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Heat’s famed culture all starts with Pat Riley

by TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer | June 7, 2023 at 2:34 a.m.
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, left, chats with team president Pat Riley as they watch players practice for Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Saturday, June 3, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski

MIAMI -- Maybe the best way to describe Heat Culture would be to consider two ways that Pat Riley has used to define what basically is the backbone of Miami's franchise.

Answer 1: "It's a shared philosophy with the goal of being great."

Answer 2: "It's our shared goals, shared vision, shared thoughts."

The first answer was from 2000. The second answer came in 2020. The thinking barely deviated.

Times change. Rosters change. But Riley and the culture -- a buzzword for the Heat, a punchline for some who disparage what the Heat have done -- stay pretty much the same. Out of the last 52 NBA Finals, Riley has been part of 19 of them as either a player, coach or executive. That means, give or take, Riley finds his way to the finals about every three years.

Erik Spoelstra is the coach and makes the decisions, but it's Riley -- the team president seeking his 10th championship -- who is still at the helm of the Heat ship. The Heat are tied with the Denver Nuggets at a game apiece in these NBA Finals, with Game 3 of the title series tonight in Miami.

"They've created a culture. It's their way. It works," Denver veteran Jeff Green said. "They established something that's been beneficial to them, that's gotten them to places over and over and over that a lot of teams haven't. Much respect to them. Much respect to Spo, how he gives his guys confidence to go out there and produce no matter who's on the floor, and obviously Pat is Pat. ... You've got to give respect where respect is due."

Every team, every business, every organization has a culture. Few revere the term as closely as the Heat. Under Riley, it has been their trademark. No, really -- the Heat are trying to trademark "Culture," applying to do so in late May with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The Heat application lists a bunch of potential uses, and even makes mention of the possibility of using the word on jerseys.

"Culture" shirts have been big sellers in Miami for years. Culture has been a selling point for Riley for much longer.

"It's not always easy," Riley said in 2020; as per his usual postseason traditions since giving up coaching, he isn't doing much in the way of interviews right now. "But I think you have to have an environment in which you create something in some way, shape or form where everybody can flourish."

He's been to the NBA Finals in each of the last six decades -- the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. He's at practices, watching from the side. He's at shootarounds, intently watching over everything with the Heat braintrust. Spoelstra uses him as a resource, and there are often suggestions from the man who the Heat call the Godfather. But Riley lets the former assistant that he tapped to replace him in 2008 be the one in charge on the floor.

"It's something we believe in," Spoelstra said. "It's for us. It's not for everybody."

Those last three words -- "not for everybody" -- are another Heat credo of sorts.

Long gone are the days of marathon practices and Riley obsessing over player body-fat readings so much that he would have the calipers out for pop-quizzes of sorts. But there are absolute rules in Heatland, about showing up and working hard and doing it all the right way. It's why so many of the contributors on this Heat roster started as undrafted players. Miami saw something in all of them, then asked if they were willing to do the work. Not everyone is. Those who say yes, though, tend to get a payoff.

"It's no secret," said Heat point guard Gabe Vincent, one of the undrafted guys who flourished. "We work."

The mission statement from Day 1 of the Riley era in Miami in the mid-1990s has been the same: That the Heat will be the "hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, meanest, nastiest team in the NBA."

That really goes back to 1971, when then-Los Angeles Lakers coach Bill Sharman told Riley -- then a four-year NBA veteran -- that if he wanted to stay on the team he had to be the best-conditioned player on the roster. Riley took his words to heart. Sharman saw the work Riley did and kept him. Perhaps not coincidentally, that season ended up being the first where Riley went to the NBA Finals. Got his first ring that season, too.

And here he is again. Back in the NBA Finals. Still seeking more rings.

"Through it all, you see what got us to this point," said Heat veteran Udonis Haslem. "For me, I think this team just embodies more so of what Heat culture is all about. We're not for everybody. Doing the hard stuff. Just not for everybody. It's kind of hard over here. We work hard."

Riley wouldn't have it any other way. That's why he loved something Jimmy Butler said in December, after a regular-season win in Boston. Butler was asked how he thought the rest of the season would go.

"Championship," Butler said.

The Heat were 11-12 at the time. But Butler was thinking big, because that's what Riley -- "Coach Pat," he often calls him out of respect -- has wanted him to do from the moment he brought him to Miami.

The Culture dictates that be the only goal.

  photo  Miami Heat president Pat Riley sits with former player Shaquille O'Neal during Game 3 of the NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics, Sunday, May 21, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

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