Decades of NBA lore are built on rivalries — epic, titanic, ego-driven clashes that lend context, subtext and the weight of history to what are otherwise just games.
People pay for that stuff, and the league and its players have cashed in, with money spilling in so quickly that it can barely be counted, let alone spent.
It’s good versus evil; pride and prejudice, and pride going before the fall. It’s Celtics-Lakers; Bird-Magic; Michael vs. the Pistons, Shaq vs. Kobe, KD vs. the Warriors and LeBron over everyone.
Some of it is straight out of the Vince McMahon playbook: storylines that keep the plot twisting through never-ending winters until games that matter finally arrive, at which point the hype machine kicks it up another notch.
But some of it is real. Some of it is based on men of giant accomplishments and massive, never-satiated ambitions coming together and pulling apart like tectonic plates on ephedrine, the league’s foundations quaking along the way.
This time it’s not an on-court rivalry that lends the final series of the NBA’s most unusual season its weight — though on paper the young, upstart Heat testing themselves against LeBron James and his insta-dynasty Lakers has all the ingredients to make it suitably delicious.
But what could make it memorable and a new plot point in the league’s decades-long drama is the way it pits two of sport’s most significant, preening, powerful, proud and successful figures against one another.
Heat president Pat Riley is 75 and his Goodfellas-inspired, slicked-back hair has long gone gray. But even in the bubble and wearing a mask, behind a glass partition, he has a presence. When current Heat star Jimmy Butler is looking for approval, he looks up into the stands, devoid of fans, for a post-game thumbs up from Riley. The Heat figurehead is the former Lakers role player turned coach turned executive turned living legend, the one who rode shotgun for Jerry West on the floor; earned Magic Johnson’s trust from the bench before pushing him too far and losing that war of wills after five championships.
Cast out from L.A., Riley perfected bully ball with the New York Knicks in the 90s, very nearly toppling Jordan in the process, before bolting for Miami, where he has somehow fused L.A. cool with New York edge, South Florida weather and no state income tax to create an NBA destination out of almost nothing.
It was Riley’s presence that attracted James after the kid from Akron was all grown up and looking to leave home. Riley plunked down a bag with the nine championships he’d won as a player, coach and executive and promised James he’d win a bunch more if they joined forces in Miami. James, without a title to show for seven years as a good soldier in Cleveland, followed the sun.
It was a perfect union – the world’s greatest player with the NBA’s most recognized superstar whisperer; the coolest, most gangster executive in the game with one more legend to pour his wisdom into. But after four Finals appearances and two championships, James was ready to graduate.
Pat Riley is Pat Riley because he’s his own man. He followed his basketball vision and in Miami created something in his image. “Heat Culture” is Riley: toughness, accountability, loyalty and no compromises.
But James took his lessons and wanted to improvise, play his own tune and win on his terms. When James left Miami to go back to Cleveland, he was following his own muse, looking to close his own circle and bring a championship back to the most un-Miami place in the league — taking what he learned and bringing it home.
Riley wasn’t having it. He wasn’t used to people saying “No” to him, let alone South Beach. For a moment he lost his cool. He lashed out.
“This stuff is hard. And you go to stay together, if you’ve got the guts,” he said after the Heatles had come up short against the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, triggering the break-up, and plenty of hard feelings. “And you don’t find the first door and run out of it.”
It was a ridiculous thing to say. All James was doing was taking his career into his own hands, launching himself on a trajectory few athletes in any sport have ever aspired to, let alone pulled off. James went back to Cleveland and completed one of the greatest stories in all of sports – bringing a title to his (adjacent) hometown after 52 years of being kicked around or forgotten by the coastal elites. He engineered a comeback from 3-1 against the Golden State Warriors, one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Along the way, James found his voice as a philanthropist and an activist — and proved that he didn’t need Pat Riley to be the primary figure in the NBA.
Riley couldn’t help but be chastened.
“I had two to three days of tremendous anger (after James left),” Riley told Ian Thomsen in 2018’s “The Soul of Basketball,” acknowledging that he hadn’t spoken with James since.
“I was absolutely livid, which I expressed to myself and my closest friends. My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down. That team in 10 years could have won five or six championships.
“But I get it. I get the whole chronicle of (LeBron’s) life.
“While there may have been some carnage always left behind when he made these kinds of moves, in Cleveland and also in Miami, he did the right thing,” Riley told Thompson. “I just finally came to accept the realization that he and his family said, ‘You’ll never, ever be accepted back in your hometown if you don’t go back to try to win a title. Otherwise someday you’ll go back there and have the scarlet letter on your back. You’ll be the greatest player in the history of mankind, but back there, nobody’s really going to accept you.'”
In the moments before Game 7 in 2016, Riley reached out to James, via text: “Win this and be free.”
James never responded. He didn’t need Riley’s affirmation, but from the winner’s circle, he let on the vindication his third title provided.
“When I decided to leave Miami — I’m not going to name any names, I can’t do that — but there were some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years (who) told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career,” James told ESPN at the time.
“And that s— hurt me. And I know it was an emotional time that they told me that because I was leaving. They just told me it was the biggest mistake I was making in my career. And that right there was my motivation.”
Having paid his debt to Cleveland, James eventually set out to make one more bold move in a career defined by them, leaving to join the Lakers in the summer of 2018, all while making a masterful long play to recruit the greatest teammate of his career, Anthony Davis.
After a season in limbo, it has worked out perfectly. The Lakers have been the best team in the West all year and have looked stronger as the playoffs have gone on.
But while Riley may have begun to show his age in the decade since he brought James to Miami as the centrepiece of what he thought would be a dynasty that would challenge the Lakers’ historical hegemony, he hasn’t lost any of his edge.
Since James left, Riley has been rebuilding on the fly: adding, positioning, developing and drafting. This past off-season he pounced and found a new soulmate in Jimmy Butler to lead his hand-picked crew of young talent.
The Heat have grown before everyone’s eyes, including Riley’s, as he looks down approvingly from behind his mask.
Now one more test: will Riley’s new team, built in James’ wake, be able to hand James one more bitter Finals disappointment, a seventh loss — this time to his former mentor — obscuring his three championships?
Or will James have the last laugh, winning his fourth title with his third team and proving that Riley needed him more than the other way around?
There are legacies at stake, and history, and two of the NBA’s proudest, vainest and most successful characters are awaiting one more chapter to be written.
But only one of them is one the floor. Advantage, LeBron.