Once upon a time, Phil Jackson had Michael Jordan. And he clubbed Pat Riley with him year after year in a way that made Riley feel profoundly helpless. Riley still talks about that time with pain and scars. Heck, after Jordan retired for the second time, leaving the league wide open for once, even that Miami Heat season ended with Riley weeping at his desk. A yelling Alonzo Mourning had to storm into Riley's office and demand that Riley go do his damn job and give one final talk to his broken team.
But now things are so much different. Now Riley has today's Jordan. And now Jackson, trying to get back in this game late in life, is doing the helpless chasing. And while there is this idea in a hopeful New York that Jackson's golden aura might be able to lure LeBron James toward the big lights, that Jackson might one day become as an executive what Riley already is, it ignores something important that has happened in the shadows over the last four years in Miami:
Jackson has fallen so very behind Riley now, and in more meaningful ways than he can possibly know.
A lot of teams talk about how they are family. Aspire to it. As if saying it makes it so. But very few live it the way this Miami organization does. Sometimes, you pretend to be a family when things are good, giving Stephen A. Smith an interview as a team because you want to speak in one star-less voice, but then adversity strikes for the first time, and the biggest guy in your locker room is calling everyone else selfish.
The Heat sold family to James the first time they visited him, and have spent all the days since proving it so. So Jackson can only sell/imagine/promise what Riley has already and actually delivered -- what James has already seen grow with his own eyes and felt grow with his own heart. Jackson can talk of possibility, but Riley can counter with proof.
And, no, this isn't about just championships. Championships are at the center of it, sure, a validation of a vision, but only part of the portrait. Look around James. Widen your view beyond what now shines on his fingers, as babies are born and marriages are started and funerals are attended and birthdays are celebrated ... and men and friendships grow together though life's biggest moments.
What got lost in James' recruitment four years ago, as the splashy Riley literally placed all his championship rings on the table, is what was being sold everywhere else in that same room. The people surrounding James? Sent to represent and introduce him to the Heat way?
There was Mourning, now a team executive, whose journey from All-Star-to-kidney-illness-to-champion-to-Hall-Of-Famer unfolded at Riley's side, in sickness and in health.
There was Eric Spoelstra, who rose from Riley's knee as video coordinator to the coaching job everyone in the sport would covet.
There was Andy Elisburg, who began as an intern when the team was born in 1988 and is now Riley's general manager.
And there was the father-son team of Micky and Nick Arison, who quietly feed the Riley As Closer legend from the shadows because it is good for their family business.
You know how Nick first met Riley? On Dad's yacht, back when Arison was stealing him from the Knicks. Nick was a kid so in awe of Riley's basketball past that he couldn't speak throughout the meal. Nick, former ballboy, has now grown into Riley's boss, having worked just about every job in the organization along his ascent. (Jackson, meanwhile, is working across the country from the team and city he prefers because the Laker family that he is literally engaged to marry into couldn't agree to keep him around.)
The day the Heat were recruiting James, though, everyone moved aside so Riley could put his rings at the center of the table, and that's what was promoted afterward to feed the Riley As Closer narrative. But here's what wasn't ... and is actually more enduring ... and is unlike what the bejeweled Jackson or anyone else can offer as free agency approaches: The Heat sold a famous kid from a broken home, a famous kid who was always in groups because he never liked to be alone, a famous kid who empowers his friends in business and calls them #lafamilia, on the idea of an organization as a family.
And look at all that has happened since:
When Chris Bosh's wife is pregnant, the wives of Riley and Arison are at the baby shower. When Wade is getting engaged, he's making the announcement at Riley's South Beach apartment, at the team holiday party. When Wade is celebrating a birthday, Riley and Arison are having drinks on his boat. When James is vacationing in Europe, he's meeting up with Arison. And when he's getting married, you'll find Riley and Arison on that dance floor.
And it isn't just for the super-famous guys, either. Heat lifer Udonis Haslem has rarely been as moved as he was at his mother's wake, when Riley came to his rough neighborhood trailed by members of the Heat front office. James Jones has played all of 406 minutes for the Heat the last two seasons, but there were Riley and Spoelstra last week, buying a table and attending his induction into the University of Miami Hall of Fame. When the Heat's PR director is celebrating his 50th birthday, Riley is the first guy at the old Irish bar, nearly ruining the surprise because he's an hour earlier than everyone else and this isn't the type of place he would frequent (the PR director's suits are awfully nice, hand-me-down Armani because he happens to be Riley's size).
And Haslem, the old pro who has twice given up in excess of $10 million to stay in Miami, never once said a negative syllable from the bench, telling anyone who would listen that a time would come when he would be needed. And, as the Pacers continue an uncommon short-circuiting since the Granger-for-Turner trade, that was the undersized Haslem pushing around Roy Hibbert, the giant who called his teammates selfish, in the most recent game to decide the Eastern Conference's best team.
Riley really likes to talk and really likes to be heard -- he gets upward of $50,000 to motivate your business team for an hour -- but every year the Heat's godfather sinks deeper and deeper into the shadows. Since taking over the Heat, he has never been publicly quieter than he has been this season. He declines all interview requests. During the playoffs last season, after losing to Indiana, he knocked on Spoelstra's door and the coach shooed him away with a "Not now, Pat!" Riley showed up later with some wine. It is hard for him to stay out of Spoelstra's light, but he is trying, and doing so better than he ever has.
But last year at about this time, protecting James, Riley called Boston Celtics President Danny Ainge a whiner and told him to "shut the f--- up." Riley didn't actually do this himself, mind you. He sent out a team spokesman to say it for him, as if putting it on company letterhead. The team spokesman tried to talk him out of it. Riley would not be talked out of it. It was perhaps his single most godfather moment in Miami, at least partially because Ainge, when asked for comment, said that Riley was right and then proceeded to shut the f--- up.
But this year's silence has been by design, and it does not come naturally to Riley, not after so many years on this intoxicating sports stage. He was a runway model as a champion coach, helping make Armani popular in this country, ringleader of those Showtime Lakers that were ballet and opera with flashbulbs allowed. But now, as he approaches 70, enjoying his retirement years like so many people in Miami, Riley feels his age. He actually pulls young people aside once in a while to remind them, "Don't you forget about us. Don't you dare forget about us."
All around him, everything is moving so fast, and it is hard to keep up, his head-phoned players staring into their phones, at once more connected than ever and more disconnected. Aging is a bitch, man, but it can be especially hard for those who most enjoyed their physical youth. Easier to be poor than to be rich then poor.
You can imagine what it is like for Jordan, once the symbol for vitality in this country, now wearing your father's jeans too high. Larry Bird, in actual pain, comes outside every once in a while just to be cranky about his Pacers. Riley was older even when fighting those guys in their prime, so if they feel old now, you can imagine how he feels these days. Part poet and part preacher, he has always been philosophical about mortality and immortality, and he can see the end from here.
Your legacy is only what you leave behind, he knows, and Jordan and Bird and now Jackson all trail after him these days, chasing those jewels the godfather intends to keep within his family.
This story by Dan Le Batard also appears in the Miami Herald