From his seat, whether at an exhibition game or the NBA finals, Pat Riley has remained largely stoic this season. His expression hardly changes, no matter the situation.
But now, the Miami Heat president confesses, the truth can come out: It's all a front.
"It's a harrowing type of thing, when you truly care about winning," he said this week.
Fortunately for Riley, this Heat team has won more regular-season and playoff games than any other in franchise history, 71 and counting heading into Thursday night's late Game 2 of the NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat held a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, trying for their second title after topping the Mavericks in six games in 2006.
Riley masterminded that run and has been the chief orchestrator for everything since. Miami went from the top of the NBA to the bottom two years later, winning only 15 games in an injury-plagued 2007-08 season that would be Riley's coaching finale. Structuring contracts a certain way then allowed the Heat to spend freely last summer when retaining Dwyane Wade and adding LeBron James, Chris Bosh and others who have Riley on the cusp of another title.
"I think a community develops a covenant with its team throughout the course of a season, good or bad," Riley said. "The year that I won 15 games, as much as they disliked it, I really believed they were there in support of the team and they hoped that one day, that we knew enough about what we had to do to get to a day like this today."
Here they are. If the Heat pull this off, it would be Riley's eighth ring: He has five as a head coach, one as an assistant, one as a player.
"I need a few of those," James said last summer, when one key detail of his recruiting meeting with Riley came out.
By now, it's almost a part of Heat lore. Riley — a winner of 1,210 regular-season games and a three-time NBA coach of the year — took his rings, put them in a pouch and dropped the bag on a table in front of James. The message couldn't have been more simple, a Hall of Fame coach teasing a future Hall of Fame player with the jewelry he covets most.
Call it a unique form of motivation, which is one of Riley's calling cards.
"If you know Pat, you go into his office, he calls you in there, and it's like talking to the Godfather," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "The lights are always dim. He can see you, but you can't really see him."
Spoelstra is the latest Riley pupil become an NBA coaching success story, from the most modest of NBA beginnings, working in the Heat video room in the mid-1990s and unsure if his boss knew his name. Riley watched Spoelstra rise through the franchise as an assistant, then picked him as his successor in 2008.
Riley retired in name only. The only thing he really gave up is patrolling the sideline.
He's at just about every practice, usually flanked by team owner Micky Arison and other team executives, sitting off to the side. He's known for sneaking up on players when they least expect it and engaging them in conversations, just telling them what he sees on the floor. And he keeps a low profile, trying to not overshadow Spoelstra and the coaching staff.
Still, when he speaks, it resonates.
"We're blessed to have him around," James said. "This organization is blessed to have him, period."
Game 3: Miami at Dallas
Sunday: 8 p.m.; TV: ABC, Ch. 28