For Riley, vindication

Heat coach says 7th championship is his sweetest

NBA Finals

June 22, 2006

Bruce Springsteen was blaring through the speakers. "Come on up for the rising," the Boss crooned. And in the middle of a packed Dallas hotel ballroom early yesterday morning, Pat Riley, sore hip and all, danced with joy.

That was the song played in the Miami Heat's home arena just before tip-off of every NBA Finals game, a song Riley referenced often around his team, part of the never-ending motivational ploys that, at long last, carried the Heat to basketball's pinnacle -- a world title.

And it's a song that'll surely be played next fall, when Riley will see a banner rising to the rafters in Miami.

"I don't know how anyone else is doing," Riley said early yesterday, still sopping from his first championship champagne bath since leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a title in 1988. "But we are doing fine."

A season filled with turmoil ended in celebration -- and, for Riley, vindication.

As he showed on the dance floor, Riley still has all the right moves. His sweeping roster changes last summer worked. His decision to return as coach when Stan Van Gundy resigned worked. And it all came together Tuesday, when the Heat beat the Dallas Mavericks, 95-92, to win Game 6 of the NBA Finals -- Riley's seventh championship, fifth as a head coach.

"I'd give up six of them for this one. I just would have," Riley said Tuesday. "I would have traded them all in for this one. It's not disrespectful to any of them that I won. But after 18 years, and chasing, you know, you keep chasing it, you keep chasing it, you get tired. So this gives me a sense of absolute freedom."

The criticism started last summer, when Riley let two starters from a 59-win team go and brought in four players -- Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey -- who were supposed to be locker-room cancers, the type of player who couldn't mesh with the likes of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal.

"He put this thing together," Posey said, "and we all knew what could be accomplished."

Shortly before 7 a.m. yesterday, Riley stood in the doorway of the team's charter plane, gazed at the fans who awaited the arrival of the new NBA champions, and smiled.

A trying year ended with a title. And now, he can relax.

"He's the prophet, man," a teary-eyed Heat forward Udonis Haslem said in the locker room as "15 Strong" cards were being tossed about triumphantly. "He's been around a long time and he called it."

After Miami lost Game 2 to the Mavericks and fell behind 2-0 in the series -- a deficit only two teams in Finals history had ever recovered from -- Riley told his team "6-20-06."

June 20, 2006.

He said that would be the day they returned to Dallas to close out the title.

Sure enough, he was right.

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