The new life of Riley: Behind the scenes

Miami Heat President Pat Riley has a less

Miami Heat President Pat Riley has a less hands-on approach than he used to. (April 7, 2012) (Credit: AP)

MIAMI

He used to have his hands in everything. With the Lakers in Los Angeles and the Knicks in New York and for a long time here with the Heat, it seemed not a play was called, not a tie was knotted, not a postgame quote was uttered that Pat Riley didn't have some kind of influence upon.

Strangely, now that he has his best team since he was coaching Magic Johnson's Lakers in the 1980s, all that has suddenly changed. Fifteen years into his tenure as president of the Miami Heat, Riley has pulled back to the point where he has become a legendary and ethereal presence in the hallways of American Airlines Arena. He doesn't regularly come to practice, he rarely speaks to reporters on the record and during games, he sits with his wife, Chris, in the stands away from the Heat bench.

Yes, the consummate control freak has learned to let go, taking his greatest pleasure in working behind the scenes while watching the team he put together operate without constant oversight from him, say those who know him well.

"I do see a different person when I talk with him now," said Jerry West, the Lakers general manager when Riley was their coach from 1981-90. "When you get older in life, you learn to be more introspective and figure out what is good for you. I think it's been probably very gratifying for Pat to stand back and bring in players for a young coach that he hired and has confidence in."

What West left unsaid is that always hasn't been the case for Riley, who took quite a bit of heat a few years ago when he handed over the coaching reins to Stan Van Gundy and then took them back right before the Heat went on a title run. Riley's relationship with coach Erik Spoelstra, 41, seems to be quite different. Riley almost seems to take a fatherly approach when it comes to advising Spoelstra, who has spent 17 years with the team working his way up the ranks after starting as the organization's video coordinator.

Take what Riley did last season when it seemed as if the sky was falling for the Heat and its young coach. It was the beginning of March and Miami had lost five straight when Spoelstra was suddenly summoned to Riley's office.

"I walked in there, and there was a bottle of wine and two glasses," Spoelstra said. "He said, 'Come in here and share this with me.' And the first 20 to 30 minutes, we just sipped the wine and didn't say one word. That's what I really needed at the time. He just has a feel."

Although Riley isn't interacting day-to-day with the team, he is still a very big part of its brand, a very big part of the reason that every one of the players, from Shaquille O'Neal to LeBron James, wanted to come here. The halls of the arena are wallpapered with giant photos of the Heat, many featuring Riley in his Armani suit and slicked-back hair. Right outside the door to the locker room is a larger-than-life photo of Riley and Shaq clasping hands after the Heat won its title in 2006.

Riley is the man who made it cool for players to want to bring their talents to South Beach. He built something out of nothing, and that should be a blueprint for what the Nets are trying to do in Brooklyn. When Riley came to the 8-year-old Heat franchise, it had only one winning season. Now it is a perennial favorite to win the NBA title.

"Very few guys in the NBA have a presence about them,'' said Shane Battier, who joined the team this year. "Pat Riley has a presence. He is a living legend. He knows of what he speaks."

No one knows that better than Dwyane Wade, one of the few players on today's Heat who was a part of the Riley-coached 2006 championship team. To pump himself up for this year's run, Wade said he sat down with Riley on the team's trip back to Miami after the last game of the season just to pick his brain about the "olden days." Wade, who still calls Riley 'Coach,' said his favorite stories are of the Showtime Lakers and how all the Hall of Famers came together to get something special done.

"A lot of the stories Coach tells are about how Magic led that team," Wade said. "I think that shows Coach's growth. I think at the time, Coach thought hemade it work, back when he was a young whippersnapper."

West said he is sure there are times Riley thinks about being back on the bench.

"Pat has been through a lot as a coach, and I think at times he misses it," West said. "There are times when I miss playing. That's just the way it is. I think for Pat right now, he feels good about his role the way it is. It's a great time for him and the fans of Miami."

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