On September 2, 1995 on a Carnival Cruise ship Micky Arison, a few months from taking over as Managing General Partner of the Miami Heat from his father Ted and buying out minority owners Billy Cunningham and Lewis Schaffel, made an announcement that shook the NBA and South Florida.
That announcement was the introduction of Pat Riley as both Heat head coach and President. In the 20 years since then its impact is still being felt by South Florida mainly for what it meant to the franchise.
When Arison made the move to hire Riley, even at the cost of draft due to tampering charges, it was his way of legitimizing Miami as a sports town. The investment has paid off well for the Heat and the city as a whole because Arison let Riley mold the team freely.
The main factor in Riley’s molding has been bringing stability to the Heat. At the time of his hiring the team was going through a period of upheaval. Rony Seikaly, Miami’s first ever draft pick, Grant Long, and Steve Smith were moved in separate trades that were very unpopular in the community very early in the 1994-95 NBA season. The Heat wound up finishing that season with 32 wins, ten less than the previous one. Once Riley took the reins the South Florida community began to trust the franchise again. He returned that trust with one big move after another. He traded early for center Alonzo Mourning and guard Tim Hardaway, who became the Heat’s first national stars. In 2004 he traded to get center Shaquille O’Neal and then orchestrated the largest trade in NBA history before the 2005-06 season that brought guard Jason William along with forwards Antoine Walker and James Posey and was rewarded with the team’s first championship. Five years later he pulled off arguably the biggest coup in NBA free agency history if signing forwards LeBron James and Chris Bosh on discounted deals.
With the stability that Riley brought to the Heat consistency followed. Miami has become a fixture in the NBA playoffs during his tenure. In that time the team has missed the playoffs only four times including last season. This was done by reversing the team philosophy when it came to player selection. Before Riley the Heat focused on building with young players like Seikaly, Long, Smith, and Glen Rice. Once his arrived the focus became about building with veterans due to his reluctance to trust young players and using draft picks as leverage for trades. Luckily there have been exceptions to this mantra. The biggest exception being the fifth pick of the 2003 draft that became guard Dwyane Wade, the consensus greatest player in Heat history.
While those factors helped Riley in the molding of the Heat from the inside, his biggest impact has been on the outside. His arrival turned Miami into a big market in the NBA. That has given clout to the team and helped the lore around Riley. It’s the reason that just this off season there was general fear around the NBA when it was reported that Riley was meeting with the top free agent at the time, LaMarcus Aldridge, despite the fact that Miami lacked the cap space to sign him without first trading Bosh. It’s also the reason that the hierarchy of sports franchises in South Florida has changed. The Heat have been the most successful professional team in the region in Riley’s tenure overshadowing the NFL‘s Miami Dolphins, the oldest team in South Florida, the MLB‘s Miami Marlins, and the NHL‘s Florida Panthers. That success, coupled with the incompetence of the Dolphins and Marlins over the years along with the Panthers playing in Broward County, has resulted in the rare feat of a basketball team being the most popular in a city that is still fundamentally a football town.
Everything that has come in Riley’s tenure, the players, the championships, the reputation of the Heat being a first class organization, all comes back to the relationship between him and Arison. The trust between both men is so strong that Riley doesn’t have a formal contract with the team. Rather he operates year by year on a handshake agreement with Arison. The post-Riley era is rarely discussed because there is security about who will take the reins once he steps down with either Mourning or Arison’s son Nic being the ones tapped.
Whenever Riley does step down he will be remembered as the best front office man in the history of Miami. A statue of him will likely be erected in Biscayne Boulevard with the street also taking his name.
This is only possible because Arison chose to think big and got the right man for the job.