As he’s become accustomed to his entire career, Pat Riley stands as one of the main characters as NBA history happens in real time.
Twenty calendars from now will be the year 2034. Life’s going to look a lot different, too.
The Obama era will be a distant memory, as both Barack and Michelle should be grandparents by that time. The iPhone will be comparable to what Zach Morris’ cell phone is viewed as now. The porn industry will still make money hand over fist because sex has always sold, though imagining access and the presentation of it in 2034 already has my kids’ kids on punishment and I’m not even married yet.
And, depending on how important the game is to you, basketball will have undergone another generational makeover as well. Current darling rookies like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle will either be on the tail end of Hall of Fame or role player careers, or they’ll the ones whose careers ended years earlier for a Pandora’s Box of reasons.
Yet, ask any hoops nerd about the free agency period of 2014 and how arguably the most important moment of the entire bonanza took place in a random, swanky business room in some undisclosed Las Vegas hotel. Or dungeon. Or lair. Or … it doesn’t really matter.
These words are for historical purposes anyway.
Four years ago, the thought of LeBron James returning to Cleveland held about as much weight as an O.J. Simpson-led marriage counseling seminar. Four months ago, the belief was a hilarious pipe dream. Four days ago? Well, shit changed quickly.
Thanks to every reporter (or any random Twitter user attempting to increase his followers), “sources” or “reports,” the line between what’s real and what’s phony is paper thin. Throughout free agency, the common course of action (personally) has been to ignore everything until it’s official. As the days passed and the allegations mounted atop one another, suddenly the “LeBron-back-to-Cleveland” theme took on a life of its own and is now to the point where it’s not only legit — many expect it to happen with the Cavs reportedly going after Ray Allen and Mike Miller, too.
Blame Rich Paul for reportedly planting stories in the media about guaranteeing a return home for his biggest client. Blame LeBron because that’s just how this thing works. Blame social media for amplifying stories of searches for Dan Gilbert’s plane or whether or not Nike truly bought every billboard in the city of Cleveland in hopes for a mega-Bron/Manziel marketing plug heading into the fall.
Whatever the case, the elephant in the room is impossible to ignore. Pat Riley, ever one of the NBA’s made men and arguably the closest figure to a mob boss as there is in professional basketball, is under pressure. Pouring rings on the table to entice James to stiff arm Cleveland won’t work in 2014 like it did in 2010. He has his own now. He’s undoubtedly the biggest star in his sport. He’s the most “popular” (and by that I mean scrutinized to degrees that didn’t seem fathomable) athlete in America with Johnny Football close on his tracks.
Pat Riley is the student who needs a PowerPoint presentation from the heavens to save his graduation status. One with transitions, sound effects, the whole nine. The laser pointer, too. If it works, we’ll remember him as the guy who kept LeBron James’ attention, something that seems impossible for a guy with only two legit basketball concerns: his well-deserved max contract and the rings by which he will forever be judged.
If he doesn’t, well, Riley still got four straight Finals and two rings out of the deal. He’ll also be the guy who will shoulder the blame — fairly or unfairly — in not convincing the greatest player of his generation to remain in South Beach of all places.
Perhaps not since the Heat were down 0-2 to the Mavs in the 2006 Finals has Riley been under pressure to deliver like so (no one knew the 2010 coupe was going to happen until after it happened). But if there’s anyone currently in basketball built to handle a “balls to the wall” moment, it’s Riles. He’s played with Wilt and West, won titles with Magic and Kareem, pushed Jordan to the brink, and lovingly calls LeBron the “B.O.A.T.” (best of all time).
He’s as war-ready and battle-tested as they come in sports and a general who has seen the coin fall in his favor and out of it — a la Juwan Howard in 1996. He’s doing so with the understanding once the doors close at said meeting in Sin City that the only voice that matters is his. He has to convince LeBron to stay, not the other way around. Educated guesses (not really) would conclude it goes down something like a deleted scene from The Godfather with cigar smoke and scotch imported and passed around in copious amounts, ending in laughter or a bloodbath.
Perhaps Riles will officially unveil his new master plan to make three titles in five years a reality. Or perhaps LeBron already has his mind made up.
No media will be present, though they’ll probably stand directly outside with plastic cups on the door or camped out in front of every hotel on the Vegas strip in hopes of grabbing the ever-imporant “exclusive.” It’s the two most newsworthy figures in basketball dictating the course of the next handful of seasons, the irresistible force and the immovable object meeting, as corny as it sounds. It’s put up or shut up time. These are the moments that have elevated Riles’ G to don-status, or as Earnest Christian refers to him, basketball’s most dominant closer.
Whatever comes of it, well, social media will break the news before housekeeping can even begin emptying the trash cans and cleaning the blood left behind. Maybe then we can begin working on finalities instead of hunches and gut feelings.