On a sunny South Florida day 22 years ago, Pat Riley was introduced as the Miami Heat’s new coach and president on a cruise ship named Imagination and in a lounge called Dynasty.
Ok, the Heat’s history may go back further than that, seven years to be exact when the NBA granted Miami one of its four new franchises in 1988 and Lewis Schaffel and Billy Cunningham would launch this new adventure. But to many, even as the Heat begin their 30th season with Wednesday’s 2017-18 season opener in Orlando, the real beginning was that summer of 1995 when, about six months after taking control of the team, Micky Arison, the chairman and CEO of Carnival Corporation, reeled in Riley.
Seven years of mediocrity was about to change.
“Pat’s presence has been the overriding factor in everything in Miami since 1995,” said Ron Rothstein, who has spent 20 years in the organization starting with being named the team’s first head coach.
“He’s made an enormous difference with his persona, his coaching greatness, his ability to organize and have a clear plan and go forward with it. You have to search hard and long to find someone who’s had a run like Pat has had in Miami. He’s in the Hall of Fame for a reason.”
Riley walked onto that stage on the newest ship in Carnival’s fleet knowing this would be different. Different even from his heyday as an A-lister among the glitz and glamour of L.A. — a nine-year run as head coach of the “Showtime” Lakers that ended with four titles and the Lakers becoming the hottest show in Hollywood — and four years amongst the celebrities of Madison Square Garden while leading the Knicks to four playoff appearances, including one trip to the Finals.
He was steering a different ship.
“The setting was cool,” he said about that initial news conference. “I remember the press conference and going up to the captain’s bridge. I remember my talk with the media. It just all felt different for me and I’m sure it felt different for them. I did have a track record that they could go back and say, ‘This guy might know what he’s doing.’
“When I got to Miami I didn’t really care where the team was. It was the vision and image that I had of where I thought I could take the team and the franchise based on the experience I had.”
Until Riley arrived, the Heat were known for a 17-game losing streak before winning their first game and for six losing seasons in their first seven.
To be fair, Miami was the first of the four expansion teams from the 1980s to make the playoffs, grabbing the No. 8 seed in 1992 before being quickly disposed of by Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Still, everything was about to change.
“They made the playoffs once,” Riley said. “The whole thing, players revolving door, coaches revolving door, the infrastructure was not really up to snuff. As soon as I got the job I went down there and spent a month trying to infrastructure up whatever we could before the start of the season.
“Micky came in with a different approach, a different attitude. Right out of the box he wanted to try and hire who he thought was the best and you paid for it.”
The Heat gave up a conditional first-round pick and $1 million to the Knicks as compensation for letting Riley out of the final year of his contract in one of the most lopsided deals in sports history.
What has followed in Riley’s 22-year tenure as Heat president (including 11 as head coach) is 17 playoffs appearances, five trips to the Finals and three championships.
During that time, only the Bulls, Lakers and Spurs have won at least three titles and only the Lakers and Spurs have been to at least five Finals. The Knicks? They have advanced past the conference semifinals twice, and not since 2000. They have won one playoff series in the past 17 seasons.
“You have stable leadership at the top and that’s where it starts,” Rothstein said. “If you don’t have that I think it’s really hard to be successful.”
Riley went to work immediately upon his arrival. Within two months he acquired one cornerstone to his early years, Alonzo Mourning. Then, 3½ months after bringing in Mourning, Tim Hardaway arrived. Riley had laid the groundwork for the Heat’s first successful run and set the tone for what we would become accustomed to.
The Mourning acquisition may have been the most important in Heat history. It validated Riley’s arrival and instantly made the Heat viable. Riley believes Mourning was looking to join fellow Georgetown alum Patrick Ewing in New York at the time but Ewing, his their agent and Georgetown coach John Thompson convinced Mourning to try to lead his own franchise.
“There’s always a perfect storm,” Riley said.
Riley, though, would have to wait 11 years before the franchise’s first title, one in which the team’s most significant draft pick – Dwyane Wade – combined with another blockbuster trade acquisition – Shaquille O’Neal – to bring the first of three parades down Biscayne Boulevard.
With build-ups, tear-downs, and quick rebuilds now becoming the norm under Riley, the next significant day in Heat history was July 9, 2010, when LeBron James and Chris Bosh officially joined Wade to redefine the term ‘Big Three.’ What followed were four consecutive trips to the Finals and two titles.
But each departed in their own way. James decided to return to Cleveland. Wade wanted to experience playing in his hometown of Chicago. Bosh developed blood clots and has not played in an NBA game in 20 months.
And another era was born, one that Riley, even at 72, will continue to have his fingerprints all over, with help from his handpicked successor on the bench, and possibly someday in the front office, Erik Spoelstra.
“Thing happens,” Riley said trying to explain his success. “I don’t think it’s me, Pat Riley, because none of them knew me. A lot of people who don’t know somebody take a look at somebody’s record. I had a record of 13 years of having really good success and a reputation as a head coach and I think players want to play for that man or that organization.
“In the late 90s that’s what it was about. Players wanted to come to Miami and Micky opened the purse strings and agreed to the contracts. The next thing you knew we had a new arena and here we are in 2017.”
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