MIAMI -- For so many years, the basketball addict has talked about getting out. He even mapped a plan to visit the world's seven most beautiful beaches by boat. He thinks that, to keep a life and an identity fresh, a man should attempt to change careers once every decade. Not jobs. Careers. Don't go from coaching basketball to coaching football. Go from coaching basketball to practicing law. But the addict has never quite been able to take his own advice and free himself completely of this game's grip, not even while dabbling in speaking engagements and authoring books, so what does he do at the retirement age of 65?
Well, of course, he stacks an unprecedented amount of hype, expectations, noise and consequences between himself and that peaceful view of the world's most beautiful beaches.
Miami Heat President Pat Riley doesn't want to talk about this. Actually, that's not true. He wants to talk. He loves to talk. About parenting. About spirituality. About mortality. About Bruce Springsteen lyrics. And about basketball. He is part philosopher and part poet, and corporations will pay close to $50,000 a pop to hear him speak. But now is a very bad time. Four victories from now, exactly four, there will be plenty to say. But now he doesn't want to add to the incessant noise that surrounds his hated basketball team as it prepares for the NBA Finals that begin against Dallas here Tuesday night.
Better for a legend to be in the shadows, helping quietly, than to be out in front of all the lights now. Why give the appearance of undermining his young coach? Why look like he needs any more glory after a bejeweled lifetime resplendent in it? No need. No use. Riley has never said less publicly while running this organization than he has this year, even as he has wanted to defend his tired team from unrelenting waves of criticism. Ever since putting this insanity together, ever since the hip-hop celebration that saw LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh rise from the Earth, the Heat's biggest champion has been literally and symbolically off to the side of the stage. He has thrown his rings into the fist fight only a couple of times when the criticism started coming from other legendary basketball voices (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley) and to castigate the media for being "neurotic" about Riley stepping in to replace his young coach.
"Give me a gem," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Riley on Saturday.
He does this just about every day. He finds Riley and asks for a gem. He doesn't have to go far. Riley is at most of the practices, off to the side, speaking only when asked. Riley refers to them as "pearls," not gems. These little stories, wisdoms, inspirations, philosophies that Spoelstra leans on and shares with his players as if they came from on high -- which, given Riley's status in the organization and in the game, they kind of did. They come from music lyrics and Chinese war books and basketball players living and dead.
"I asked him for one gem today, and he gave me 15," Spoelstra says. "He is always there for me. Such a brilliant mind. Goes so fast. There are times I have to slow him down, and ask him to translate."
The gems come in texts, on cards, in letters. And, once, after Spoelstra's 100th victory, on a $100 bill.
Is he your friend and boss, Erik?
"My mentor," Spoelstra says.
It is an unusual relationship. Spoelstra started out in the film room, cutting tape. How long was it before Riley even knew his future coach's name?
"Years," Spoelstra says. "Four? Five?"
But Riley rewards loyalty, always. There are many long-time employees in the Heat organization who can tell you stories of Riley giving them cash in difficult times. "Tons and tons," says one Heat executive. "Tens of thousands of dollars." Riley turned the coach into a fashion model once upon a time, when he was leading Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers, and helped make Armani popular in the United States. If you look closely, you'll notice that there are members of the Heat organization, men who are Riley's body type, who are wearing Armani suits that far exceed their positions and salaries. Those $5,000 suits are, not unlike the job Spoelstra inherited, literally hand-me-downed from Riley himself.
"I like having him at practice," Spoelstra says. "He has great insight. This organization's dynamic is abnormal. We've been together 16 years. We pride ourselves on our stability. You don't see that in this league. And you get to know each other after 16 years. Really know each other. On a deeper level."
You ever yell at each other, Erik? You ever yell at your legendary mentor?
"Way, way more when I was his assistant coach," Spoelstra says. "Healthy conflict. He'd laugh about it when I'd hold my ground."
What has he taught you?
Spoelstra lets out something that sounds like a long whistle.
"Whooaaa," he says. "Where would I even start? Just so many of the elements away from the Xs and Os. Leadership. Managing personalities. Motivating. Life. He just has an unparalleled gift. I'm telling you, if he wasn't doing this, he would be a military general. He's the kind of guy you want to follow into anywhere he wants to be followed."
And now, after a noisy season of insanity, after a year unlike any in our area's history, South Florida follows the Heat's leader into a fight at the top of sports.
You can't see the world's seven most beautiful beaches from up here.
It is loud and hostile and scary and a long, long way from the serenity of retirement.
But, man, what a view.