Le Batard: Riley built empires on loyalty, consistency — and age has not eroded the results

·12 min read

The Indestructible Empire Pat Riley Built along the bay ...

What the hell do you mean? Empire? Really? Empire?)

The Indestructible Empire Riley Built along the bay ...

Indestructible? What has he won since LeBron James left, huh? Didn’t LeBron destruct the alleged empire, first when departing and again in the bubble Finals?)

The Indestructible Empire Riley Built along the bay ...

(You aren’t an empire for not getting to The Finals for years and then losing in them. The Phoenix Suns are not an empire. Miami has only been to The Finals twice in the eight years and lost both times, and did you see their last embarrassing game? Loser.)

The Indestructible Empire Riley Built on the bay glistens outside, especially on nights when the noise and lights and expectations arrive, but you will find something else closer to the core of the place during the day. It is the groaning hum of factory work, of sturdy things being made, a machine’s churning. Go past the guards at something called the command center, through the gray and cold bones of the place, and it feels like a cross between military school and military silo ... soldiers protecting a sacred weapon ... while training how to fight. It is a laboratory where disciplined basketball cadets such as Max Strus and Gabe Vincent have their minds and bodies hardened by fire and Heat, the first word in “laboratory” always “labor.”

Erik Spoelstra went from the video room to one of the top 15 coaches in the sport’s history in this furnace — something that has only happened never before — but there are eight or nine more anonymous Erik Spoelstras running around here somewhere, lifers and loyalists and lieutenants, trusted teachers of the Riley Way in different branches of something called Basketball Ops. Two more if you count Alonzo Mourning, who sits by Riley at games, growing old at his side, a soldier still; and 41-year-old Udonis Haslem, who still patrols Riley’s bench, a waste of a roster space if you don’t believe in Riley’s religion, a high priest if you do.

They are disciples who have been here 20 and 30 years, have raised their families around the Heat way, and they either haven’t worked elsewhere or did it too long ago to remember what it was like to sculpt something that wasn’t Riley’s. Many of them wear T-shirts with the word “Culture” on them, the first word in “culture” always being “cult.”

The Indestructible Empire Riley Built along the bay has survived crippling losses not endured by many franchises. The kidney ailment that short-circuited Mourning’s career. The blood clots that ended Chris Bosh’s. The surprise departure of LeBron. You aren’t supposed to keep getting off your knees from unexpected losses of foundational players as if excellence was something you can bookmark. It is rare for a franchise to suffer any of these things to a blueprint player, never mind all of them.

Do you have any idea how hard it is?

To stay on top as you age?

To get to the top ... at any age?

This hard:

Sacramento hasn’t been to the playoffs in 16 years.

Detroit hasn’t won a single playoff game since 2008.

Michael Jordan bought Charlotte in 2010 and hasn’t won one playoff series.

And the franchise didn’t get to the playoffs the five years before him, either.

The two piddly playoff games Minnesota won this year? It represents double the number of playoff games they had won since 2004.

Orlando has won two playoff games in a decade.

The Knicks have been as far as the second round of the playoffs only once this century.

It wasn’t but a few seasons ago that basketball expert Zach Lowe wondered if the Heat of Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters and James Johnson had the bleakest outlook in the sport. He wasn’t wrong to wonder it, either.

You aren’t supposed to be able to keep reinventing yourself and your roster to add Tim Hardaway and Mourning and Shaq and Dwyane Wade and LeBron and Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry so that excellence becomes the expected standard instead of the goal.

You aren’t supposed to be in the Eastern Conference finals with one top-10 pick on your entire roster. ... Victor Oladipo.

You aren’t supposed to keep up at 77 years old, a dinosaur among spaceships ... as players amass the power to nuke franchises the way Ben Simmons and James Harden did ... and the game shifts to the perimeter after you spent the entire 1982-1983 season watching Magic Johnson go 0 for 21 from three. Survival of the fittest is supposed to be cruel to the elderly. Evolution is cutthroat, and it shifts the footing under those who can’t keep up like quicksand. You saw how quickly it swallowed even a legend like Phil Jackson.

Do you have any idea how hard it is?

To stay on top as you age?

To get to the top ... at any age?

This hard:

The Philadelphia 76ers endured the laughter of losing on purpose — going 19-63, 18-64, 10-72 and 28-54 in four consecutive years — only to have The Process die this year at Riley’s feet.

The Washington Wizards haven’t been where Riley’s team is now since 1978.

The Trail Blazers haven’t won a game in the conference finals this century.

Neither has New Orleans, Hornets or Pelicans.

The Bleeping Bulls have won a single game in this round since Jordan ... and had that season extinguished by Riley’s team.

The two games Trae Young and Atlanta won in this round a year ago were the first they had won in it since 1969 ... and Riley’s team finished their season this year, too.

The Nets reached The Finals twice at century’s start, but those were the only two times they advanced as far as even the Eastern Conference finals between 1976 and 2022.

Hell, while this Golden State core has dominated the last decade, the franchise didn’t get to the conference finals one damn time between 1977 and 2013.

Riley is more mechanic than messiah, truth be told, no matter the packaging. The work, the work, the work. He has always hidden in the work. Can’t quit. Won’t quit. Addicted to the fight. Still can’t talk to Jordan or Larry Bird, all these years later, because of the competitive scars they left a lifetime ago as they built the league atop their battles. Riley’s wife laughs at him when he dreams of quitting and gazes at their alleged retirement home in Malibu on the cameras on his phone, a million miles away. Only one major event where people gather after retirement, the late Bobby Bowden used to say when asked why he never wanted to retire. Mortality approaches. Immortality awaits.

But let us marvel in awe now at The Indestructible Empire Riley built along the bay because, in a town of cons and corruption, it might be South Florida’s single greatest monument to sustained and authentically earned excellence, inside or outside of sports. They have taken Don Shula’s name off everything in Miami Lakes because losing erodes the shores that protect even the greatest empires over time. The Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers have been regional teams for two decades running. Only Riley has made us feel national in sports, made Miami feel like winners

Riley took this football town from the Dolphins. Never mind basketball. He is the reason a generation of South Florida kids have come to love sports. Our region is filled with millennials who know how good winning can feel only because Riley and Wade taught them. Since Wade’s first Heat game, the Dolphins don’t have a playoff victory. This year is the first in that time the Panthers have advanced to even the second round of hockey’s playoffs. The Marlins won one playoff series in those 20 years, in the shortened pandemic season they went 31-29. And even the University of Miami football team has failed to win the Atlantic Coast Conference so much as once.

To win is hard. To keep winning is harder.

It is one thing to turn yourself into a leadership legend because you spent 20 years coaching Tom Brady. It is another thing entirely to keep swapping the players and cities and take the winning with you wherever you go, as if it can be placed in a moving truck. What stands before you now is merely what Riley has built in Miami this quarter century. He did this in Los Angeles and New York the quarter century before that, too. Absurdly, impossibly, he has somehow been at the center of basketball championship games in the 1960s ... 1970s ... 1980s ... 1990s ... 2000s ... 2010s ... and now 2020s.

How? Riley literally wrote the book on it. “The Winner Within: A Life Plan For Team Players.” It was a best seller. All it did was usher in the era of celebrity leader worshiped as life coach. Just as his dressing style ushered in the coach as style icon CEO. It is said that he did more for Armani in this country than Armani did for him. The book was written ... in 1993. Three goddamn decades of style ago, older than the 1970s beach-bum mustache he shaved to become Showtime sleek.

He has been around long enough to be living, breathing history even as he fights to keep making it ... and fights harder to stop from becoming it. Mortality approaches. Immortality awaits.

The league’s story can’t be told without him. The filmmaker Adam McKay tries to do so artfully now on HBO, on a show called “Winning Time,” Riley played by Adrien Brody. Riley says he has no interest in watching. None. He left Hollywood a long, long time ago (and went back only briefly to bring back Shaq). He was supposed to play the cool-cop part opposite Mel Gibson and Michele Pfeiffer in “Tequila Sunrise,” but he declined, so they got Kurt Russell, slicked back his hair and based the character on Riley instead.

You can trace the explosion of professional basketball to Riley’s swaggy Hollywood Showtime teams playing against Bird’s Irish pubs. The NBA’s Finals were played on tape delay before then, after the 11:30 pm local news. In a hip-hop league that has always imprinted style, Riley helped make fast breaks, suits, coaching swag, slicked-back hair and basketball cool, but his dirty secret is that he has always been more Schenectady, New York, than Hollywood, ever the janitor’s son. A few years ago, he sent out a team vice president, one of those 30-year lifers, to announce as if on company letterhead that Celtics general manager Danny Ainge should shut the f--- up. In retirement age, Riley only has time for winning, not “Winning Time,” and he doesn’t know how much time there is left for winning.

Funny thing, though, for all his championship vision, the old warrior sure had a hell of a blind spot, as the quicksand of evolution grabbed him by the ankles. He somehow didn’t see the era of player empowerment coming, even as it netted him a player who had nicknamed himself The King, and in a televised special that shook the power structure in his sport no less. The revolution he somehow missed was literally televised, and benefited him as it began.

Riley was blindsided by LeBron leaving. He was enraged for months, crazed, rabid. Embarrassed that The King had summoned him to Las Vegas for a sham recruitment pitch. Betrayed. Why would LeBron leave the cult and think he could just take the culture?

LeBron and his agency tried to take over the Heat in 2010 the way they took over the Cavs upon return to Cleveland and have taken over the Lakers now. They asked for hundreds of free season tickets upon arrival in Miami, but Riley wouldn’t allow the encroachments on his power even as he found himself at the heart of the same argument Jordan once had with the Bulls.

Who is responsible for the winning? The star? The organizations that train them? Or both? Michael Jordan wins all those arguments forever, especially as ESPN teams with him and Nike to do nine-part glorified sneaker commercial disguised as a documentary. Tom Brady learned of his own power through everything LeBron did in Miami and arrived at the same conclusion … as he played for championships in Tampa Bay while Bill Belichick flailed to win a playoff game without him.

You need the biggest star to win the biggest, right? Riley is still out here trying to make the argument one last time on behalf of his organization, his beliefs, his conviction about the cult. He is six victories away. Best-of-3 against Boston, his most hated rival, back to The Showtime Lakers. Shut the f--- up, Ainge. F--- you, Bird. F--- Boston, as depicted as art and history on “Winning Time” on HBO.

Is the Disease of Me Riley wrote about in “The Winner Within” a spiritual guide warning of team-wrecking sin or just another way of keeping the star subjugated and The Man in charge? LeBron has won championships, plural, since leaving Riley and Miami, but he has had some trouble sustaining it as he has aged. What he has built in Los Angeles with his power isn’t quite as durable or enduring as what Riley built in Los Angeles with his. It got old fast, is out of the playoffs , and is in obvious decay. Aging and evolution have caught up to even The King, making him look already old in a young man’s game, even as he watches a 77-year-old man somehow inch closer to what used to be his throne.

At the very end, the King somehow finds himself chasing the old warrior who built his Lakers, built his league and ... helped build him into a champion, too?

“It’s a weird feeling to feel so alone sometimes,” The King tweeted from a vacation that started much earlier than any he ever had while in Miami’s cult.

Do you have any idea how hard it is?

To stay on top as you age?

To get to the top ... at any age?

It isn’t as easy as it is made to look … in The Indestructible Empire Riley built along the bay.

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