Think back to the summer of 2010. You remember. The FIFA World Cup was happening in South Africa. Scientists had just created artificial life. WikiLeaks, probably. And every NBA team that could carve out enough cap space to make a run at the caliber of free agent that would command a maximum salary had their eyes on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. As legend has it, one team, the Miami Heat, got all three of them.
The talented troika chose to congregate in Miami thanks in no small part to the exhortations and maneuvering of Heat team president Pat Riley, who convinced them all to take slightly less than max salaries for the chance to play together and compete year-in, year-out for championships. The ploy nearly worked in the trio's first year together, as Miami won the Eastern Conference before falling to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
This year, Miami has posted the league's third-best record through 41 games, and Erik Spoelstra's squad finds itself in the chase position for the East's top spot behind the conference-leading Chicago Bulls, who welcome the Heat into the United Center for a massive showdown on Wednesday night.
For his part, Bulls guard Mike James, who played for Riley with the Miami Heat from 2001 through 2003, isn't surprised that Riles was able to close the deals that brought James and Bosh to Miami. From K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
"Coach has a way with words," James said. "Even when I played there, our pregame speeches, as soon as he finished, your eyes would get watery. Your adrenalin is extremely high. You're ready to run through a wall then and there just by his words. He is a great motivator. I'm pretty sure Coach was able to say words to them to get them excited in that moment."
Even if we take James' recollections with a grain of salt — and we probably should, because something seems a little weird about decade-old memories of being in tears before every game — this offers a cool bit of insight into what makes Riley so good beyond mere X's and O's or cap management.
Not every coach can elicit that sort of emotional investment from every player on the roster — not only signature stars, but also bench mobbers and rotation players like James. Ditto for team executives and the many people who work behind the scenes in the day-to-day operations of an NBA organization.
In a league where the moves of even the most accomplished decision-makers so often come under fire, a leader that can make everyone believe in both the goal for which they're working and the steps they're taking to achieve it can make all the difference in the world. In addition to his estimable on-court talents, it's what made Riley a five-time champion as a coach, the league's 2011 Executive of the Year and the man who put together one of three squads that looks like a solid bet to take this year's title.
Also, it's perhaps worth mentioning that the combination of James' comments and the quotes Chris Bosh gave Elle magazine this time last year about Riley's smooth, smooth ways have me pretty convinced that Riles could convince me to do just about anything. Please keep this in mind if I am ever arrested for committing some sort of crime (likely a jewel heist) in the Coral Gables area.