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Pat Riley has never really been someone you'd consider to be forthcoming with his feelings. But, in a new book called The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown between LeBron, Kobe, Doc and Dirk that Saved the NBA (written by Ian Thomsen, and set for an April 17 release), Riley shares a number of anecdotes about the relationship he had with LeBron James during the four seasons that the two were together in Miami.
According to ESPN, one of the details that Riley shared suggested that during the first few weeks that LeBron was in Miami he may have subtly planted the idea of Riley leaving his post as the organization's president to come serve as the team's coach once again.
During a loss to Dallas on Nov. 27, 2010, LeBron's first season in Miami, a video clip of LeBron bumping Spoelstra as he strode toward the huddle during a timeout went viral. The team had lost four of five games at that point, dropping its record to 9-8, and held a long, private meeting following the game. ESPN, citing unnamed sources, reported a few days later that players were frustrated with Spoelstra and were "questioning whether he is the right coach for their team.''
"The Soul of Basketball" takes us one step further. Riley revealed in the book that the day after the Heat's loss to Dallas, he asked James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to meet him in his office for 10 minutes to check on how the team leaders felt the young season was progressing.
"They just said, 'We're not feeling it,' or something like that," Riley told Thomsen. "We talked about the typical things that we have to do, have patience and all of that stuff.
"And I remember LeBron looking at me, and he said, 'Don't you ever get the itch?' I said, 'The itch for what?' He said, 'The itch to coach again?' I said, 'No, I don't have the itch.' He didn't ask any more questions, and I didn't offer any more answers. But I know what it meant, and I always go back and wonder about what he was thinking at that time. He walked out scratching his leg like it was itching."
This, apparently, was not the first time that LeBron had indirectly inquired about Riley's return to the sidelines. In fact, it was a subject that was broached when Miami was recruiting James just a few months prior to the incident reported above.
"They wanted to know what was going to happen with Erik," Riley said of a July 2010 free agent meeting between the team and LeBron. "They wondered if I was going to be coaching. I said, 'Look, Erik is the head coach, that's it. I support him. I'm not interested in coaching.'
"The thought was in their mind at times that maybe I would come back and coach, I think. But I was truly done, I didn't want to get back into it, and Erik is a hell of a coach. He was coming off two good playoff years, but he had not been coaching three superstars. And then with the whole LeBron effect, it would have been a tough transition for any head coach with two years of experience."
Riley claims that in that same meeting he warned James and his representatives about the negative reaction that would come about as a result of him leaving Cleveland. He further states that he used the word "fear" when he talked about the decision, which was not exactly taken seriously at the time.
"And both of them, Maverick [Carter] and LeBron, looked at me," the Heat president said. "Like, 'Fear? Afraid of what?' They almost mocked me. This was a big decision. I was trying to tell them, 'Shit [is] going to hit the fan, man.' 'Afraid? Us?' They had so much confidence in what they were doing, and they were so smart in a lot of ways."
Shortly afterward, Riley recounts a meeting with a flustered LeBron on a Miami tarmac, which took place shortly after LeBron announced he was "taking my talents to South Beach" in front of an audience largely composed of people not thrilled with that particular choice.
"That night at three in the morning we met him at the airport," Riley relayed. "He had two private charters come in, and I brought a lot of people down, family and everything. They got off the plane, and I remember walking right up to LeBron. He was worn-out. He was just worn-out. He almost had tears in his eyes."
That meeting occurred after Cavs owner Dan Gilbert publicly chastised James for not re-signing with his team. In addition to saying that the resulting fallout "really stung hard with them," Riley also added "LeBron just gave me a big hug and he slumped. And I just remember how heavy this was for all of them. It wasn't like they were smiling and happy to be in Miami. They had just broken the chain of his life in Akron, and it took tremendous guts to do that. I hear it from players all the time: 'I'm a grown-ass man, treat me as such.' Well, he made a grown-ass decision by doing that."
Riley also faulted himself for that highly publicized press conference, where LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, were received at a "welcome rally" by nearly 20,000 people, and where LeBron infamously stated that the goal was "not two, not three, not four, not five, not six not seven [championships] ..."
"I just think the euphoria of that moment and what all three of them had done had got to them," Riley said. "The serotonin level was going high. Some of the things that were said, I think they would take it back and be a little more humble if they could, and probably the same for us as an organization. But once it got going I was not going up on the stage to throw them off.
"How would that have been? I would have been booed out of the arena by eighteen thousand people."
Of course that all happened nearly a decade ago. And you know the ending (or at least the temporary ending) to that saga, which came full circle by LeBron returning to Cleveland in the summer of 2014. Riley had previously voiced his anger at LeBron leaving Miami as he saw negotiations between the Heat front office and James/James' representatives as being disingenuous. In fact, in 2017 Riley said that he "was very angry when LeBron left. It was personal for me. It just was."
However, in his most recent comments, Riley expanded upon that by siding with the choice in retrospect. "I had two to three days of tremendous anger. I was absolutely livid, which I expressed to myself and my closest friends," he revealed. "My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down. That team in ten years could have won five or six championships. But I get it. I get the whole chronicle of [LeBron's] life."
In wrapping all this up, Riley said that he hadn't contacted LeBron until he sent him a text just prior to the Cavs' Game 7 win over the Warriors to win the 2015-16 NBA Championship. Also, when asked where their relationship is today, Riley said "Um, we can talk about that later."