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"You Think You Know Him, But You Don't"
S.L. Price
July 05, 2006
Though his face is creased and his step is slower, Pat Riley maintained his reputation for intrigue and proved he's still a winner by leading the Heat to its first title
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July 05, 2006

"you Think You Know Him, But You Don't"

Though his face is creased and his step is slower, Pat Riley maintained his reputation for intrigue and proved he's still a winner by leading the Heat to its first title

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... They've been spending most their lives
Living in a pastime paradise
They've been wasting most their time
Glorifying days long gone behind....

O'Neal is not like the men who anchored Riley's championship teams in Los Angeles, or the gritty squads in New York and Miami. Though he responded dramatically to Riley's February demand to lose weight--dropping, for the first time since 1993, to a svelte 322 pounds--there's a part of O'Neal that refuses to see basketball as war or a statement of manhood. O'Neal likes parties where he can dress up like his favorite movie character, Scarface, and with film roles and a gig as a U.S. deputy marshal, his life comes off like a kid's idea of adulthood, all fun and games. That lightness makes him easily the NBA's most engaging player, but his casual attitude toward the regular season seemed infectious; often the Heat performed as if playoff-level basketball was just a matter of flipping a switch. "I know when to get mean," O'Neal promised in March. "I don't like to get mean too early. It's coming."

And make no mistake: Though this has been his least productive season, O'Neal remains Miami's dominant personality. He says he has never been happier, and one reason is that the low-key Wade has no interest in being the alpha dog. The tone was set on Miami's first day of open gym last season, when Wade tried to dunk over O'Neal. ("I had to," Wade says.) O'Neal slammed him to the floor and told Wade never to try it again. He hasn't challenged Shaq since. "Kobe is Kobe; he be who he be," says the Heat's Gary Payton, who played in L.A. with O'Neal. "Dwyane wants everybody to be good--and he just plays his ass off."

O'Neal doesn't begrudge Wade's success, a change from his earlier partnerships with Penny Hardaway and Bryant. "When I was coming up with those other guys, it was all about me," O'Neal says. "Young Shaq and young Penny: Young Shaq got to be in control. Medium Shaq and young Kobe: Medium Shaq got to be in control. But old Shaq and nice, humble guy? I'm not going to be stopping him. It's like The Godfather: Penny Hardaway was like Fredo. Kobe was like Sonny: He wanted to be the man so bad. And Dwyane is like Michael, and the time has come to say, I'm going to let you do what you do. I've got to. I'm slowing down."

Who knows how much a role that decline played in the signals Riley began sending last summer? Though he walked away in 2003 after the two worst seasons of his coaching career ("It's been nothing here but failure," he said at the time. "Everything I get credit for I did 14 years ago"), Riley had often mentioned in Heat circles that he might coach again, and friends such as Memphis G.M. Jerry West pushed him to get back on the sideline. "I told him two or three times: 'I think you're crazy for not coaching,'" West says. "He's too good."

In June 2005 Riley told reporters that "I may take a little bit more of an active participation" in the team, sparking a frenzy of speculation. Van Gundy, who had done a superb job with the seventh-place team Riley handed him just four days before the 2003-04 season, had no choice but to think he'd been put on notice.

It was all uncharacteristically clumsy, and Riley's next flurry of moves were equally confounding. In the next two months Riley made Miami the pivot point in a five-team, 13-player trade. Gone were Van Gundy favorite Eddie Jones, sharpshooter Damon Jones, Keyon Dooling and Rasual Butler. Replacing them were Payton, Williams, Walker and James Posey. It seemed like Riley was loading up on big names--Showtime Redux?--for a quick-fix run before O'Neal ran down for good.

All that, not to mention O'Neal's convenient return to the starting lineup for Riley's first game back, leads many to view Van Gundy's resignation as window-dressing. And the Heat's policy of forbidding Van Gundy, who is under contract until June 2008, from speaking publicly--he wasn't allowed to speak to SI, and a request by TNT to use him on playoff broadcasts was also rejected--only feeds a leaguewide image of Riley as paranoid. Yet the truth about Van Gundy's departure is more subtle. There are those close to Van Gundy who say Riley's actions created working conditions that made it easier for him to leave; Van Gundy never could dismiss the thought that his boss was eyeing his job. At the same time, the 46-year-old Van Gundy desperately missed his four kids and wife Kim, and the endless travel proved less appealing than going to his son's baseball games and making runs to The Home Depot.

On Dec. 1 Riley was walking across the Heat's practice floor with Louie Dampier, his roommate for four years at Kentucky and a teammate on the famous Rupp's Runts who lost to Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA title game.

"Think you'll ever get back into it?" Dampier asked.

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