Did I just hear a “pissed’’ Pat Riley somewhere in Miami, sounding like Tony Montana before his bullet-peppered body fell into the fountain, challenging “the guts’’ of LeBron James? Did I just hear the Scarface of pro basketball warn the world’s best player not to leave the Heat? Did I just hear him open a press conference by pounding a table with his fist?
“I think everybody needs to get a grip. This stuff is hard. You’ve got to stay together, if you’ve got the guts,’’ said Riley, in a strong-arm message clearly aimed at James and anyone else assuming the dethroned NBA champions are dead and gone. “You don’t find the first door and run out of it if you have an opportunity. This is four years now into this era, this team. Four (league) finals — it’s only been done three other times before — and two championships. From day one to the end, it was like a Broadway show. It sort of ran out of steam. And we need to retool. We don’t need to rebuild.’’
Then Riley, sounding more pompous and wounded than inspirational in tone, opined that too much was being made of three consecutive losses to the Spurs — three of the ugliest losses in NBA Finals history, by the way, all of which radically changed the way smart people view the Heat and their suddenly tenuous future. “We have a tremendous opportunity here for long-term success,” Riley said. “Don’t think we’re not going to get beat again, so just get a grip, everybody. That’s my message. It’s my message to the players, also.”
You can criticize LeBron James for certain faults, as I have. A lack of guts is not one of his flaws. It took guts to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, down the road from his hometown, and absorb relentless criticism when he took his “talents to South Beach.’’ And Riley is fooling himself if he thinks James, already established as a championship-chasing mercenary, won’t find the first door and run again. As constituted, the Heat can’t win another championship with a broken-down Dwyane Wade, an inconsistent and overpaid Chris Bosh and a supporting roster that was shamed by San Antonio’s 10-deep, interchangeable-parts depth. James’ people hatched the Carmelo Anthony plan last week, in a leaked story to ESPN.com, but Riley doesn’t sound interested.
“That’s a pipe dream. … That’s not where we’re headed,’’ he said, while not mentioning Anthony by name.
At one point of his 55-minute bleeder, Riley spoke of downing fine scotch — Jonny Walker Blue — with his wife, Chris, while listening to James Ingram’s ancient “Just Once’’ after the Heat were eliminated. He sounded kind of weird, like his world of trophies and renown was over at age 69.
He may have sealed his post-championship fate with this speech, which sounded like an ass-backwards attempt at an executive version of the Jerry Maguire mission statement. “I’m an Irish guy who believes in big dreams,” Riley said. “I’m optimistic. Until that’s proven different, I just have a level of optimism that there isn’t a better place for players to be than Miami.
“I didn’t come down here 19 years ago for a quick trip to South Beach and a sun tan. I don’t think they did either. … The important thing is, we want all three to come back.’’
James knows he will be judged in history by the number of rings he wins. Right now, he’s stuck on two and, approaching age 30, he needs to be in a place where he can produce multiple championships in the next five years. Miami is not that place, but Los Angeles might be — with the Steve Ballmer Clippers, that is. James is tight with coach Doc Rivers and close with team leader Chris Paul. Ballmer, assuming Donald Sterling is out of the way by October, won’t hesitate paying the luxury tax for a salary-bloated, star-loaded roster if he paid $2 billion for the franchise. It’s no secret LeBron is becoming an entertainment mogul, so why wouldn’t he want to be in Hollywood? Yes, he and his family have ties to Miami. But they had closer ties to northeast Ohio, if you recall.
Not that LeBron didn’t chip his legacy during the Finals, leaving his career at another murky crossroads. Remember what he said before Game 5? Never would you hear the words from Earvin Johnson or Bill Russell. Never would you hear them from Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, any of the titans. Never would you hear them from Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, any of the five-time NBA champion Spurs. Nor would you hear them from any of the acclaimed competitors in all sports.
Who, on the eve of an elimination game, attempts to rationalize failure before it happens by injecting an “I-have-a-great-life’’ philosophical twist as a way of bracing for impending criticism? That is no way to inspire a team from despair, no way to answer two crushing home losses, no way to achieve all-time renown with a stunning, unprecedented comeback from a 1-3 hole in the Finals. I happen to admire James, as I’ve said repeatedly, for leading an upstanding life in the ways that count and never tarnishing his image off the court. I also respect him for winning two championships — a tidal wave that included a succession of epic James moments — and somehow living up to “The Chosen One’’ hype on the court. But you cannot put James on any basketball Mount Rushmore — the phrase he bit on when asked a few months ago — when he trots away from pressure as he did near the end of a Finals debacle that pretty much ends his “not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven …’’ declaration of would-be championships in Miami.
Instead of Rushmore, try rushing to conclusions less and realizing this: LeBron is the greatest player in the game, here and now, and is every bit the “class act’’ as a human being that the victorious and unusually emotional Gregg Popovich said. But as a competitor, James belongs in no all-time pantheon. He quit on his former team, the Cavaliers, in his final postseason series against Boston in 2010. He and his agents organized an exodus to Miami, with Bosh, so he could try to create the so-called best basketball dynasty money and palm trees could buy. The Heat lost to Dallas in the 2011 Finals in part because LeBron faded in certain major moments, and now, when his team needed fighting words upon returning to San Antonio, James came up with this:
“I’m in a good place in my life. It’s basketball. I understand it’s the media and the sport is the greatest sport in the world. I love it. It’s done so many great things for me, but it’s just basketball. It’s just basketball.
“Two championships helps that. It helps it, for sure. But understanding what’s important and understanding what’s not important allows me to kind of just live in the moment.’’
It’s just basketball? Really, just basketball? When LeBron succeeds, he says “the man upstairs won’t let me lose,’’ but when he loses, it’s “just basketball.’’ Do you see some spin-control b.s. in all of this?
Translation: Not by any fault of his, the team around James no longer was capable of competing against the Spurs, who mauled the Heat and exacted revenge in a five-game slaughter. He wanted it known, with subtlety, that he could live with the result — his favorite recent phrase — because his teammates weren’t up to par. But this is not something he should have acknowledged publicly before Game 5, and his stance struck a chord among those of us who’ve endured the premature push to put James in conversations with Jordan and the great players ever. Again, the Heat deteriorated suddenly in a week’s span, with Wade looking old and feeble, Bosh looking soft and defeated and pretty much everyone but James looking two steps slow and not belonging on the court with a Spurs team that meshed the elements of chemistry, character, old-school discipline, redemption and team play about as beautifully as we’ve seen in 21st-century sport. Yet by dipping into real-life perspective, James ran away from the issue at hand.
I also believe that’s why you saw ESPN stories last week, leaked by the James camp to James-friendly reporters and not denied by Heat management, suggesting Anthony could wind up in tandem with James next month. This was LeBron’s way of announcing, “SOS! I need help!’’ when it became clear all was lost in the Finals. The Anthony buzz will grow hotter the next few weeks, especially in the wake of Wade’s lackluster play. Shocking as it seems, the idea that Anthony could be part of a Big Four now takes on the more realistic framework of a Big Two and Fading Two. Wade and Bosh were that dismal the last three games, with Bosh not helping the big-picture embarrassment by guaranteeing a Game 5 victory that missed by 17 points. Bosh has said he will take less money in an opt-out, but Wade, whose body gave out in the Finals after months of strategic rest to preserve him after years of injuries, may not be long for a key role in the NBA. He may want to consider retirement. I mean it.
The awkward circumstances — and two Finals defeats in Miami, making him 2-3 for his career in the championship round — conceivably could lead James to sign elsewhere after executive his own opt-out. If he stays with the Heat, he could be finished winning championships.
But, hey, it’s only basketball.
“We went to four straight finals in four years. You know, we’re not discrediting what we were able to accomplish,’’ James said after the elimination game. “We lost one, won two, lost another. We’ll take 50 percent in four years for championships any day. Obviously, you want to win all of them. That is the nature of the game. You win some, you lose some. You have to come back the next year and be better as an individual and as a team. I know me and D-Wade and C.B. are not proud of the way we played. Everybody is going through their own emotions right now. For me, I understand the position I’ve been able to put myself and this team in. My head stays high, stays positive. But everyone is different.’’
Translation: Don’t blame me.
And we’re not. I’m just blaming him for playing this deflection game.
When asked about the future, he pretty much ignored the question. “I will deal with my summer when I get to that point. Me and my team will sit down and deal with it,” said James, with the point arriving in two weeks. “I love Miami. My family loves it. But obviously right now that’s not even what I’m thinking about. You guys are trying to find answers. I’m not going to give you one. I’m just not going to give it to you. When I get to that point, I’ll deal with it. All three of us, that’s the last thing we’re thinking about is what’s going on this summer.”
Charles Barkley is among those who think the Heat, who’ve already lost twice in trying to buy championships, would be harming the league by trying to create another superteam with Anthony. “I’m not sure I can use the language I want to use to express my dismay. For them to try to hijack the league like they already did one time, and then bring in Melo. I think it’d be a travesty,’’ he said on NBA TV.
James and his wife a comfortable in Miami and own a juice bar near their home. Their sons are in elementary school. Still, he knows his career is being judged in large part by the number of championships he wins. He may pretend not to care, but, Lord knows, he does. And he realizes this franchise, despite Riley’s desire to have “a generational team’’ that will contend for years, is at a crossroads and may not be in position to win championships for a while.
What should he do? I’d go to L.A. and either join the Clippers or take over the Lakers as Kobe fades off. Can he do that in Miami without cap flexibility? Wade and Bosh aren’t serving James anymore. With all due respect, they’ve served their usefulness. He needs freedom, a new kingdom.
“It’s been a hell of a ride, these four years,’’ Wade said. “When we decided to play together, we didn’t say, `OK, let’s try this for four years.’ We said let’s just play together and see what happens. We’d love to be 4 for 4. It just wasn’t in the cards.’’
Do not make the mistake of thinking I’m ripping James for another Finals defeat. He averaged 28.2 points a game, returned from The Cramp Game with a marvelous Game 2 and shut up the social media creeps. As the overmatched coach, Erik Spoelstra, conceded at the podium of the Spurs, “They played exquisite basketball this series and in particular these last three games, and they are the better team. There’s no other way to say it.’’
It’s just that I heard a concession speech from the man 24 hours before failure was official. When LeBron James decides “it’s just basketball,’’ then I’m going to decide it’s just Mount Rushmore and leave him off until further notice. My guess is, it’s more than basketball, much more.