They Can't All Be Winners, Part 15: Miami Heat

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There’s a moment in Mark Kriegel’s Esquire profile of Pat Riley where Riley stands in his 10-year-old son James’s room, which is filled with all manner of mid-90s computer equipment: synthesizers, laptops, videogames, etc. It’s a few degrees off what you’d expect from the son of a guy whose entire adult life has been consumed by a commitment to basketball so punishingly abiding you get the feeling he might hate the sport, or maybe, come to think of it, it makes quite a bit of sense. Riley stands amongst the electronics, and says to no one in particular: “James has a different thing than his daddy. James will be different than I am. But that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s good.”

This is notable for being the only place in the piece in which Riley relents, dares to be tender, or calls anything good. Kriegel is talking to Riley in the summer of 1995, not long after the coach’s acrimonious split with the Knicks, when he hightailed it to Miami in a cloud of churlish New York Post headlines. Riley is particularly pissed off in a way that suggests he has spent the better part of three decades pissed off, that he has been pissed off for so long that consciousness, for him, is just a spectrum of pissed off-ness, and that he’s been on the more red-assed end of the scale since signing on with the Heat. Later in the article, a couple beers into his evening, he cops to being a prick.

The thing that distinguishes Riley from the other numerous pricks in his field—what has made him a great coach and executive rather than a mere authoritarian with a mean streak—is an ability to channel his rage. His anger is laser-like, all that psychic heat focused down to a point that can burn through bone. Riley is unpleasant, but he’s unpleasant with a purpose.

The Miami Heat are his masterpiece, in that they are an impressive empire of unpleasantness. It all started with a bow-throwing, overachieving Knicks South squad in the mid-90s, and has only grown more annoying from there. In 2004, the Lakers gifted Riley a just-past-his-prime Shaq, who partnered with Dwyane Wade to win a title against a mentally crumbling and exponentially more expressive Mavericks team in a series in which the refereeing allowed Wade to perfect the Drive And Flail Offense. After a few fallow seasons (Shaq predictably checked out after securing a ring) came the supervillain era: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, four Finals in four years. Now, in what should be a post-LeBron spell of marked decline, Riley has instead somehow backed into Hassan Whiteside, swindled away Goran Dragic, and landed Justise Winslow. He has convinced an ever-diminishing Wade to sign a one-year contract, which amounts to Wade placing a bet on himself that he’s likely to lose. On top of everything, Riley has accomplished all of this in a city that demonstrably doesn’t give a shit about basketball played at anything lower than its pinnacle. Whenever the Heat reload, the American Airlines Arena fills up with dilettantes who can’t even be bothered to show up on time for playoffs games

There is a sense that Riley is never happier than when people are cursing him beneath their breath, grousing about luck as he ambles into the back of a town car, on his way somewhere expensive, to celebrate. When he gets to feel smug. Smugness is a cousin of being pissed off; it’s what you revel in once you’ve pissed off the people who piss you off. It’s fuck you in a different tone. When Riley arrived in Miami, he was delivering that message through a snarl. Nowadays he coos it like a song, serenades the league with it.

He turned 70 in March, and this upcoming season will be his 21st in Miami. He said he wouldn’t coach into his 60s, which turned out to be a fib, but he never said anything about leaving basketball behind entirely. Perhaps he’ll die on the throne, the Sumbitch Pope of South Beach, inking a young star to a team-friendly deal in July of 2027 and smirking off this mortal coil as the ink on the signatures dries. A next-day headline: Riley Does It Again, Passes Away at 82.

Or 92, 122, whatever. He’s insatiable: the cat who ate the canary and moved on to birds of prey. As long as anger flows through him, Riley will be expert at his job, and his empire of unpleasantness will remain intact. It could go on forever; he might be too furious for the reaper to wrangle. However long his reign extends, it will be the bane of his critics’ existence, and, well, that’s sort of the point.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets | Philadelphia 76ers | Houston Rockets | Los Angeles Lakers | Dallas Mavericks Indiana Pacers | Oklahoma City Thunder | Memphis Grizzlies | Chicago Bulls | Washington Wizards Cleveland Cavaliers Brooklyn Nets New York Knicks | Denver Nuggets

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