Whenever an ESPN.com editor hit’s the publish button on a piece wherein Wright Thompson is the byline, it’s a drop-whatever-you’re-doing moment. When Thompson goes all in on a subject who is well known but not well known, it’s that much better. But in his latest piece on Miami Heat president Pat Riley, even the most word averse folks should dig in, if only for the anecdotes on the final months of LeBron James’ stint with the team.
Midway through a story about a man who has long wrestled with ideals—the ideal coach, the ideal father, the ideal husband, and now, the ideal team president—is an extremely detailed report of how James handled his exit meeting with Riley.
This season has challenged Riley as much as any in the past 50 years. The troubles began swirling three years ago, in the summer of 2014. Behind the Big Three — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — the Heat had been to four straight Finals, winning two titles, and Riley felt as if he had built something greater than his Showtime Lakers, something to rival even the Bill Russell-led Celtics. But James was a free agent that summer, and Riley and his guys flew out to Las Vegas to make their case for him to stay in Miami.
Riley told his lieutenant, Andy Elisburg, to get the two championship trophies LeBron had won and pack them in their hard-shell carrying cases. Elisburg also brought charts and an easel for a presentation about the free agents the Heat would pursue. The day of the meeting, a hotel bellhop followed them with a luggage cart carrying the presentation and the two trophies. Riley brought wine from a Napa vineyard named Promise. It was the same label Maverick Carter had presented Riley with when they did the deal four years earlier. Riley respects Carter, and when he walked into the suite and saw James with agent Rich Paul and friend Randy Mims but no Maverick, part of him knew the meeting wasn’t sincere. He told Elisburg to keep the trophies and easel in the hall. James and his associates were watching a World Cup game, which they kept glancing at during the presentation. At one point, Riley asked if they’d mute the TV.
Riley flew home worried and got a text telling him to be ready for a call. About 15 minutes later, his phone rang and Paul was on the other end. The agent handed the phone to LeBron, who started by saying, “I want to thank you for four years …”
“I was silent,” Riley says. “I didn’t say anything. My mind began to just go. And it was over. I was very angry when LeBron left. It was personal for me. It just was. I had a very good friend who talked me off the ledge and kept me from going out there and saying something like Dan Gilbert. I’m glad I didn’t do it.”
The next year, the Heat missed the playoffs, Riley consumed with self-doubt, his own mind whispering that he’d stayed too long. Then last season Miami lost Bosh to blood clots, but the team still fought to the playoffs, falling to the Raptors in seven in the Eastern Conference semifinals. On the flight back from Toronto, Riley and his staff drank wine and debated the free agents they’d get to join Wade for another deep playoff run.
The beginning of July, all that fell apart.
Thompson’s story digs in to a host of other moments in Riley’s life, one no more telling than the contrast between the summer of 2013 and the weeks before the Heat were officially eliminated from the NBA Playoffs this past April. Just weeks after the Heat won their second title Riley was preparing for his 50th high school reunion. He served as social chair for the event, booking the Four Tops and the Temptations, paying for the entire $160,000 bill. He was on top of the world. He had nine rings—between his days as a player, coach and team president—and could have easily went out at that moment.
Fast forward to 2014 where James opts out. Riley panics and gives James’ earmarked dollars to Chris Bosh, ultimately leaving the team too tight to extend career-long guard Dwyane Wade. Bosh’s career succumbs to health issues. Wade heads to Chicago.
“You never think it’s gonna end,” Riley says. “Then it always ends.”
In listening to Jon Weiner (“Stugotz”) discuss the Thompson story on the Dan Le Batard show Tuesday morning, this anecdote appears to have deepened the wound some Heat fans have regarding how LeBron left Miami. Much like the rhetoric that surround James’ exit from Cleveland in 2010, it wasn’t that he left; it was what could have been had he stayed. That James forced Riley to fly to Las Vegas only to be given an insincere meeting was offensive, while forgetting James had teams like the Knicks and Nets fly to Cleveland for presentations four years earlier. Weiner’s huge issue was how quickly things fell apart when James left—how it all just ended. As Greg Cote, who was sitting in for Le Batard, said, “that’s sports.”
It’s so telling that Riley felt blindsided just years after the same thing happened to the region in which James was from. When things are great, you never think of them ending. Eventually, the music stops, the lights turn on, and you see what the floor actually looks like.
Cleveland is eying up their third straight trip to a series in fans of 28 other teams will be forced to watch while having hopes and dreams of a better future. Think about all of this the next time you consider complaining about transition defense in the middle of February.