LeBron James choosing to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2014 rather than re-signing with the Miami Heat changed the NBA landscape, breaking up a dynasty and shifting power in the Eastern Conference.
Pat Riley never lashed out publicly at LeBron for leaving, but it has been reported and suspected that he was upset by James’ decision to break up the Big 3 in Miami after two titles in four years. However, Riley, notorious for being an extremely private person, finally opened up to ESPN’s Wright Thompson in an expansive feature for ESPN The Magazine.
Among the many insights into Riley was the Heat’s side of the story from LeBron’s free agency. Riley flew to Las Vegas to visit with James and was immediately concerned by the absence of James’ confidant and business partner Maverick Carter from the meeting. Riley chose to audible, leaving his main pitch, which was an easel with other free agent targets the Heat could pursue if James returned and the two Larry O’Brien trophies the Heat won with James, outside after noting the tone of the room.
After returning to Miami, worried that he was about to losing his star, Riley received the phone call he was dreading and was extremely mad that his dynasty — which Thompson writes he felt had the chance to be bigger than the Showtime Lakers — was being torn apart prematurely.
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.”
That final line is especially revealing, as Riley had to be talked out of going public and attacking James in the same manner that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert did with his poorly thought out letter after James left for Miami in 2010. Riley could have come out firing against James, airing his grievances publicly and torching the bridge with the league’s premier star, but instead he wisely chose to avoid any public clashes with James.
Riley says he has come to understand why James left, but that it took a couple years for him to come to terms with James’ reasoning for wanting to go home.
“He went home because he had to go home,” Riley said. “It was time. It was really time for him to go home, in his prime. If he’s ever gonna do anything in Akron again, this was the time to do it. Otherwise, he’d have had a scarlet letter on his back the rest of his whole life.”
The rest of the story includes some fantastic anecdotes about Riley, with my personal favorite being that he loves to use emojis and has written a number of screenplays.
The other Riley loves emojis — texting hearts, smiley faces and sunsets, praying hands, cute baby heads and palm trees. He has written six unproduced screenplays.
It’s so hard to imagine Riley firing off emoji-filled texts, but I love the mental picture of him giggling to himself like a teen.