LeBron James was asked Tuesday what he thought of Heat president Pat Riley, and his initial answer was a safe and non-committal, “That’s such a broad question.”
Broad questions are where these NBA Finals start Wednesday. Can the Miami Heat’s fun, fresh and team-oriented run continue? Will the NBA’s usual star power win out with the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron and Anthony Davis?
And, yes, for what it uncovers and explains of this series, what does LeBron think of Riley? The answer isn’t a scoreboard subject. This series isn’t LeBron vs. Riley, like some morality play of Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker.
The answer also isn’t found just in the six years since LeBron left the Heat to continued success. The broad answer begins with LeBron’s arrival to the Heat in 2010 with The Decision in the first place. LeBron understood Riley had something he needed.
“My college education,” LeBron recently called his four wonderful years inside the Heat. OK, three wonderful years. The fourth and final 2013-4 season was a great but exhausted team that lost its joy. And LeBron plays with a joy for basketball more than some villainous fury.
Stick a pin in the timeline of LeBron’s evolution from a great player to a great champion — the player the Heat now face — in those four years of The Big Three. Don’t take my word for that. Take his.
“Being a part of that culture allowed me to grow, allowed me to see what it takes to not only compete for a championship but also to win a championship," James said. ”So it definitely put me in a position where I knew what it took. I saw what it took. But also I fit that culture as well because of how hard I worked. It was a perfect match for those four years.”
He was 25 when he arrived, a fact not lost on him, no matter if he was an ascendant star already in the sports hierarchy. “I was still a kid and still trying to figure out who I am as a person and as a man, growing while still trying to compete for a championship every single year,” he said.
LeBron could have learned some details anywhere. He didn’t have an inside when he arrived to the Heat. That was exposed when he couldn’t punish 5-foor-10 Dallas guard J.J. Barea in the Finals. He fixed that in one offseason.
A larger change was philosophical more than tactical, thanks to the creative mind of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. He introduced LeBron to a positionless game, not tethering him as a No. 3 shooting forward or No. 2 shooting guard.
Spoelstra would refer to LeBron as “Mr. One Through Five” when they saw each other. If such ideals are inbred in the NBA now, they weren’t when Spoelstra brought them. LeBron initially answered the thought with an ambiguous, “He’s the coach.”
That answer gets closer to what LeBron learned. He likes to quote Riley, who quoted motivational author Stephen Covey writing, “The main thing is the main thing.” Winning, he meant, is the main thing.
It sounds simple. But the key to greatness is simplicity. Riley, remember, started the recruiting pitch to LeBron in 2010 with a packet of information. He winnowed it to one page as he entered their meeting.
When LeBron left the Heat, he did because his college education was complete. He wanted his own team. He and Riley were the same person in that regard, two bulls in the same pasture.
“I’ve been able to, I guess as Frank Sinatra would say, I did it my way,” James said after advancing past Denver on Saturday night.
By the end of their journeys, LeBron and Riley will be fine. You’ll see. LeBron’s jersey will hang someday in AmericanAirlines Arena, as it should. After that initial deferral, he answered Tuesday to the question of what he thought of Riley in the exact manner he should.
"When I hear Pat Riley, I think about one of the greatest minds probably this game has ever had,'' he said. “He’s won at every level. I saw the stat the other day that he’s been part of a championship in four decades. This league is not the same without Riles. He’s a great guy, great motivator, someone that just knows what it takes to win, and he’s shown that over the course of, what, 40 years.”
To Game 1 we go.
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