Riley's creation carries him to another 'joyous' quest

Sun SentinelJune 22, 2013 

NBA Finals Spurs Heat Basketball

From left, Miami Heat president Pat Riley, assistant coach David Fizdale, and head coach Erik Spoelstra celebrate after Game 7 of the NBA basketball championships, Friday, June 21, 2013, in Miami. The Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs 95-88 to win their second straight NBA championship.(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

WILFRDO LEE — ASSOCIATED PRESS

MIAMI — He wore relief on his face and the scent of a champion like a crown, his forever-combed hair and perfectly pressed white shirt soaked with champagne, the air about steaming of cigar.

"Like a 60-pound rock off your back," Heat President Pat Riley said of this feeling, grabbing the rock off him with both hands and throwing it to the ground. "Like you're free of that burden."

He laughed a winner's laugh, a champion's laugh, after Thursday night had turned to Friday morning, tension to another title. He leaned against a wall outside the Heat locker room they call Champion's Alley.

Behind him was a floor-to-ceiling photo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade holding last year's trophy. Somewhere was one of Wade celebrating his first title, the one Riley coached in 2006.

"When the result is like this, it's joyous," Riley said.

This was LeBron's night, his moment, his time to ascend the throne with the backing of two titles. But this was Riley's creation. His vision. His bold dream in assembling this team, brick by brick, from raising Coach Erik Spoelstra, who with two titles is his own star now, to conjuring up the Big Three and attendant parts.

"I just want this thing to keep going," Riley said. "I'm at an age, right now, where I am ready to just fly off somewhere. But I'm not going to, because the Good Lord has blessed me with a team that's allowed me to grab onto its coattails for as long as they want to be together."

Chris "Birdman" Andersen walked through the crowded hall with an unlit cigar in his mouth.

"Bird, you know it! You know it!" Riley said.

"I know now," Andersen said, some code they'd evidently discussed, maybe this champions feeling.

The idea of a dynasty was brought up now. Riley didn't back down from anything. He went back to his definition stated the summer night three years ago when LeBron signed, the one with the unbent perspective of history.

"There was only one dynasty, and the dynasty was the Celtics of the '60s," he said. "Now if you want to move forward because the rules have changed, if you can win six like Michael (Jordan) did or (four titles) like San Antonio, then, yes, you can talk about a great team.

"We got a young team. A lot of people think it's old. It's a young team and veteran team, and we have so much ahead of us. We're going for it, and we're going to go for it every year."

Riley's entire blueprint was on the line in Game 7, right to the final quarter, against a San Antonio team that finally got the deserved acclaim in defeat that eluded them through four titles. It took everything LeBron had, everything this roster could bring.

"I know what the story line would have been (had we lost)," he said. "How many guys I have to trade. And, 'Riley's too old.' 'He's senile.'"

Riley is too old, his career too successful, to be hit with that or, perhaps more telling, burdened by it. He spent three decades "on the rock," as he says, coaching. It turned him into a "manic-depressive" in 2003, he says. The 2006 title brought relief more than joy.

"I look over at Erik, and I know the pain he's going through after losses and the immediate joy, but short-term joy, before the next game," he said. "He's great. Great. He's the first to work. He's the last to leave. He doesn't have golf clubs in his trunk. He just works."

Andy Elisburg, the team's salary-cap-ologist, was walking by, covered in champagne. Riley threw an arm around him.

They're both Bruce Springsteen fans, and Riley said, "What's he saying tonight — 'Hello, Coventry, England, are you alive!'" Riley said of Springsteen on tour.

"Amsterdam tonight," Elisburg said.

Sometimes, in the moment, we forget Riley has led the most fascinating basketball life of them all. Played for the legendary Adolph Rupp. Played for all-white Kentucky in the epic '66 national championship game against all-black Texas-El Paso. Played with Wilt, with Jerry West. Coached the Showtime Lakers to three titles. Took the Knicks to a Finals.

Now there are three more titles with the Heat. Shaquille O'Neal, whom Riley famously won with and gloriously challenged to a fight in practice, leaned in to offer congratulations as Riley did a TV interview.

"Love you," Shaq said.

They man-hugged. That's what winning brings. Hugs. Cigars. Validation for LeBron and Spoelstra. More validation for Riley. His relief was clear, his smell as a champion as obvious as the champagne on him.

The Winner Within, the title of his book, was the Winner With Everything for another year.

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