We still get an occasional glimpse of the competitive fire, as when LeBron James was knocked down from behind Saturday by Tyson Chandler and leapt out of his seat across the court from the home-team bench.
We still feel his presence in the hallways of American Airlines Arena and measure his influence in the phraseology of his coaches and players.
But we cannot hear Riley anymore. We do not breathlessly await his next motivational mantra. Once he was a grand N.B.A. philosopher. Now Riley has transitioned into a spiritual Buddha, lurking but elusive in his commanding role as the president of the .
“Very few guys in the N.B.A. have a presence about them,” said Shane Battier, the reserve forward. “Pat Riley has a presence. He is a living legend. He knows of what he speaks.”
Except to the world outside his immediate basketball family, Riley has gone professionally silent, to the point where he might still pass as an employee of a certain uptight organization he used to work for in New York. Riley has not once discussed the state of the Heat with reporters this season. Anyone who makes a request might as well be asking for an audience with the Wizard of Oz.
He remains a striking figure, a dapper charmer, quick as ever with acknowledgment and wit. When the Heat last played at Madison Square Garden, a reporter who covered Riley when he was the hired savior of that storied building all but collided with him while navigating the remodeled corridors.
“Are you still here?” Riley said, offering a hand.
Before the reporter could reply — much less prime his recorder — Riley had turned the corner and disappeared.
“He is almost mythical nowadays,” Battier said, laughing.
What is Riley — who gave us such canny axioms as “Winning and Misery” and “No Rebounds, No Rings” — attempting to prove?
“You probably have to ask him,” Erik Spoelstra, who has been the Heat’s coach since 2008 and has worked for Riley for 17 years, said after the Heat finished preparations Sunday for Game 2 of their playoff series with the on Monday night.
“I’d like to, but I can’t,” the reporter said.
Spoelstra grinned and said: “Which I like.”
Which is also the point stretched to the extreme, in the classic Riley tradition since his rise to prominence as the four-time championship coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“You’ve got to let the head coach be a head coach,” Dwyane Wade said. “The players have to see that as well. Every now and then, you’ll see him around, or he’ll call you up to that nice office. But for the most part, he stays back, stays out of it when it comes to the players, and he’s been doing that for a couple of years.”
Does Riley still smart from the news media beating he took for uprooting Stan Van Gundy as the Heat coach — reportedly at Shaquille O’Neal’s behest — before leading the team to the title in 2006? One could make the retrospective case that the ends justified the means. But Old Man Riles, 67, has the second-longest chief executive tenure in the N.B.A. (behind Sacramento’s Geoff Petrie) and has said that he believes the coaching grind is for younger men.
For everyone’s sake, it is better for him to break new ground with his motivational methods — like the time last season when he summoned Spoelstra to his office after the slumping Heat lost to Chicago. That set off an alarm for Spoelstra because their postgame conversations usually took place in the team’s family room.
“I walked in there, and there was a bottle of wine and two glasses,” Spoelstra said. “He said, ‘Come in here and share this with me.’ And the first 20 to 30 minutes, we just sipped the wine and didn’t say one word. That’s what I really needed at the time. He just has a feel.”
Given his nine years with Riley, Wade said he has heard all the stories — “a few of them two or three times.” His favorites are those from Los Angeles, about how a team blessed with Hall of Fame talents — not unlike the Heat — galvanized for greatness.
“He always lets us know that Magic made it work as the leader of that team,” Wade said. “I think at the time, he thought he made it work. I think it shows Coach’s growth.”
They still address him as “Coach,” Spoelstra, Wade and Udonis Haslem, the other holdover from the 2006 title team.
“You always feel his presence,” Haslem said. “Coach Spo has tweaked the strategy, put his stamp on it, but make no mistake about it: the majority of our system, especially defensively, all comes from Coach Riley.”
Riley wields the power in Miami that the Knicks wouldn’t grant him, leading to his much-decried resignation-by-fax in 1995. Tabloid New York called him Pat the Rat and delighted in the Heat’s losing three of four playoff showdowns with the Knicks from 1997 to 2000.
But the Knicks haven’t won a playoff game since 2001, while Riley as a player, coach and executive has been involved in some kind of college or pro championship game or series in every decade since the ’60s.
When he made his recruiting pitch to James in the summer of 2010 — competing against the Knicks, among others — Riley brought his championship rings in a cloth bag and dropped them on the table. After that, as the legend goes, he didn’t really have to say much of anything.