Basketball Notes

Riley hasn’t lost a step behind scenes in Miami

By Gary Washburn
June 5, 2011

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Pat Riley made an appearance at an NBA Cares event last week at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School, about 2 miles from glitzy AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.

But the neighborhood that surrounds the school is hardly glitzy. The Heat have made it a priority to reach out to local schools, and Riley, the team’s president, was called on to address approximately 30 students and dedicate a new learning center that features computers, a large television for video games, and pictures of Heat players covering the walls.

Riley addressed the children as if they were the Lakers before Game 1 of 1985 Finals or the Heat before their 2006 Finals opener with the Mavericks. He was motivational, yet his messages were clear and simple enough to understand.

Success is not sophisticated, in his opinion. It is adhering to values and commitment. Riley, seemingly speaking without a script, talked to the youngsters about dreaming and creating a vision of their future.

“Without dreams and without dreaming something every day, I can assure you that it won’t happen,’’ he said. “A dream, all it is is an image in your mind, an image of a place that you want to get to one day.

“If it’s trying to get one of these’’ — he pointed to 2006 Larry O’Brien Trophy, which was in front of him — “or trying to be the very best on the computer or whatever it is, you’ve got to dream it.

“And when you dream it, it determines your behavior and inspires you to act and fuels whatever motivation you might have.’’

With the kids captivated — and likely in awe — Riley instructed them to research Michelangelo and study how he visualized a work of art from a simple piece of granite. The kids were probably visualizing their roster in NBA 2K11, but Riley clearly has impact as a motivator.

He persuaded LeBron James and Chris Bosh to sign with the Heat last summer.

“Basically [he] gave me the blueprint about how this organization is run, both on the court and off the court,’’ James said. “The great thing I got out of that is about how important family is. I’m a big believer in that. Always have been throughout my life.

“I appreciate that, and also the product they can put on the floor as well. I definitely saw something at that point when we were all talking about the players in this organization, definitely something to look forward to.’’

Riley maintained a low profile after assembling the Big Three. He has rarely spoken with the media, although there has been heavy scrutiny on the way he put the team together. Riley faced criticism when he was the slick-haired coach of the Lakers in the ’80s, and when he turned the Knicks into a brutally physical contender during the 1990s.

This time, he has allowed the players to withstand the onslaught, unwilling to publicly defend them at every opportunity. The negativity obviously bothers him, but silence may be his way of forcing James and Bosh to grow up.

But Riley said he senses that the Miami community has developed a protective shell over its superstars. A city that has been highly criticized for its fair-weather fans has seemingly galvanized behind the Big Three.

Miami wants to prove it’s a big-league town, while the Big Three want to further infuriate purists who believe super teams are a cancer on the health of the league.

“I think a community develops a covenant with its team, throughout the course of the season, good or bad,’’ said Riley. “The year that I won 15 games [2007-08], as much as they disliked it, I really believe they were in support of the team and they hoped that one day that we knew enough about the game to get to a day like this today.

“But it’s like your big brother, your little sister, or your parents. I can say something bad about them, but nobody else can, and I think that’s the way the fans are in Miami.’’

There had been speculation that Riley would come down from the ivory tower and coach the Heat if Erik Spoelstra faltered. At various times throughout the year, Spoelstra’s position appeared tenuous, and Riley’s self-imposed silence didn’t cool those rumors.

Privately, Riley gave Spoelstra his full support, even through the disappointing 9-8 start. As with his players, Riley perhaps wanted to toughen Spoelstra by allowing him to face the scrutiny without the protection of Papa Riley.

“I don’t even feel like I’ve changed jobs,’’ he said. “I’ve been in the personnel industry as a head coach and president for 16 years. I’m just not out on the court anymore because I don’t want to be.

“And Erik is doing such a great job. I’m proud of him. So it’s the same thing as always, more free time for me.’’

McHale hire a curious one Kevin McHale (left) continues his search for post-playing happiness. As the longtime general manager of the Timberwolves, the Celtics great maintained enough faith in Kevin Garnett and coach Flip Saunders to bring the franchise to prominence, though success was fleeting in Minnesota.

He replaced Saunders with Dwane Casey, but fired Casey too quickly, then unwisely replaced him with Randy Wittman, and had to fire him, too, before McHale himself was fired by owner Glen Taylor. Before his removal, McHale made his most significant and infamous move by trading Garnett to the Celtics for what amounted to nothing that improved the team.

As a television commentator, McHale appeared uncomfortable initially, but appeared to find a home in the job. He didn’t take himself too seriously. He offered astute analysis and was quick to call himself out for mistakes in Minnesota. But he never seemed content in front of the camera. He wanted back into the league, and now he has been hired to coach the Rockets, which is a bizarre fit at best.

The Rockets are in transition, attempting to move forward from the Yao Ming experiment. Yao hasn’t been healthy for three years, which has crippled the organization’s progress. Houston was able to move the divisive Tracy McGrady to the Knicks last season, but the Rockets are a team with no personality. Are they a defensive club? No. High scoring? Not quite. Loaded with young talent? Sort of.

McHale inherits a team that has every intention of competing in the Western Conference but yet has no real game plan.

“One of the reasons I took the job is it’s a very well-coached, very good offensive team,’’ McHale said at his introductory press conference. “They get up and down the floor. I love a lot of stuff that Rick Adelman did offensively with these guys. They scored up a storm.

“I think that they have pieces in place, very good pieces, that can be part of a championship-type team. Our goal is to make the playoffs next year. That’s going to fall on me to do it, and if it doesn’t get done, it will be on me.

“But we should make the playoffs — that’s what I feel. And once you get in, anything can happen. Ask Memphis.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’ve got to get better defensively and, again, that falls on me and my staff to demand defense.’’

McHale has coached only 94 games in the NBA, most recently in 2008-09 when Taylor said McHale needed to be more responsible for the fate of the Timberwolves after his coaching hires faltered. He is unproven. He has never run his own training camp, and his inexperience makes this hire curious.

He hasn’t compiled a staff yet, and his television commitments have made it difficult to evaluate draft prospects. So McHale basically has three weeks to decide what to do with the 14th pick, and how he wants to shape the roster, if at all, with draft-night deals.

It is an arduous challenge, but one McHale said he desires.

“From the last stint I had, I knew I wanted to coach again,’’ he said. “I was just waiting for the right situation to come.

“They won 43 games last year. Teams that are winning 55 to 60, those jobs just aren’t out there. If someone offered me a couple of the other jobs, I might have taken them.

“I just think it’s a team that’s got a lot of nice players from different age groups, and you have a nice young nucleus of guys that you can build and take over.

“Turning a team around, getting it going in the right direction in the middle of the season is a very hard thing to do, and I was able to do that both times [with Minnesota], so I wanted to try to start fresh without a bunch of water in the submarine going in the wrong direction.’’

Shaq departs at right time This column wouldn’t be complete without more reflection on the amazing career of Shaquille O’Neal (left). Heavyweights around the league have been chiming in on the big man, and some of those reflections are expressing relief that O’Neal did not try to continue playing.

It was sad and disheartening to see a man who moved so well during his career unable to run the court because of a painful right Achilles’ tendon. Like the final days of Franco Harris or Sugar Ray Leonard or Muhammad Ali, Shaq’s last appearance in uniform was a reminder that youth and athleticism eventually run dry.

“I think he had a great, great, great career,’’ said former NBA guard Tim Hardaway. “I’m happy that he decided to let it go because it pained everybody to see him out there laboring like that. He really couldn’t get up and down the court the way he wanted to.’’

Former adversary Charles Barkley, never one to mince words, said it was time for O’Neal to face reality.

“I’m glad he decided to retire . . . because I hated to see him struggle up and down the court this year,’’ he said. “But, man, the NBA lost a giant. He’s a wonderful person and one of the greatest players ever.

“I tell people, Shaquille O’Neal was the only player I ever saw who I said, ‘Wow, that’s a big dude.’ ’’

Now comes the speculation that O’Neal will return once his Achilles’ tendon and foot heal. He indicated that surgery would have cost him about nine months, but he could be capable of returning after a few months of rest.

Many observers didn’t believe Rasheed Wallace would stay away after retiring following last year’s Finals, but he did. O’Neal might feel he has something left, especially if he is completely healthy. Until he is about 50, there will always be those who want Shaq to play one more game.

Power broker shows himself For those wondering whether “World Wide Wes’’ really exists, he does. He is William Wesley, one of the more powerful behind-the-scenes figures in the NBA. He works for Creative Artists Agency, which represents LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Kemba Walker, among others. Wesley attended the first two games of the NBA Finals, escorting Kentucky standouts DeAndre Liggins and Brandon Knight around AmericanAirlines Arena. Knight is expected to be the second or third point guard drafted behind Kyrie Irving and Walker. Knight is considered a potential cornerstone guard while Walker is considered a shooting guard with a point’s frame.

Middle man wanted With Shaq retired, the Celtics are in the market for inexpensive centers, and there are two possibilities who could be intriguing but come with baggage. Former lottery pick Eddy Curry will be looking for work. He could have played for the Knicks this season but was so deep on coach Mike D’Antoni’s disregarded list that he never saw the court. The Celtics did inquire about Curry when he was released by the Timberwolves after being traded to them by the Knicks in a salary dump. He could be a low-post presence if he is in shape. Greg Oden, the former No. 1 overall pick, will create more demand because he is relatively young (23) and has more potential than Curry. Interested teams likely wouldn’t demand more than 25 minutes a game from the often-injured Oden, whose status with Portland is in question since general manager Rich Cho was fired last week. Cho had stated that the Blazers planned to offer him a contract.

Layups The Celtics are still waiting to see whether they will be able to field a summer-league entry in Orlando. While there have been rumors that the league plans to cancel summer sessions in Las Vegas and Orlando, it has made no announcements, and dates and venues continue to be reserved for early July. The elimination of summer leagues would stunt the growth of this year’s rookie class and also reduce opportunities for free agents and overseas players to audition for teams . . . The Timberwolves agreeing to terms with Ricky Rubio on a contract means they are expected to move former Syracuse standout Jonny Flynn, who fell out of favor with coach Kurt Rambis and was replaced at the point by Luke Ridnour. Look for the Kings and Raptors to make bids for Flynn, who faltered in general manager David Kahn’s survival-of-the-fittest plan for his point guards . . . While Dwight Howard offered encouraging words about his desire to remain in Orlando, a two-year contract extension is on the table that Howard has yet to sign. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year can opt out of his contract at the end of next season, and there is speculation that he could join the Lakers, Bulls, or even the Celtics, who could have salary cap space then with the contracts of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen expiring.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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