MIAMI -- Pat Riley had already executed the greatest coup in the history of NBA free agency, but his maneuvering was far from finished.
The Miami Heat president had locked up LeBron James, the league's premier player, as the centerpiece of a star-studded haul that included the addition of Chris Bosh and the re-signing of Dwyane Wade. But on one of James' first nights in South Florida in the summer of 2010, the superstar was struggling with the emotional departure from his home state of Ohio while his now-wife, Savannah, was anxious about their family's transition. On top of everything else, the couple was starving. Savannah craved Italian.
LeBron settled into his normal role as facilitator. And with one phone call, Riley switched from franchise cornerstone to James family concierge.
"It was a place out in Coral Gables," James said this week. "I made one call to him. He made one call, and everything was set up before we got in there. Everything was taken care of. They gave us the back room of the restaurant and everything. It was spectacular. And Savannah got what she wanted."
James then laughed and shook his head in disbelief.
"Obviously, the game of basketball is what's most important," James said. "But the family side is just as important, because if the family isn't secured then it affects everything else. [Riley] wants to win more than anything. But he cares about how your family and your kids and the people around you are doing. And that's huge, especially in this business. When you're here, you feel that."
That family-friendly approach and personal touch have helped Riley to execute blockbuster player acquisitions and build championship contenders for parts of three decades. But with potential luxury-tax penalties looming, and James, Wade and Bosh all able to opt out of their contracts after this season, Riley faces perhaps the biggest challenge of his front-office career to keep his surrogate Heat family intact.
According to the ESPN Forecast panel, the Heat rank second behind the San Antonio Spurs in a rating that gauges the success, stability and decision-making of a franchise's ownership, front office and coaching staff. The Heat's management (president/GMs) also ranks second, behind the Spurs.
Riley's résumé, as a Hall of Fame coach and executive, along with his reputation one of the league's most respected -- and shrewd -- businessmen in the game, have made him as polarizing as he is successful. But his methods and high-risk gambles have frequently produced championship results -- seven, to be exact -- from his days coaching the Showtime Lakers and overseeing major overhauls of the Heat's roster. But even Riley, who once compared himself during trade talks to a riverboat gambler, has concerns about the uncertainty that looms after this season.