Four years ago, Pat Riley appealed to the weakness in LeBron James. He offered a better life. He offered a greater chance at a championship. He lured James from Cleveland with the promise of achievement, and he never once said anything about guts or loyalty.
The proverbial sneaker is now on the other foot, of course, and so here is Riley today, in the wake of his Heat’s embarrassing loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, changing the argument like some type of two-bit lawyer. As always, he fits the part. The man Danny Ainge once jabbed for his “hair goop” is now piling it on thicker than ever, challenging his star players to stick together during a time when they appear to be coming apart.
Mostly, he is challenging James.
"I think everybody needs to get a grip," Riley recently told reporters "This stuff is hard. You have to stay together and find the guts. You don't find the first door and run out of it."
Unless Riley happens to be the one holding it open.
Dear Riles: You are a hypocritical fraud. You were a terrific coach, remain an excellent executive, would be an asset for any team, including the Celtics, who might ever want to hire you. But on this one, especially, you are as phony as a polyester suit. During James’ final five years in Cleveland, the Cavaliers won more games than any team in the NBA Eastern Conference. They went 9-5 in playoff series and made a trip to the finals. The people in Cleveland appealed to James the same way you are appealing now – please stay, LeBron, and please finish what you started – though they did so in a far more whiny, pathetic and shameless manner.
You? You are smarter, at least. You appealed to James’ manhood, which is a clever little trick. It’s just as transparent and superficial as the people to whom the Heat sell tickets. LeBron has never been about fighting the fight, Riles. He has never been about digging in. He is about LeBron, about the business of King James, and the fact that you have now resorted to essentially calling him a chicken confirms just how desperate and scared you are.
Attaboy, Riles. Change the argument to fit your needs.
We know what you’re thinking: that all of this is merely residue from the historic power struggle that was the Celtics and the Lakers of 1980s, a competition Los Angeles ultimately won. Larry Bird developed a bad back. You won more titles. Maybe we are still a little bitter about that. But nobody here ever doubted the brilliance of your coaching, the talent of your team, the competitiveness of your organization, and anyone who knows anything about the Celtics and Lakers knows the teams loved one another as much as they hated.
What about New York, Riles? What about your stint there? In five years, your team won the fifth most games in the league. During two of those seasons, the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan did not win the championship. But at the end of the five years, after the Knicks lost a second-round series to the Indiana Pacers in backbreaking fashion, you did exactly what James did in Cleveland.
You took your talents to South Beach.
You found the first door.
Of course, you also resigned by fax, Riles, perhaps the most cowardly of the cowardly departures. At the time, there was much discussion about money. There were reports suggesting you wanted 25 percent of ownership. In the end, the simplest truth was that winning a title got too hard for you, the way it has sometimes been hard for LeBron, and so you bolted out of Dodge with your tail between your legs and your ego badly bruised.
See, all of this explains precisely the way you are acting now, Riles. Nobody ever said you were a fool. You know how it works in the modern NBA as well as anyone, and so you have a good idea of how explosive the next week could be. Kevin Love wants out of Minnesota. Carmelo Anthony is expected to opt out of New York. LeBron could be on the market again. Your Heat proved woefully insufficient against the Spurs, and both you and LeBron know it, and Miami’s future now seems to rest on Dwyane Wade’s wobbly knees.
Maybe you’ll get lucky, Riles. Maybe James, Wade and Chris Bosh all will stay. Maybe you’ll even get Carmelo. But if there is any real justice in this modern NBA, if things truly come full circle, LeBron will walk out the same door you held open four years ago, and he won’t even stop to say goodbye.
He’ll just send you a fax.