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Pat Riley Gets What He Wants

And now he wants Kevin Durant

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

In the Internet Age, monoculture is unachievable. But there remain a few things that we can all agree on.​ The Ringer is looking at this rarefied group all week. These are our Undeniables.

I heard a great Pat Riley story once. During the summer of 2007, Kevin Garnett was living in Malibu, California, and agonizing about his unappealing future in Minnesota. His wife wanted to take a stroll along the water, so they borrowed a friend’s access code and snuck onto one of the more exclusive beaches. As they passed in front of one beachfront house, they heard an older man hollering loudly from his deck.

Kevin! Kevin!!!

Turned out, they had walked right by Pat Riley’s house. A gleeful Riley scurried down, welcomed his guests and immediately launched into a story, almost like a preacher welcoming his congregation with a colorful anecdote. Riley claimed that he had been standing on his deck and staring at the Pacific Ocean, watching blue waves crash against the white sand, wondering how to overhaul the suddenly struggling Miami Heat. He kept gazing into the water. And right at that moment, almost as if on cue, the Garnetts magically appeared on his beach.

Riley believed it was a sign from above, that it had to mean something. Eventually, Riley invited Garnett and his wife up to his home, where they chatted for a while, maybe an hour. Garnett found himself slowly opening up. He had spent 12 years killing himself for a poorly run Minnesota franchise, never making a Finals and wasting much of his prime. Now the Timberwolves needed to rebuild — again — something that could happen only if they cashed in their lucrative KG trade chip. Even Timberwolves fans wouldn’t have blamed Garnett for jumping to a contender, but Garnett wasn’t wired that way. His connection to ’Sota meant something to him. He wasn’t ready to leave.

Any local ambling along the beach would have done a triple-take at the sight of Riley, tan and perfectly coiffed, listening intently as a 7-foot-1 black man spilled his feelings. If they knew anything about the NBA, they’d wonder about tampering, too. But an aging Miami roster lacked the requisite assets to acquire any All-Star, much less a future Hall of Famer like Garnett. This was a two-horse race: Boston and Los Angeles. Riley’s affection for Garnett as a player — and admiration for how he conducted himself as a teammate — trumped any competitive concerns. He adored Garnett’s passion for basketball, game after game, year after year, which never wavered no matter how bleak his situation might be. He thought Garnett deserved a franchise, and a city, worthy of his prodigious talents.

And actually, it went deeper than that. Riley explained how precious an NBA prime really was, how briskly that window could close. He watched West get old, and Wilt, and Kareem. It happened to everyone. You won’t truly know how outstanding you are, Riley promised him, until you’re surrounded by elite teammates who make you better. He told stories about Magic’s Lakers teams, how special they were, how many battles they fought, how those postseasons bonded them for life. There was a higher level of basketball. It was out there. You wouldn’t understand until you’ve experienced it. And until you’ve lost it, too.

They talked and talked, and they kept talking, and eventually, things became clearer for Kevin Garnett. A few weeks later, he signed off on a Boston megadeal. On the surface, you might think that was bad business by Riley — after all, he inadvertently steered a Hall of Fame player to a potential Eastern Conference rival. But really, it was brilliant. Riley understood that, for coaches and executives, your reputation means everything. The perception of being “classy” doesn’t just happen. It’s not something you purchase. You earn that tag, day after day after day, with the relationships you build, with the connections you make, with the things you say when you don’t have to say them. Every story counts.

For coaches, it’s easier to cultivate a reputation when you cross paths with hundreds of players. Players want to play for Gregg Popovich and Brad Stevens because everyone else loves playing for Popovich and Stevens. Word gets around.

For owners and executives, it’s harder to earn a sterling reputation. You achieve it by taking care of your players and lavishing them with extravagances. You don’t blink when they ask you for extra tickets and extra favors. You remember the names of everyone in their lives, and when you see those people, you act like they are the most important humans you’ll meet that day. You rarely ask anything of your stars; you want to be one of the few who doesn’t want anything. You keep their names out of trade rumors, fight for them to receive more credit, defend them anytime a competitor rips them. You take their calls 24 hours a day, include them in your big-picture thinking, empower them by making them believe their opinions matter (even though they don’t). You want them to know that you’re there, all the time, for whatever help they need.

Pat Riley has spent the past 21 years reaching that level in Miami. Quality veterans shaved their salaries to play with LeBron and Wade, but also because they wanted to play in South Beach for Pat Riley (and owner Micky Arison, too). Again, word gets around. It helps that the handsome Riley exudes so much charisma, at all times, that screenwriter Robert Towne modeled one of the Tequila Sunrise leads after him, then tried to hire Riley before settling on backup choice Kurt Russell. So even if that Malibu moment with Garnett came from a genuine place, it also played like an infomercial for one of basketball’s most successful executives. And it worked. Garnett and his wife drove home raving about Riley’s generosity. They knew they wouldn’t cross paths with him professionally, at least anytime soon, but down the road? You never know.

And if anyone ever asked Garnett about Riley, you can imagine what the response would be. It’s the little things.

On July 1, Kevin Durant will become an unrestricted free agent. Most insiders believe that Durant will ink an extension with Oklahoma City, although rumors about Golden State, San Antonio, Boston and the Clippers keep swirling. Miami lurks as the darkest of horses, mainly because of Riley’s storied history of pulling off talent coups. He stole Tim Hardaway, Goran Dragic, and Shaquille O’Neal in separate deals for 50 cents on the dollar. He nearly stole Juwan Howard from Washington before David Stern vetoed Riley’s overly creative offer sheet. In the summer of 2010, he somehow convinced LeBron James, the league’s best player since Michael Jordan, to align with Dwyane Wade AND fellow free agent Chris Bosh.

He’s also been lucky. You make your own luck to some degree, but Pat Riley might be the luckiest SOB in the history of the NBA. In 1981, Dr. Jerry Buss tossed him the keys to the Ferrari of NBA engines, the Showtime Lakers, only because then-coach Paul Westhead inexplicably regarded them as a half-court team. A bombshell of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trade fell apart in 1983, as did a James Worthy deal in 1986 — two bullets dodged. Their biggest ongoing threat (Bird’s Celtics) was unexpectedly derailed by injuries and cocaine, as were the Lakers’ looming successors in the West (Houston and Dallas). They even stole the 1988 title from Detroit thanks to Isiah Thomas’s impossibly timed ankle sprain. Add everything up and you left the 1980s thinking, “Freaking Pat Riley … that guy could slip in dog shit and land in a pile of hundred-dollar bills.”

Riley’s luck dipped a little in Manhattan (the Charles Smith Game, then the John Starks Game) and then South Beach (those Alonzo Mourning–led contenders never got over the hump), with everything flipping in 2003 — the year Wade fell to Miami’s fifth-overall pick only because everyone had severely overrated the immortal Darko Milicic. In consecutive offseasons, Caron Butler dropped to Miami’s 10th-overall pick and then Anthony Carter’s agent stupidly failed to exercise his player option, creating enough cap space for Riley to splurge on free agent Lamar Odom. Twelve months later, Riley flipped Odom and Butler into Shaq — still the league’s best center, and suddenly motivated, too. I mean, how the hell does that happen??? Riley lucked out when Cleveland failed to surround LeBron with enough talent, and he definitely lucked out in 2014 with Hassan Whiteside and in 2015 with Justise Winslow.

Actually, the man is lucky AND great. Only Riley completely reinvented himself as a head coach — riding the run-and-gun Lakers for four titles, then renovating Patrick Ewing’s Knicks into a nastier, even more bruising version of the Bad Boy Pistons. He never won in New York, but he collected six rings in Los Angeles and another three with Miami. As legend has it, whenever Riley recruits free-agent targets, he inevitably dumps those heavy rings on a conference table. He wants them to clatter loudly, as if someone had dropped a bag of silver dollars. CLANG. It’s the basketball version of Dirk Diggler pulling out his foot-long schlong. I’m a big, shining star. I’m Pat Riley.

But that’s just one side of him. Just as quickly, Riley can transform into that pseudo-pastor that the Garnetts met in Malibu. Or, he can turn into a drill sergeant — the guy who threw away in-game strategy during Game 6 of the 2006 Finals, choosing to spend that time in Dallas by screaming like a sports movie coach. Hopefully the footage from those huddles leaks someday — just Riley eschewing a clipboard and repeatedly begging his players to dig deep, like a boxing trainer pushing his fighter for one more round. He promised they were breaking the Mavericks, implored them to be more physical, swore that he could smell a title. He locked eyes with and challenged every player man to man. He could be heard saying things along the lines of, This isn’t about basketball anymore!

In 70 years of modern professional basketball, only four people consistently affected the balance of the league without playing: Red Auerbach, Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson and Riley. Auerbach was a wisecracking Russian American Jew who clicked with black players, empowered them and fought for them during the 20th century’s most tumultuous stretch. Jackson appealed to the egos of his signature stars while keeping the team’s collective personality in check. Popovich knew he struck oil with young Tim Duncan, a generational talent who cared only about winning titles and being a good teammate, so Pop created a culture that reflected Duncan’s unusual selflessness.

And Riley, more than the other three, was an opportunist — he never stopped looking for a better situation or another advantage. Riley was blessed with Popovich’s attention to culture and Jackson’s savviness for aligning with special players, but really, the dude has been more Auerbachian than he’d ever admit. We remember Auerbach as an insane competitor who never stopped looking for the next edge. Sound familiar? Once upon a time, Riley despised Auerbach’s Celtics so much that, during one mid-’80s practice at Boston Garden, he asked his trainer to dump the Lakers’ water barrel because he actually feared Auerbach had tried to poison it. But Auerbach is the only other NBA executive in 70 years, dead or alive, who could have pulled off LeBron and Bosh in the summer of 2010. Nobody else had enough foresight or charisma. It’s two people and two people only.

Riley turned 70 in 2015, only eight months after LeBron shocked everyone by returning to Cleveland. Insiders believe that Riley remains bitter that LeBron pressured Miami to trade for the rights to Shabazz Napier two weeks before James announced his departure through a magazine story — a story that had clearly been written at least 48 hours earlier. Riley tipped his resentment the following spring, explaining his 2015 draft plans with the dig, “No more smiling faces with hidden agendas, so we’ll be going in clean.” Of course, Riley wasn’t blameless. After San Antonio soundly drummed Miami from the 2014 Finals, Riley’s epic 55-minute press conference was peppered with verbal subtweets like: “This stuff is hard. And you got to stay together, if you’ve got the guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it.” He did everything short of shouting at LeBron in a Vito Corleone voice, “YOU CAN ACT LIKE A MAN!” And yes, LeBron took it personally. And yes, when *someone* with Miami told LeBron that a Cleveland sequel would be the biggest mistake of his career, LeBron later admitted to relying on that slight for motivation. Was Riley the one who said it? Sure sounds like it.

Riley isn’t just old-school anymore; he’s actually old. It’s fair to wonder whether LeBron’s me-me-me generation even makes sense to him — take, for example, what happened last weekend, when Whiteside described his impending free agency this way: “I really don’t think it’s about loyalty. I think it’s just about [finding] the best situation for myself.” Those words came from a basketball nomad who bounced around for four solid years before Miami, and Riley, saved his career and remodeled him into a legitimate asset. If the 71-year-old Riley can’t connect with someone like Whiteside, much less LeBron, does that mean it’s time? Are we looking at Pat Riley’s last stand?

Well, if Whiteside bolts and Chris Bosh’s medical situation doesn’t get resolved, we’re looking at another Heat teardown — one that won’t be nearly as easy with Wade, astonishingly, turning 35 next January. That would be the perfect time for Riley to slide out the back door, head to the beach and disappear, Johnny Carson–style, with his nine rings. Of course, he’s still Pat Freaking Riley. Which means we can’t rule out Whiteside’s return, or a Blake Griffin trade, or even a certain 2014 MVP. Everything is in play. Everything.

On Friday night, news broke that Miami landed one of the six coveted meetings with Durant, the biggest free-agent prize since 2010. For years and years and years, Pat Riley simply wanted to get in the room with someone like that — bring the rings, bring the charm, bring the swagger, let the reputation do the rest. Maybe he won’t need to hustle off his deck screaming, “KEVIN! KEVIN!” this time. But he’s definitely staring out at the ocean again. We gaze out to the water and see water. Pat Riley sees titles. I wouldn’t count out Miami for Kevin Durant.