For the first time, Miami Heat president Pat Riley publicly addressed a handful of topics regarding LeBron James’ four-year tenure in South Beach and his subsequent return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in an extended interview with Ian Thomsen for the Sports Illustrated senior writer’s forthcoming book, “The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown between LeBron, Kobe, Doc and Dirk that Saved the NBA.”
Here are the handful of highlights from Riley’s commentary, via ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan.
LeBron asked Riley if the ex-coach would take over for Heat’s Erik Spoelstra.
Maybe not in so many words, but that was the impression Riley got. Reports of an icy relationship between James and Spoelstra were widespread in the early days of their partnership, never more so than in 2010 when the former bumped the latter on his way into the timeout huddle.
Riley told Thomsen that he called James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh into his office the day after that bump occurred during a loss to the Dallas Mavericks that dropped their record to 9-8 a month into the 2010-11 season. The Heat president wanted to get a feel for how everyone was getting along.
“They just said, ‘We’re not feeling it,’ or something like that,” Riley told Thomsen, via MacMullan. “We talked about the typical things that we have to do, have patience and all of that stuff.
“And I remember LeBron looking at me, and he said, ‘Don’t you ever get the itch?’ I said, ‘The itch for what?’ He said, ‘The itch to coach again?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have the itch.’ He didn’t ask any more questions, and I didn’t offer any more answers. But I know what it meant, and I always go back and wonder about what he was thinking at that time. He walked out scratching his leg like it was itching.”
Riley said the Heat trio also asked him about his interest in taking over for Spoelstra before teaming up in Miami. He was not interested. Spoelstra had coached Wade and the Heat to consecutive playoff appearances before the arrival of James and Bosh.
“Erik is a hell of a coach,” Riley told Thomsen.
Riley warned LeBron against ‘The Decision’
The Heat president told Thomsen that he warned James and his business partner, Maverick Carter, about the public relations nightmare that would ensue after James announced his decision to take “my talents to South Beach” in front of a live national TV audience on ESPN — how people might portray the move as LeBron running scared from making his own way in Cleveland to an easier path in Miami.
“And both of them, Maverick and LeBron, looked at me,” Riley said, according to MacMullan. “Like, ‘Fear? Afraid of what?’ They almost mocked me. This was a big decision. I was trying to tell them, ‘[Expletive is] going to hit the fan, man.’ ‘Afraid? Us?’ They had so much confidence in what they were doing, and they were so smart in a lot of ways.”
Riley said when it did hit the fan immediately following “The Decision”, LeBron “almost had tears in his eyes” when he arrived in Miami. That did not stop James from participating in a welcome party the next day in which he promised “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven,” but an endless amount of championships. Riley told Thomsen he did not approve of that decision, either.
“I just think the euphoria of that moment and what all three of them had done had got to them,” Riley said, via MacMullan. “The serotonin level was going high. Some of the things that were said, I think they would take it back and be a little more humble if they could, and probably the same for us as an organization. But once it got going I was not going up on the stage to throw them off.
“How would that have been? I would have been booed out of the arena by 18,000 people.”
Riley sat deadpanned in the stands when cameras caught him after LeBron’s championship promise:
Riley believes James might have won ‘five or six championships’ if he stayed in Miami
The Heat president was not happy when he learned of James’ intention to return to Cleveland in 2014.
“I had two to three days of tremendous anger,” he told Thomsen, via MacMullan. “I was absolutely livid, which I expressed to myself and my closest friends. … My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down,. That team in 10 years could have won five or six championships. But I get it. I get the whole chronicle of [LeBron’s] life.”
Knowing what we know now, five or six titles seems like a stretch. Since James left in 2014, the Heat have rebuilt on the fly, with Wade slowing down and Bosh being forced from the game due to blood-clotting issues. Spoelstra has the Heat in the playoffs this season, but it’s hard to imagine them winning four more titles this decade, given what the Golden State Warriors have since become.
Riley says LeBron ‘did the right thing’ returning to Cleveland
With the benefit of hindsight, the Heat president understands James’ motivation for going home.
“While there may have been some carnage always left behind when he made these kinds of moves, in Cleveland and also in Miami, he did the right thing,” added Riley, via MacMullan. “I just finally came to accept the realization that he and his family said, ‘You’ll never, ever be accepted back in your hometown if you don’t go back to try to win a title. Otherwise someday you’ll go back there and have the scarlet letter on your back. You’ll be the greatest player in the history of mankind, but back there, nobody’s really going to accept you.'”
It is interesting that Riley believes James would be “the greatest player in the history of mankind” had he remained in Miami. After all, the Heat president called Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson — with whom he won a handful of championships in L.A. — “the greatest player of all time” just last year.
Riley and LeBron have not spoken since their 2014 breakup.
The Hall of Fame coach told Thomsen that he did not contact James until Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, when he texted shortly after the Cavaliers took the floor against the Warriors, “Win this and be free.”
James never responded.
In the hours after delivering Cleveland its first NBA championship in 2016, James told ESPN.com:
“When I decided to leave Miami — I’m not going to name any names, I can’t do that — but there were some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years [who] told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career.
“And that [expletive] hurt me. And I know it was an emotional time that they told me that because I was leaving. They just told me it was the biggest mistake I was making in my career. And that right there was my motivation.”
Riley told Thomsen he said no such thing, lauding James for turning perceived slights into motivation.
We may have learned as much about Riley as we did LeBron from these excerpts. The ego is insatiable. This is, of course, the same man who said in September 2016 — a few months after sending James that text — that Shaquille O’Neal, not LeBron, was “bigger than any acquisition that we ever made, including the Big Three.” Sometimes the pride these men have is as much a curse as it is a blessing.
Then again, Riley and James probably don’t reach the heights of their professions without those qualities. It’s stories like these that should make Thomsen’s book, which comes out April 17, a great read — and the book James publishes on this era someday as anticipated as any NBA story ever told.
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