Riley Looms Large Over LeBron James Heat as NBA Title Nears

Miami Heat President Pat Riley has said he knew what would appeal to LeBron James, the free agent. It was championships, especially for a player who had accomplished everything except his stated goal of winning it all.

“Pat understands what it takes,” James, a three-time Most Valuable Player, has said. “He understands the DNA of a championship team.”

In 2010, when Riley was trying to convince James to join his team, he took a bag from the drawer and dropped it on his office desk. Inside were Riley’s championship rings, four of which came during his tenure as coach of Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers. The most recent one came courtesy of the Heat, who, coached by Riley, won the 2005-06 title.

“Pat would make an unbelievable CEO because he understands how to win; he understands how to work with people and find the right people,” Johnson, chairman of Magic Johnson Enterprises and a member of the group that bought baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers for a record $2.1 billion, said on a conference call today. “Pat Riley has his handprint all over this team.”

Riley’s greatest asset, his former players say, is his understanding of what motivates them, including the great ones like three-time Most Valuable Player Johnson and James, who with a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight in Miami would secure the first championship of his nine-year-old National Basketball Association career.

‘Sense of Stability’

“Riley gives the Heat a sense of stability as president of the company, so to speak,” John Starks, who played for Riley with the New York Knicks, said in a telephone interview. “He reads players. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Riley, 67, played basketball and football at the University of Kentucky. He reached the NBA, where he played nine seasons, and was picked by the Dallas Cowboys in the 11th round of the 1967 National Football League draft.

“Being a former player, he understands what players go through this time of year,” said Starks.

Back in 2006, when the Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade-led Heat defeated the Dallas Mavericks for the title, Riley had a pit erected in the middle of the Miami locker room that was covered with a black cloth. No one was allowed to sneak a peek underneath.

The pit, which also made its way to road games, was unveiled after Miami won the title. It contained playing cards with the championship trophy on one side and the words “15 Strong” on the other.

Style Sense

Riley also has a sense of style. With his slicked-backed hair and Armani suits, he became as much a face of the Lakers franchise as his players.

Riley has demonstrated his acumen for business as well as basketball. He led the Lakers to titles in 1982, ‘85, ‘87 and ’88. After the last title, Riley said former player Byron Scott came up with a catchy phrase for what the team was trying to accomplish the following season.

In November of 1988, Riles & Co. filed for a trademark of “three-peat,” which was registered the following year. In 1994 Riley applied for additional three-peat trademarks, including collector plates and mugs. His subsequent applications coincided with the dominance of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, who twice won three consecutive titles. Riley had a licensing agreement with the NBA, Major League Baseball and Modell’s Sporting Goods Inc.

“As CEOs we want to win now, but also we look for growth,” Johnson said. “He built this team to win not just now but also into the future.”

Riley left the Lakers after the 1989-90 NBA season for the Knicks, and led New York to the Finals in 1993-94. It was the first time the Knicks made it to the championship round of the playoffs since they won the title in 1972-73.

“Players listen because he has all the credentials,” Starks said.

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