Pat Riley, head coach of the Miami Heat, gestures during...

Pat Riley, head coach of the Miami Heat, gestures during game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. (March 26, 2008) Credit: Getty

Basketball's natty puppeteer, Pat Riley, is back. Having pulled all the strings to sign the league's top three free agents, thereby putting his Miami Heat squarely in the NBA limelight, the team's 65-year-old president - already in the sport's hall of fame - is himself on center stage again.

Furthermore, with the self-styled king, LeBron James, joining fellow all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat roster, Riley could be a small step away from again assuming the team's head coaching duties from Erik Spoelstra.

"Oh, yeah," said Charles Smith, who played for Riley when he brought the Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1994. "He's back on the bench by the All-Star break. Why wouldn't he be?"

Riley, of course, has come out of coaching retirement before to take advantage of his own front-office moves: After drafting Wade and trading for Shaquille O'Neal, Riley - who had bumped himself upstairs for two years - pushed aside then-coach Stan Van Gundy early in the 2005-06 season and won his fifth NBA title.

Just two months ago, when asked by Miami reporters whether he could declare unequivocally that his coaching days were over, Riley said, "I'll do whatever is in the best interest of building the team here. Period. Whatever it takes, OK? I'll let you fill in the blanks.

"If some free agent were to say, 'I will come here but you must do this,' well, hell, if that happens that day, then I might have to give it some thought."

Meanwhile, merely recruiting James, Wade and Bosh has re-established the Riley maestro vibe cultivated when he won four league titles with the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul Jabbar Lakers of the 1980s and took the 1994 Knicks, anchored by Patrick Ewing, to the championship finals.

Riley's reputation is of a driven soul. He himself has said he was motivated by "fear that somebody was going to be better than me" and that "the fresh white shirt, tie, Armani suits, the image, the hair, that was the mantra: 'Look fresh as a daisy,' even though there were times after losses I felt like I wanted to die."

But Jeff Van Gundy, the current NBA analyst who worked as Riley's assistant with the Knicks and later was seen by some as Riley's disciple, characterized Riley in terms of "a great deal of persistence. And he's a bright guy, a big thinker. I don't think anybody, a year ago, would have thought that James and Wade would have been convinced to play together."

While Van Gundy isn't persuaded that Riley was the singular lure for James, Wade and Bosh - citing "the money, the chance to win championships, Florida's no state taxes, Miami itself" - he said that Riley and Heat owner Micky Arison "get a boatload of credit" for signing all three.

"It's an incredible feat," Van Gundy said. "Incredible. Whether it's a championships feat, we'll see. I'm certainly interested in seeing where it goes."

To Smith, now director of the NBA retired players association, Riley's track record indeed was a significant factor in last night's ballyhooed TV "Decision" - as well as the earlier choice announced by Wade and Bosh. "Pat is . . . " - Smith paused - "a winner. And what I mean by that is, how many coaches out there understand the Xs and Os and understand management the way he does?

"Pat's pretty savvy, and he's got a sense of winning arrogance about him that I can see him saying [to the three free agents], 'We're going to win if you're here. Do you think we'll win if you're here?' "

Apparently, it was not ventriloquism when the answer came back, "Yes." Three times.

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