Once-Spurned Pat Riley Has Strong Words for LeBron James

LeBron James in his Miami Heat swan song, 2014

Getty LeBron James in his Miami Heat swan song, 2014.

Back in 2014, after the Spurs roundly drubbed the Heat in a revenge series in the NBA Finals, Miami president Pat Riley was not expecting that the lynchpin of his team—forward LeBron James—would respond by jumping ship on the Heat altogether.

But James did, and Riley grew an immediate grudge. Six years later, that grudge is apparently not so overwhelming that Riley can’t acknowledge James’ talent.

In an interview with Heat play-by-play man Eric Reid, Riley called James, “maybe the greatest player of all time,” no faint praise from a guy who played with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, coached Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and coached against Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.

Riley was running the Heat when James joined the team in the summer of 2010, famously leaving Cleveland to take his “talents to South Beach.” Teamed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James helped Miami reach the Finals four straight seasons from 2010-14, losing to Dallas, beating Oklahoma City and San Antonio, then losing the rematch against the Spurs.

Foresight Helped Riley Bring LeBron James to Miami

The interview was part of a look back at the Heat’s championships on Fox Sports in Miami over the weekend. Riley’s description of bringing together Wade, James and Bosh is fascinating, describing how the team recognized when Wade signed his contract extension in 2006 that cap space for the Summer of 2010 should be prioritized because players like James and Bosh (as well as Rudy Gay, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer and more) would be free agents.

Said Riley:

We saw that their contracts would end at the same time. Talking at that time with Randy Pfund and also talking with Andy, we just wanted to make sure that we could be a player in 2010 even though it was still three or four years away, to be able to have the cap space to be able to talk to those guys. We planned at that time that 2010 was going to be an incredible free-agent class. I just wanted to be able to get to have dinner with them or be at a table with them. …

After July the first, I just laid it out on the table. LeBron and Chris [Bosh], two of the greatest players in our game. And LeBron, maybe the greatest player of all time, with Dwyane [Wade]. All you had to do is put it on the table, after July the first, to say, ‘Why keep banging your head against the wall like you have in Cleveland? Chris, in Toronto?’ Having great seasons but never really getting very far in the playoffs. I said here’s an opportunity to have three of the greatest players in the game in their prime at a time when they can make this kind of decision.

Riley Nearly Pulled a Dan Gilbert on LeBron

Still, Riley was stung when James left Miami. Sure, there were rumors that James planned to return to Cleveland, where his career started before he signed with the Heat. But Riley, like many, figured that would come later.

Riley previously described in an ESPN interview trying to persuade James to stick with the Heat in 2014—traveling with team officials, bringing wine from Napa Valley, bringing the team’s championship trophies and charts laying out the team’s strategy for free agency. In 2010, Riley had worked out the deal to bring James to Miami with James’ friend and business consultant Maverick Carter.

But in the 2014 meeting, James brought agent Rich Paul but not Carter. Riley said he knew James was not taking the meeting sincerely at that moment and told a team official not to bring in the trophies. He said James and Paul did not focus on the meeting, instead watching a World Cup soccer match.

When James called later to deliver the news that he’d be going back to Cleveland, Riley said he nearly followed the path of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, who penned a churlish open letter after James left the Cavs.

“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.”

He’s since gotten over it. Turns out, he thinks James is a pretty good player.

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