Miami Heat’s Secret Weapon: A look at Pat Riley’s career, ‘The Master Motivator’

Pat Riley knows how to lure stars to Miami. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Pat Riley knows how to lure stars to Miami. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

The Miami Heat are stacked. LeBron James is unquestionably the best player on Earth, playing at his all-time best. Dwyane Wade is a savvy scorer who can attack the basket and manufacture points when the team is cold. Chris Bosh cleans up the boards and stretches defenses. Battier will take a charge or 12—the Dukie way. Ray Allen is a 3-point assassin. The bench is loaded with guys who, on any given night, can put up 20. Erik Spoelstra may be an offensive basketball savant. And yet, with all of this talent, we have not even covered the Heat’s secret weapon.

Pat Riley will, someday, go down as one of the greatest minds to infiltrate the game of basketball. He is an amalgamation of the sport’s truest geniuses. Riley has the front-office acumen of Jerry West, the management skills of Phil Jackson, and commands players’ loyalty like Red Auerbach. Pat Riley is The Master Motivator.

Pat Riley and Dwayne Wade have become quite the couple. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Pat Riley and Dwayne Wade have become quite the couple. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Riley’s dominance in Miami should not come as a surprise. It is the culmination of a career in the limelight. The real surprise is that after nearly five decades playing and working for the sport’s cornerstone institutions, Riley’s best work has come after stepping out of the spotlight. A quick look at Riley’s resume will help put his current triumphs into perspective.

In college, Pat Riley played at the University of Kentucky for famed coach Adolph Rupp. If not for Dan Haskins’ 1966 Texas Western team—of Glory Road fame—Riley would have another championship plaque on his crowded mantel. The seeds for Showtime were clearly sewn during this time in Lexington. Rupp was an innovator of the fast break, and this offensive set became a staple of Riley’s 1980’s Lakers squads.

After Kentucky, Riley bounced around between NBA teams until, in 1970, he began what would become a long, prosperous relationship with the Los Angeles Lakers. He helped the team—and its beleaguered superstar Jerry West—win the 1972 championship. When his playing career ended a few years later, Riley became the Lakers’ radio announcer, turned assistant coach, turned head coach.

Upon taking the reigns in 1981, LA became the center of the NBA universe for the next decade. Nicknamed “Showtime,” the Lakers and their coach perfectly embodied the city. They played fast, partied hard, and looked wonderful doing both. The Lakers went on to eight straight NBA championship series, four titles, and became the first team in 19 years to repeat as champions. After dominating basketball for an entire decade, Riley set his sights on the league’s other omnipresent market.

Though his stint as New York Knicks head coach failed to reach the lofty heights of his LA tenure, Riley brought the Knicks their most success since the 1970’s. He coached the team to its best regular season record, and took them to the NBA Finals—losing to Houston in seven games. He didn’t win a championship, but Riley returned another benchmark franchise to prominence.

Onwards south to Miami, the third point in a triangle of great nightlife cities. As president and head coach, Riley rebuilt the franchise, turning the Heat into playoff stalwarts. He gave the club a beloved veteran in Alonzo Mourning, drafted the team’s first legitimate superstar in Dwyane Wade, launched—and later sent packing—the professional coaching career of Stan Van Gundy and finally recruited Shaquille O’neal to help lead Miami to its first NBA Championship.

It was Shaq’s acquisition that bridges the gap to today. In landing O’neal, Riley learned something valuable: veterans will play for a team with great young talent if there is a chance for a title. Miami was the first leg of Shaq’s late-career mercenary tour. Seeing how even its greatest superstars would chase rings, Riley’s famed penchant for pocket psychology would transform the league.

Pat Riley has taken LeBron James to the pinnacle of his game. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Pat Riley has taken LeBron James to the pinnacle of his game. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

In recruiting LeBron James, Pat Riley had it all. D-Wade was James’ buddy and, possibly more importantly, an NBA champion. Miami had all the bustling nightlife any 20-something aspiring global icon could ask for. The team had significant cap room to pull another superstar, Chris Bosh. Finally, and quite possibly the most underreported allure: the team had Riley as its president.

Riley won as a player. He helped Jerry West win his elusive title. Couldn’t he help the newest incarnation of West: a great player unable to get his team over the hump? Riley won as a coach. Riley won as an executive. All Pat Riley does is win. Why wouldn’t LeBron James sign with a proven winner? After all, James had not won anything of meaning—Olympic Gold medal aside—since high school. As a player criticized for shrinking under the spotlight, why wouldn’t LeBron sign on with a man who thrives under only the brightest of lights? Pat Riley exudes excellence and provided James the perfect template for success. He offered the forbidden fruit to a kid whose career was at a crossroads.

After landing James, Riley has relied on psychology to assemble his juggernaut. It’s been like shooting fish in a barrel, really. Any player willing to shed salary, extend his career, and do yeoman’s work wants to play in Miami. The championship unofficially runs through Miami, and aged veterans are happy to be along for the ride.

Throughout his entire professional career, Pat Riley has been flanked by greatness—Rupp, Buss, West, Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Ewing, O’neal, Wade, and now LeBron. He has plucked basketball, business, teambuilding, and managerial knowledge from this laundry list of superstars. After all these years, Riley has perfected his timing of when to lead, follow, and/or get out of the way. He knows how to close a deal, and he definitely knows how to maximize people’s potential. His motivational tactics have become the backbone to a successful business model.

Pat Riley is more than an architect; he is the engine driving basketball’s newest dynasty. If you’re still unsure of the man’s prowess, how about this: Pat Riley trademarked the phrase “three-peat.” At this point, capturing three in a row looks like his final hurdle. With Riley, success is a trickledown effect.