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Pat Riley, Once Front and Center, Reigns in the Background

The network camera was drawn to Pat Riley after Jimmy Butler’s 22-foot jumper landed like a kick to the collective groin of the Milwaukee Bucks late in Game 4 of Miami’s first-round playoff series upset. While Butler, soon to complete a 56-point masterpiece, pranced in full-throated fashion, there sat Riley, a gray-haired Buddha, arms folded across his suit jacket and tie, smiling without celebrating, blinking but not moving.

No surprise, really. By this point in a long basketball life, what has Riley not already seen that would make him compromise on his veneer of calculated, unflappable control?

Circulating online, the clip was another striking visual to add to the Riley collection. From the 1966 national championship game in which a Texas Western squad dominated by Black players defeated his all-white Kentucky team to his tenured role as the Heat’s president, Riley has been tethered to basketball history of tectonic magnitude.

True, the 1970s version of Riley is most memorably recalled as a role player practically riding piggyback on the great Jerry West while leaving the court upon the Los Angeles Lakers’ clinching of the only title West ever won as a player. From the 1980s on, Riley moved front and center, stylishly coifed.

He has played, coached or been chief executive for a team in a championship game or series for an extraordinary seven consecutive decades — the most recent being the Heat’s 2020 N.B.A. finals loss to the Lakers. Had there been an award for most venerable personality, the man who inspired Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko look for the 1987 film “Wall Street” would have to be its inaugural designee.

Riley’s run as a coach and executive is arguably the most remarkable of all, given the generational shifts he has withstood. West is a front-office Lakers legend but was a reluctant three-season coach. Phil Jackson has more than double the head coaching titles (11-5), but he took on only star-laden rosters and was a bust as Knicks president. Red Auerbach deserves credit for coaching or assembling 16 of the Celtics’ 17 title teams, but most were achieved in a nascent league in which players had no freedom of movement.

Riley did inherit a championship cast in Los Angeles, but he steered it to dynastic prominence and four titles. He made the Knicks matter again in the 1990s, however tortured — his word — he remains from not getting them across the finish line in the 1994 finals. He turned Miami’s nowhere expansion franchise into a contender and three-time champion.

But we likely won’t hear much, if anything at all, from Riley on himself, the injury-plagued Heat or the Knicks during their Eastern Conference semifinal series. It’s not breaking news that he has ceded the organizational microphone to Erik Spoelstra, the coach he handpicked to succeed him in 2008 and who has remained in place well beyond the four-year Miami residency of LeBron James and the franchise’s last title in 2013.

As far back as 2012, I sampled the Heat locker room for a column on how Riley had stepped away from the spotlight that once couldn’t resist him. Dwyane Wade, who joined the Heat in 2003, said, “For the most part, he stays back, stays out of the way when it comes to the players, and he’s been doing that for a couple of years.”

Riley declined a request to talk about why his once-commanding voice is now seldom heard with rare exceptions — typically to acknowledge revered service, as in the recent cases of Wade’s election to the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Heat veteran Udonis Haslem’s upcoming retirement. Feelers to others affiliated with the Heat were met with a familiar refrain: Riley does not want anyone but Spoelstra and his players speaking publicly during the playoffs.

Better then to consult someone whose employment doesn’t depend on him. Jeff Van Gundy, a Riley protégé who became his coaching antagonist after Riley’s stormy departure from New York in 1995, said: “He morphed into the boss that he always wanted, the boss he thinks you should be. Stay behind the scenes. Do your job.”

Dave Checketts, who in 1991 hired Riley to coach the Knicks, recalled a phone conversation in which West, with whom Riley occasionally clashed during the Lakers’ Showtime era, warned him, “You’re going to have to figure out how to handle the press because Pat will lose his mind when someone says something he doesn’t want out there.”

Said Checketts: “And Pat did say when he came, during hours and hours of conversation, that we needed to speak in one voice. That’s why I give him tremendous credit for what he’s done in Miami — he’s lived by what he’s espoused. And Spoelstra has been a great spokesman, too.”

Six years ago, during my last extended conversation with Riley, he did veer off the agreed-upon interview topic — Magic Johnson’s brief ascension to the Lakers’ presidency. When I complimented him for refusing to tank, for remaining competitive despite losing James to Cleveland and Chris Bosh to a medical issue, Riley said:

“Players come and go, great players. When LeBron left, that was the most shocking thing to me — not to say he was right or wrong — and the most shocking thing to the franchise. But our culture is the same. You have your up years and your down years, but what can’t change is the way you do things.”

That wasn’t necessarily the whole truth. After the Heat lost to San Antonio in the 2014 N.B.A. finals, Riley, undoubtedly referring to James’s looming free agency, told reporters: “You’ve got to stay together if you’ve got the guts. And you don’t find the first door to run out of.”

James still exited, stage left. An old Riley tactic — challenging players’ manhood — fell on deaf, new-age ears. Most spiels grow old. And Riley, 69 at the time, is now a more muted 78, a stealth operator, Godfather Riley more than Gordon Gekko Riley. Yet he remains indisputably relevant, still resplendent, while watching and waiting for the auspicious occasion that will merit his last hurrah.

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