agent class in history, he also has been planning his own exit from the game.

The question is when to put his plan into action.

Several times this season, the 67-year-old Riley has dodged questions about his tenure with the Miami Heat, joking, "Where am I going to go?"

On Tuesday night, as he received a lifetime achievement award, he said he's "still got a lot of bite left in my bark."

But someday, and perhaps it is sooner than later, Riley will be exiting. After one last championship, his eighth ring in all? It's not clear, and perhaps he wants it that way.

Still, he remains prepared. Riley received one of the greatest compensation packages for a league executive in sports history when Heat owner Micky Arison lured him away from the New York Knicks, giving Riley a contract that promised him a 10 percent stake in the team. It was a part of a series of long-term contracts Riley had with enormous payouts that the billionaire owner believed he was worth.

But after the Heat won the title in 2006, Riley began to prepare an exit. He sold his stake for millions to the team's current CEO, Nick Arison. Then he gave up coaching in 2008. After insisting for years that he should have a contract -- a formality that Arison didn't always think was necessary -- Riley no longer has a contract. He's going year-to-year on a handshake agreement. Last summer, Nick Arison was promoted over Riley in the organizational chart, giving Riley a new boss for the first time in years.

Just a few months ago, Riley also sold the sprawling waterfront Miami mansion known as "Casa Riley," which he had owned since 1996 -- at a profit of $10.5 million -- and moved into an apartment on South Beach. Meanwhile, he has completed his dream house in Malibu, even fighting the city to get the oceanfront palace just the way he wanted it, presumably because he intends to retire there. Last fall, he made sure that his closest confidant in the Heat organization, Erik Spoelstra, had a contract extension for the next few years.

With his last masterpiece, this revolutionary Heat team, on the verge of reaching the mountaintop, will Riley be ready to make 2012 his swan song?

Maybe, maybe not. But whatever he decides, it's a plan he has been working on for years.