MIAMI (AP) — From his seat, whether at an exhibition game or the NBA finals, Pat Riley has remained largely stoic this season. His expression hardly changes, no matter the situation.
But now, the Miami Heat president confesses, the truth can come out: It's all a front.
"It's a harrowing type of thing, when you truly care about winning," he said this week.
Fortunately for Riley, this Heat team has won more regular-season and playoff games than any other in franchise history, 71 and counting heading into Thursday night's Game 2 of the NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat held a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, trying for their second title after topping the Mavericks in six games in 2006.
Riley masterminded that run and has been the chief orchestrator for everything since. Miami went from the top of the NBA to the bottom two years later, winning only 15 games in an injury-plagued 2007-08 season that would be the Riley's coaching finale. Structuring contracts a certain way then allowed the Heat to spend freely last summer when retaining Dwyane Wade and adding LeBron James, Chris Bosh and others that have Riley on the cusp of another title.
"I think a community develops a covenant with its team throughout the course of a season, good or bad," Riley said. "The year that I won 15 games, as much as they disliked it, I really believed they were there in support of the team and they hoped that one day, that we knew enough about what we had to do to get to a day like this today."
Here they are. If the Heat pull this off, it would be Riley's eighth ring: He has five as a head coach, one as an assistant, one as a player.
"I need a few of those," James said last summer, when one key detail of his recruiting meeting with Riley came out.
By now, it's almost a part of Heat lore. Riley — a winner of 1,210 regular-season games and a three-time NBA coach of the year — took his rings, put them in a pouch and dropped the bag on a table in front of James while trying to woo him to Miami. The message couldn't have been more simple, a Hall of Fame coach teasing a future Hall of Fame player with the jewelry he covets most.
Call it a unique form of motivation, which is one of Riley's many calling cards.
"If you know Pat, you go into his office, he calls you in there, and it's like talking to the Godfather," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "The lights are always dim. He can see you, but you can't really see him."
Spoelstra is the latest Riley pupil become an NBA coaching success story, from the most modest of NBA beginnings, working in the Heat video room in the mid-1990s and unsure if his boss knew his name. Riley watched Spoelstra rise through the franchise as an assistant, then picked him as his coaching successor in 2008.
In some ways, that's been both a blessing and a curse. Even this week, as the NBA finals were set to begin, Spoelstra was asked if Riley was calling all the team's shots. The topic comes up on a fairly regular basis, and earlier this season it was widely speculated Riley may have to return to the bench and save Miami after the Heat got off to a 9-8 start.
On this point, the Heat are very clear: That was never, ever going to happen.
"I use Pat as a resource as much as I possibly can," Spoelstra said. "I think all the other elements are the ones that I'm more fascinated with. He's a walking motivational leadership speaker, and he can pontificate about so many other elements outside of X's and O's. Those are usually our discussions, about how to motivate, how to manage personalities, how to lead, these type of things that usually cost people $50,000 to get that type of advice. I just have to go down the hall and knock on the door."
It's believed Riley makes $50,000, or more, when he speaks to corporations about how to succeed.
On that topic, he would seem to be a bit of an expert.
He's written books on the subject, he still finds ways to relay that knowledge to players and he oversees every element of the basketball-operations side of the Heat, right down to which motivational quotes will be etched on the walls leading from their locker room. Even this week, when Riley appeared at an NBA Cares event and touched the league's championship trophy, a slew of Heat players in attendance took immediate notice.
"Coach Riley is very inspirational," Wade said. "He's in the background, but he's around often and when he talks, you listen because of his knowledge of the game. And also, he's a leader. He's the leader of this organization and we respect him. I think he's done a great job of putting together a pretty good team and coming in at the right times when he feels the need to be able to express himself."
Riley retired in name only. The only thing he really gave up is patrolling the sideline on game nights.
He's at just about every practice, usually flanked by team owner Micky Arison and other team executives, sitting off to the side. He's known for sneaking up on players when they least expect it and engaging them in conversations, just telling them what he sees on the floor. And he keeps an extremely low profile now, trying to not overshadow Spoelstra and the coaching staff. He rarely gives interviews anymore.
Still, when he speaks, it resonates. Riley told fans last season that the Heat were trying to put together "a dynasty," and that video on the team's website sent season-ticket demand skyrocketing. Then he did his part to back up that boast, landing the three most-wanted free agents in last summer's NBA player-movement bonanza.
"Having him around is amazing," James said. "To be able to go to someone if need be, and it's not always just about basketball, it's about anything. We're blessed to have him around. This organization is blessed to have him, period."
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