LeBron James is considered one of the all-time greats in basketball history. It’s a label he earned by battling two fronts almost simultaneously. The first front — the basketball court — may have been the easier ground for him to conquer. Like all basketball players, the hard court is their comfort zone, their mecca, and their escape. The other front involves politicking and the quest for control.
Not all athletes are willing or have the aptitude to maneuver their way through bull-headed personalities donning suits and ties. James was not just ready to embrace such challenges. But he was willing to step on others’ toes, even if it belonged to the Godfather himself, Miami Heat President Pat Riley, and his protégé Erik Spoelstra.
In Ian Thomsen’s 2018 book entitled “The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown between LeBron, Kobe, Doc and Dirk that Saved the NBA,” Riley shared how his master plan of adding more trophies to his shelf came crashing down right before his eyes.
As with any downfall, the tell-tale signs usually expose themselves in the later stages. One could rightfully assume that things went sour right after the Heat lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals. But the reality is, there were already traces of distrust between James and Spoelstra in their very first season together. Specifically, during a loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 27, 2010, James bumped into Spoelstra during a huddle. The clip went viral. Whispers of tensions between the star player and coach were utilized to tear down the empire as it was being built. The Heat had gone 9-8 at that point. Riley, a decorated coach in his own right, knew something was wrong. A day after the loss to the Mavs, Riley sat down with Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James. The kid from Akron went straight to the point.
“And I remember LeBron looking at me, and he said, ‘Don’t you ever get the itch?’ I said, ‘The itch for what?’ He said, ‘The itch to coach again?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have the itch.’ He didn’t ask any more questions, and I didn’t offer any more answers. But I know what it meant, and I always go back and wonder about what he was thinking at that time. He walked out scratching his leg like it was itching.”Ian Thomsen, via ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan
James didn’t get his wish. It would take more than 17 games for Riley to boot out his protégé. Spoelstra had been with the Heat since 1997, starting off as a video coordinator. He was along the sidelines when Riley guided the franchise to its very first title in 2006. Riley had too much regard for Spoelstra’s hustle. Keeping Spoelstra at the helm turned out to be the right decision. The Heat went on to win two titles in four years. A 2-4 record in the NBA Finals is not particularly attractive. But Riley remained patient. He won four titles with the Lakers in nine years because he knows the process and trusts in it. Unfortunately, James didn’t share the same principles. In fact, he had something totally different in mind: he wanted to go home.
“I had two to three days of tremendous anger. I was absolutely livid, which I expressed to myself and my closest friends,” Riley said. Then, Thomsen wrote, over the weeks and months to come, Riley came to see the move to Cleveland from LeBron’s point of view. “My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down,” Riley said. “That team in ten years could have won five or six championships. But I get it. I get the whole chronicle of [LeBron’s] life.Ian Thomsen, via ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan
Over the years since their break-up, people wondered if they’re still on speaking terms and, if not, if they will ever patch things up. There was a hunch that the Lakers’ win over the Heat in the 2020 NBA Finals created a more massive dent in their relationship. However, last June, Riley was fined $25,000 for violating the NBA’s anti-tampering rules after saying he’ll “put a shiny new key under that mat” if James wants to return to South Beach.
From one angle, we can say that Riley is a forgiving father who’s ready to welcome back his prodigal son. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t harbor toxic emotions. Or we can view it from another angle, particularly from James’ point of view. LeBron won the battle against Riley simply because he knows how to play the game on and off the court.