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Pat Riley’s Legacy Is Written All Over the NBA Finals

Can an icon be an iconoclast? The Heat, the unlikeliest of championship contenders, are built in Riley’s image. They are the brainchild of a basketball mind that long ago learned to trust its own eye above anyone else’s.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Pat Riley doesn’t care what you think. Isn’t here for it. Isn’t interested. Can’t hear you. Suit that slick, sound waves just bounce off it. His hair would love to stick around and listen to your thoughts, but oh, man, it’s running late to an appointment with someone who matters. Maybe next time, huh? Next time, OK, champ? Next time, you’ll grab a sandwich and explain to Pat Riley’s hair about the right way to build an NBA team and all the ways Riley’s approaching it wrong, and Pat Riley’s hair will nod thoughtfully and go, Wow, you make some really good points, tell me more about the 76ers and the Celtics, and maybe the suit will look edgy and start to inch toward the exit, but the hair will go, No, really, we need to listen to this guy from the internet, he’s got League Pass, and you’ll keep making your points until the hair nods again and says, I think you should be the team president, not me.

It’ll be great. I promise. But it’ll have to happen later, because right now, Pat Riley, the “impeccably dressed” (per 2 billion profiles), “sleekly coiffed” (ditto), 75-year-old NBA legend, the head coach of five championship teams and winner of two more as president of the Heat, and the architect of this season’s ugly-duckling Miami squad—you know, the one that just ripsawed through Milwaukee and Boston in the playoffs—is absolutely not here for your opinion. He’s too busy catching a Disney-bubble golf cart back to the NBA Finals.

In your heart—admit it—you do not believe Miami is a title team. You didn’t believe it at the start of the season, and you don’t believe it now, even with Riley bound for the most high-stakes nostalgia trip since Memory Lane was an unpaved alley. Riley has won more titles with the Lakers than LeBron and more titles with LeBron than the Lakers; watching him pitted against his two most famous ex-allies will be like watching a septuagenarian Luke Skywalker take on the Rebel Alliance and South Tatooine Middle School all at once. (I feel like there’s a Last Jedi draft out there where this happened?) And doing it with this roster … the imagination boggles. Not that Riley cares; not that Armani worn at Riley’s level would willingly exist in the same time zone as something as inelegant as boggling.

It’s not that the Heat are bad. Not at all. It’s just that—well, look, if 75 percent of the media coverage of your Finals-bound squad focuses on its hard-driving locker-room culture, there’s a good chance your roster is thin on conventional glamour.

I mean, Jimmy Butler? Obviously, he’s a superstar, but he’s the kind of superstar where you have to keep insisting “no, really, he’s a superstar,” as opposed to the LeBron kind of superstar where you never have to say it because it’s so obvious. He’s the greatest “no, really” player in the NBA and may someday rank high on the list of “no, really” players of all time. Bam Adebayo? Another superstar, suddenly, and no, you didn’t see that one coming, not unless you are Pat Riley or the oracle of Delphi. Andre Iguodala? He’s 36; Riley gave him a $30 million extension after many leg-wrecking years of Golden State playoff runs and half a season of Memphis bench-sitting, and all he’s done is go 5-for-5 (including four 3-pointers) in the Eastern Conference–clinching Game 6 win against Boston while defending whoever he was guarding into oblivion on the other end of the floor.

We can keep doing this. Duncan Robinson? Undrafted two years ago, now he’s a goddamn assassin. Jae Crowder? I forgot he existed for like three years; now he’s shooting over 40 percent from 3 in the playoffs. Tyler Herro? At this point, why not?

The Heat roster is less a shrewdly assembled combination of undervalued assets and more a weird alchemical concoction, a mad scientist’s brew of psychological resilience, speed, sublimated anger, and eccentrically (but beautifully!) overlapping skill sets. It doesn’t seem like it would work until you watch it, and then a little light bulb pops on and you go, “Oh, that works.” It’s hard to know what to compare it to. It’s like watching the Island of Misfit Toys perfect a motion offense. It’s a little like a kids’ sports movie, but with absolutely no lessons or feelings. It’s like the scene in The Wire where Marlo (the other 29 NBA teams) says, “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way,” only if the security guard (Miami) had immediately put Marlo in a headlock and said, “No, actually, it was my way all along” and Marlo had to apologize and go to night school and become an intellectual property attorney.

To have assembled this roster is a particular kind of flex. It’s a collection of players whose potential wasn’t obvious individually, and whose compatibility wasn’t obvious as a group, to anyone outside the Heat organization. That they were obvious inside the Heat organization is entirely due to Riley’s having constructed an organization immune to conventional wisdom, one that sees promoting a former video coordinator to head coach and keeping him there for 12 years as an example of sound tactical sense, an organization that trusts its own judgment against the rest of the world’s, the way romantic poets used to do before Twitter.

So, yeah. Tell Pat Riley you don’t see Miami as anything more than an impressive overachiever. Talk about how squads are built in the NBA’s superteam era. Say, “trust the process.” Rhapsodize about LeBron’s vision in wooing Anthony Davis for Los Angeles. Riley isn’t even glancing in your direction. He threw this junkyard masterpiece together with the offhanded ease of a chef murmuring “hm, needs more salt” (“needs more Herro”); now is not the moment when he’s going to start looking outside for advice.

Can an icon be an iconoclast? We’re finding out.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Back in Los Angeles, in his sun-tanned early days, when he patrolled the sideline of the Showtime Lakers looking like a Mafia don in the world’s least clandestine witness-protection program, Riley not only seemed tuned in to public opinion, he made a fun little side hustle out of toying with it. These days, guaranteeing a victory is a well-worn sports cliché, about as daring as showing up for a pregame walk in avant-garde couture. But back in 1987, when Riley stood up at the Lakers’ championship parade and guaranteed the crowd that L.A. would win it again the next year, a victory guarantee was a different thing altogether. No NBA team had won back-to-back titles in 19 years, and the word “troll” hadn’t become a verb yet. Cheek like Riley’s was a galactic provocation. The smoke didn’t stop pouring out of talk-radio switchboards for months. You don’t make a move like that without having a pretty good idea of how it’s going to set people off. And whatever your abstract goals vis-à-vis putting pressure on Magic Johnson and James Worthy and keeping the team motivated, you don’t willingly set the seething masses off like that unless you think it will be kind of fun to mess with everybody—to show the rest of the world how you’ve perfected your game, how completely in control you are.

As a coach, in L.A., New York, and later in Miami, Riley was a fascinating push-pull between cool and hot, between confidence and fury. The way he looked, with the tailoring and the slicked-back hair, you’d think ice wouldn’t melt in his socks, and he sometimes relished cute little games like the championship guarantee (which worked out, by the way; the Lakers won the ’88 championship). But he was also known for explosive outbursts, smashing things in the locker room, breaking glass so that his hands bled. Udonis Haslem has said that in 2007, toward the end of Riley’s time coaching the Heat, Riley—then in his 60s, already a five-time NBA champion, not one conceivable thing left to prove—got so frustrated with his team that he kicked in a door, injured his hip, and wound up in surgery.

It’s hard to imagine anything cooler, in an old-school GQ-ish sense, than Riley in repose. It is hard to imagine anything less cool, in every sense, than a person putting themselves in the hospital because sports made them attack an architectural feature. It may be that the more you have of a thing, the more sensationally it can abandon you, so that when Riley loses his cool, it’s like a billionaire going broke—it doesn’t happen without leaving a fair amount of wreckage in its wake. Either way, the sheer bloody-mindedness of Riley’s competitive drive has led to some amazing and bizarre scenes over the years. I’m particularly partial to this anecdote, from a recent ESPN piece about (again!) the Heat’s culture:

During the playoffs in 1999, Pat Riley once said, “You’ve got to want to win as much as you want to breathe.”

Moments later, inside the Miami Heat locker room, Riley dunked his head in a bucket of water for what seemed like an eternity.

As those witnessing became concerned, Riley eventually came up for air and roared, “Until your last breath!”

It’s easy to imagine one of your real wild-eyed sideline fanatics pulling a move like this—a college-football strength coach, say, some beet-red, 290-pound “pain is weakness leaving the body” type who yells “This is Sparta!” for no reason and has never owned wool pants or touched lettuce. But Pat Riley? The idea of someone whose outward vibe is so effortless, plunging his head in a pail of water to impress a roomful of young millionaires—and then just standing there, bent over, submerged, not breathing, with his tie (I assume?) thrown back over one shoulder so as not to dangle in the pail—is more than imagination-boggling. And like the championship guarantee, it’s a move that can only imperfectly be explained by a teacherly desire to motivate.

Consider: Julius Caesar, en route to conquering Gaul, did not dunk his head in a pail of water to get the legions going. Leopold Mozart, sitting down to give his son a piano lesson, did not pretend to drown himself in order to convince little Wolfgang to care about music “until your last breath.” The history of great deeds suggests that they can in fact be inspired, most of the time, without anyone’s carefully applied pomade entering a freshwater receptacle of any kind. No: You dunk your head in a pail of water because you want to dunk your head in a pail of water, because you need to dunk your head in a pail of water, because something important about your relationship with the world can be expressed only by dunking your head in a pail of water.

Maybe it has to do with a certain kind of meticulousness. Cool, especially Riley’s sort of cool, is largely about attention to detail, after all. It only looks effortless; it’s actually intensely hard work. It’s about getting the last quarter-inch of your fit exactly right, perfecting the right body language, learning how to carry yourself, honing the image you present to the world until it’s second nature, going around without a hair out of place. In that sense, it’s a lot like building a winning team: You check and double-check and triple-check every variable until you develop a kind of instinct, a style, nothing slipping through the cracks. You see things other people don’t because you want to be perfect so badly that you put in endless, obsessive work, and when you’re working like that nothing gets by you; you spot opportunities that would be hidden to anyone less driven, or driven for less long.

And if that’s how you approach the world, then of course other people’s sloppiness or laziness or less than total commitment would drive you into a fury. You’re giving everything to make your world perfect, and you’re still expected to deal with the haphazardness of everyday life, players phoning in games, people turning up late to appointments, traffic, sweatpants in restaurants, the half-assed path-of-least-resistance way most people live their lives? No. Not happening. So what do you do, when half-assedness drives you to the breaking point—when the hyper-talented people you’ve surrounded yourself with, the people you’re trying to help, for God’s sake, still don’t try hard enough, don’t want it enough, don’t sit up nights figuring out how to go out in the daytime and make it look easy?

Maybe you give them back a version of the world they’re giving you, the chaotic, messy, careless, broken existence you’re otherwise hell-bent on avoiding. You kick in doors. You smash glass. You dunk your head, absurdly (but that’s the point), in a bucket of water.

I’m speculating, obviously. But think about what everyone says about the Heat’s unique culture, the crowning accomplishment of Riley’s decades in basketball. You have to want in. Practices are harder than games. There’s no tanking, no taking plays off, and no making excuses. Jimmy Butler had a reputation for being a prickly teammate in Minnesota and Philadelphia; in Miami, that quality is welcomed, because when you see that your teammates aren’t going as hard as they can, you’re supposed to call them out.

That’s why Dwyane Wade, not LeBron James (and certainly not Shaq), is still the ultimate Heat player. LeBron puts in the work, but at the same time, he conveys an overwhelming sense of chosen-ness, of destiny. You feel that he was born in a state of basketball perfection and has to work hard to stay there. Wade, like Riley, willed himself to get there, and that will was palpable in every smirking, piece-of-cake no-look pass.

The Heat are an unconventional and, in some ways, unglamorous squad, but they’re built in the image of Riley’s suaveness. They’re the brainchild of a basketball mind that long ago learned to trust its own eye above anyone else’s. Miami is in the Finals against half the hallmarks of Pat Riley’s past because Riley has never relaxed in his present-tense performance of himself. Not caring what the rest of the world thinks is a luxury you can afford when you’ve spent four decades showing the world how much you care about almost everything else.