In the Heat of the Night, a Champion Is Born
DALLAS When the course of Miami's first NBA title is charted in two weeks or less, a number of dates and acquisitions will fall under the heading, "How the Heat Built a Champion."
And it will be accurate in every way, except one. It will fail to mention Pat Riley chartering a jet for 14 hours with $27,000 of his own coin to attend a clandestine dinner in Los Angeles two years ago, a dinner in which he would entertain serious notions about becoming the Lakers' coach again.
Trades, draft picks and the triumph over Detroit last week were monstrous in the Heat's history. But that night truly brought Riley, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade to the eve of these supernova-driven NBA Finals against Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of the Big D thoroughbreds.
It will explain the huge ratings this week and also why Dallas got over the hump in the West. It's why Riley rejoined the greatest-coach conversation and why O'Neal is being talked about with the same reverence as the center position's holy trinity -- Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar. Actually, that dinner is why Kobe Bryant will watch the Finals from his couch.
On Monday night, June 21, 2004, atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, in the home of the eccentric owner who gave him his coaching start, Riley drank good red wine, ate, reminisced and drank some more. At Jerry Buss's dinner table that night in Playa del Rey, Calif., were the Lakers' brain trust: Buss's son, Jimmy; Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers' general manager; and Ronnie Lester, the team's assistant general manager and a role player on one of Riley's four championship teams in Los Angeles.
"Very sincere meeting, very good," Riley recalled. Musing as he stood in a corridor of American Airlines Center on Wednesday, the day before Game 1, he added, "It was like old home week."
As glasses of vintage Opus One were hoisted with the man who had not competed for a championship in more than a decade, two franchises were about to irrevocably change.
Riley originally was there on a lark, given permission by Miami Heat owner Micky Arison. But he began to genuinely contemplate getting back to the Finals with another guard-center, Hall of Fame combo. Shaq and Kobe -- a Magic-and-Kareem remix. If anyone could get the two feuding stars to realize their future together, Pat Riley believed he could. That's why he asked for their phone numbers that night -- right at the dinner table.
"I think I was like, 'Let's just work this out,' " Riley said. " 'C'mon. I mean, I can't understand why it can't be worked out.' I said something along those effects."
Riley was told that was no longer necessary. "I think they just had their minds made up about the change," he said.
Phil Jackson was forced out the preceding Friday and the Lakers were going through tumult. "Whether or not they were really, really serious about considering me, I don't know," Riley said. "Sometimes I think I was brought out there -- this is just a notion -- because I had the players they wanted for him. Sometimes I think about that. You know, they want Wade and they want Lamar [Odom]. They want that kind of team. But that's only my inner thoughts."
Either way, Riley had no desire to only coach Bryant. "Yeah, I don't think I would have taken it," he said. "It was a whimsical notion on my part. But I would have probably only done it if the two of them were together.''