Pat Riley and the high cost of aging

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By DAVID RAMIL
The Cauldron

It may sound like blasphemy considering his resume, but with each passing season, it's becoming more and more clear that Pat Riley — the once proud, paternal President of the Miami Heat — is merely clinging to the past.

During the team's formative years, the Heat found itself with a limited fan base, comprised mostly of displaced expats from the Northeast who brought with them to South Florida a love of basketball. Old-timers would wax nostalgic about the halcyon days of Willis Reed at the Garden as they watched a carousel of coaches lead a parade of no-names, has-beens, and never-weres into lotteries or first-round playoff exits.

When Riley left the New York Knicks via infamous facsimile in 1995, he gave Miami's struggling NBA franchise its first taste of legitimacy — instantly becoming its most recognizable member, prowling the sidelines with his tailored suits and slicked-back hair as he had once done in New York and Los Angeles. Equal parts celebrity and legend, Riley vowed to transform the Heat into champions.

He started things by trading away Miami's best scorer at the time (Glen Rice) and acquiring a young, determined center (Alonzo Mourning) that would serve as the centerpiece of a gritty, defensive-minded team. The Heat would be an extension of Riley's blue-collar roots, the Schenectady, New York-steel — a core that was belied by the polish and fine silk.

Miami's fanbase instantly coalesced behind Riley. Handsome, confident and oozing success, he assembled and sold a product that was as competitive as it was compelling.

But like all stories, there were at least two sides to it. While Heat fans reveled, Knicks fans rebelled, accusing "Pat the Rat" of abandoning them. Hehad promised them a title, first — and even though Michael Jordan had a little something to do with it, Riles still failed to deliver. He had rejected a lucrative offer from the MSG suits. The final details were hazy, with both Riley and Knicks ownership claiming the other struck the final blow, but it was enough to infuriate the Garden faithful — a hatred many New York fans still carry today.

The dysfunction becomes apparent here, as does the familial metaphor. While Riley's ex- frothed, Pat's new family embraced the vitriol, a sense of "us vs. them" that they've used like an Armani-covered shield over the last two decades.

When Riley traded away key players and draft picks during his first few years in Miami, there was little uproar. For a team with limited history, and with their supporters still just a budding group, it was simply accepted as a reasonable means of improving.

When those same Knicks eliminated the Heat in several memorable playoff clashes (bloody, low-scoring feuds where the scoreboard suffered most), there was always hope and next year to look forward to. There was no decades-long buildup of frustration, as there was in cities like New York and Cleveland, and so Miami fans simply proclaimed "In Pat We Trust" and waited patiently.

The most regrettable example of this was when Mourning was struck by a potentially fatal kidney disease in 2000. He'd seek treatment, recover, and then miss prolonged stretches. The team struggled for years, as Mourning was (understandably) an infrequent and unpredictable presence in the lineup. But when Zo's contract expired and he expected to re-sign with the Heat, Riley chose not to pay a player whose health was so perpetually in question. Mourning signed with New Jersey, and floundered there — seemingly justifying the move.

Predictably, Heat fans lamented the loss of their greatest warrior, but backed Riley's decision nonetheless.

In 2003, Riley resigned his post as the Heat's head coach, turning over the clipboard to longtime assistant and friend Stan Van Gundy. There was a sense that Riles was turning over the family business to an affable-yet-ill-equipped uncle; the stark contrast between the thin, composed Riley and the portly, slovenly and histrionic Van Gundy certainly didn't help.

And then the unexpected happened. Van Gundy defied all odds, leading a team of raw but talented players (remember Lamar Odom's one season in Miami?) to the playoffs. His reward for the feat? Riley blew up the young core to acquire a not-quite-in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal to propel the Heat into title contention. Van Gundy was able to guide O'Neal and a second-year player named Dwyane Wade to the Eastern Conference finals, only to fall just short of a chance at the title when a Wade rib injury led to a Game 7 loss to the Detroit Pistons.

There were rumblings that O'Neal couldn't work with the emotive Van Gundy; rumors spread that the relatively inexperienced coach couldn't handle superstar players. Van Gundy resigned at the start of his third season as Miami's coach and, to no one's surprise, Riley climbed down from the front office to reclaim the seat on the bench that Van Gundy was merely keeping warm.

While the country roared at this perceived ruthlessness, Heat fans were generally relieved to have Riley back as the head coach. When he made good on a decade-old promise of a title that same season, the move seemed far more justified than it did callous.

It's been said before that a child becomes an adult, at least emotionally, when they recognize a parent's fallibility.

It's harder to gauge Riley's tenure when he's managed to assemble teams that have, over the course of his 20 years as the Heat's president, made it to the NBA Finals five times and won three titles. By most barometers, that would appear to be a successful run. Still, there's a questionable gambling aspect regarding personnel decisions and a dichotomy to his role as the team's surrogate father.

He often mortgages the team's future on a hope that things will work out. He trades away draft picks and players with a casual air, all the while promoting loyalty as a mainstay of the team's culture and identity. And yet why do players keep returning to the franchise (as Mourning did) if the devotion has never been mutual?

Riley's projected image of success has been distorted somewhat over the last year. This past season was a disaster for Miami. In the wake of LeBron James' return to Cleveland, the Heat re-signed superstars Wade and Chris Bosh, along with longtime role player Udonis Haslem and other free agents, to usher in a new post-"Big 3" era. The moves were widely accepted by the team's fans, viewed as a remarkable job of salvaging what little hope James' departure left behind.

When you're finally talked down off the ledge, the ground — any ground, no matter how bleak and dirty it may be — seems much more appealing.

The false optimism embraced by Heat fans was quickly packaged and branded by the marketing-savvy Riley. It was the summer of the "Heat Lifer," a catchphrase that clearly jabs at James while fondly recalling more loyal times when self-sacrifice was more important than individual glory. Still, one can't overlook the role Riley himself may have played in facilitating James' exodus.

An infamous end-of-year presser in 2014 kicked off the calamitous year for Riley and the Heat with the words, "You want to trend something? I'm pissed." The line has the dual effect of showing Riley's attempt at sounding familiar with social media while being delivered with a cantankerous, get-off-my-lawn-ness that is akin to standing there with pants riding high as he shakes an angry fist at passing youths.

And the speech just got worse from there.

His way of ensuring James, Wade and Bosh returned to Miami was to challenge them to "stay together, if you've got the guts." James called his bluff, and went back to lead his old/new Cavaliers team to the Finals. Meanwhile, the Heat — who had represented the Eastern Conference in the previous four Finals — missed the postseason entirely.

And Riley, as is common with the aged, seems too set in his ways to learn from his mistakes. In fact, he's poised to do it all over again. At the end of the season, Riley addressed Wade's ongoing health issues, ones that kept him out of action for 20 games. His quote is remarkable:

"He's got to change the narrative himself about his body and about his injuries and about his missing games... So night in and night out, there's always the question of whether or not he can or he can't. And so I'd like to have him try to get past that first hurdle mentally and do whatever he has to do to get himself ready to practice and himself ready to play, each and every night."

It's tough to support Riley's assessment that the solution to Wade's physical issues is psychological but, again, it speaks to a part of us that many would want to embody, which is the ability to simply fight your way through pain by ignoring it. Moreover, it seems that Riley's appraisal of the injuries and their impact is far different than Wade's.

Rumors suggest that the Heat front office are engaged in testy contract negotiations with Wade, ones that threaten to drive him away from the team after 12 years. Specifically, Wade has given up millions over the course of his career, often taking deals for lesser amounts to provide the team flexibility to add other quality players; he did it most notably in 2010 to help sign James and again in 2014 following his departure.

And while you could argue that Wade's health concerns would put his value at less than the reported $23 million he's seeking, the lowball figure of under $10 million allegedly offered by Riley seems ludicrous and just a little insulting.

Wade's agent has assured the team that his client is prepared to seek greener pastures elsewhere and the Miami Heat fan base finds itself at a crossroads. Wade is beloved in South Florida — but so is Riley, and the familial dysfunction threatens to tear fans apart. For the first time in Riley's two decades of sitting at the head of Miami's table, people are starting to question if he's capable of leading the team any more.

Reports are that Riley rejected the notion of current head coach Erik Spoelstra's "position-less" basketball; an effective use of smaller lineups to create mismatches, particularly along the perimeter. Riley wanted to adhere to a more traditional rotation, Spoelstra overruled him, and the Heat won two more championships as a result. In conjunction with the mistakes of the past two summers, Riley comes out of this exchange looking even more out-of-touch.

It's a difficult position for Miami's fans, loyal to the man who gave them basketball life even if he's willing to risk throwing it all away. If he re-signs Wade and brings the team back into playoff contention, the gamble will have paid off yet again. But should he lose the face of the franchise, Heat fans may finally be forced to recognize that this time, Riley's mistakes might be too many to overcome.

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